Thursday, June 26, 2008

Excerpts from "My (very late) Mission Project"

In California schools, 4th grade is usually when students come up against the "Mission Unit." Part of California history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the system, and impossible to avoid. Why is this a problem? It is a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology against which fourth graders have little if any resistance, and intense pressu re is put upon students (and their parents!) to create a "Mission Project" that glorifies the era and glosses over both Spanish and Mexican exploitation of Indians, as well as American enslavement of post-secularization of those same Indians. In other words, the Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny than actually educational or a jumping off point for critical and useful thinking.

One 4th grade teacher I spoke with recently - who has Apache blood but does not identify very strongly with that heritage - told me that she has simply turned the assignment of a Mission Project on its head. She tells her fourth graders that they are free to do the traditional Mission assignment or, instead, do their project on a California tribe. I didn't get a chance to go into her curriculum too deeply, but I hope she structures that alternative assignment so that students must look at the tribe before, during and after Missionization, or the benefit of her design change might be lost.

Anyway, I left California after kindergarten, and completed my schooling in Washington State (where I suffered through "The Oregon Trail Unit" instead, but that's another story!), so I never had to produce a Mission Project.

To make up for this omission in my education, I've put together a "Mission Glossary," much like the ones handed out to students in the 4th grade, or the others which come at the end of various books about the Missions, or which can be found online in the many official California Mission websites.

Only this is an Indian version of a Mission Glossary.

By the way, when I mentioned earlier that both students and parents are pressured to produce elaborate and impressive Mission Projects (typically on a given Mission, complete with diorama or model of a mission, happy Indians in the fields, productive little brown figures), check out this incredible website: which tells its purpose without shame or guile:

"Does Your Child Have a California
Mission Project Due Soon?"
If so... You're in the right place!
Grade A Projects offers you e-books for several California fourth grade mission projects.
(And they are available for INSTANT DOWNLOAD!)

Just A Few Hours From Now...
Your Child Will Be Finished With A
Beautiful, Historically Accurate Report
or Mission Model For Only $5 In Materials!

Next, the site pumps up the parent (who of course is doing the child's research for him/her?) by exhorting, "Avoid those long lists of expensive, hard to find materials and complex, hard to follow directions that take weeks to finish. Don't risk submitting a mission project that won't guarantee your child the best grade possible. Don't stress or search for another minute ... this system has been designed specifically to give YOUR student a TOP grade."

The page boasts multiple parental testimonials such as:

"My Daughter Got an A+!"
"We ordered our project only two days before it was due.
My daughter got an A+ on her mission project.
Her teacher had the rest of the class look at the mission project and used it as a guide as to how to do theirs. "

— Yvette Morales

As you can see, the manufacturing and maintenance of California Mission Mythology requires that parents assist their children in these "important" projects by making sure the child does not veer off the beaten track, and is guided every step of the way to stereotypical, uncritical, inaccurate and offensive projects. Looking at this website I was torn between hysterical laughter and absolute fury.

Hence, here is my Mission Project: very late, but perhaps I can make up for that with my innovative take on the project.


Massive Conversion Factory centered around a furnace constructed of flesh, bones, blood, grief, pristine land and watersheds. Dependent on a continuing fresh supply of human beings, specifically Indian, which were in increasingly short supply. Run by a well-meaning European religious order (see PADRES) convinced that they were doing the work of their Supreme Deity, aka God, a Mission was meant to suck in Indigenous peoples (see NEOFITO), strip them of religion, language, culture, melt them down into a generic worker instilled with Catholicism, Spanish values and a freshly overhauled, tuned up soul.

These reconditioned souls (now called “converts”) were to be spewed out the back end of the conversion factory in about ten years, by which time they would be expected to perform the basic functions of service to both earthly King and Supreme Deity, gladly forsaking their previous lives. However, production of converts involved a radical kind of brainwashing, more euphemistically called re-education, much like any religious cult. Unexpected physical and psychological resistance to conversion (rebellion, murder, self-destructive behaviors, chronic depression and a catastrophically low birth rate) by Indigenous peoples as well as unforeseen biological reactions to the introduction of European foods, plants and animals, diseases (measles, small pox, syphilis, tuberculosis, alcoholism, suppressed immune systems), led to extension after extension of the initial deadline.

Shoveling in more Indians from further away to replace the dead was only a temporary solution: i.e., 80% of California Indians dead in a one hundred year period. In Heizer’s words, “… the Franciscan missions in California were ill-equipped, badly managed places … To continue to feed the furnace would have required a [Spanish] military force of much greater power than was available to go further each year into the unconverted interior and bring back the human fuel.” Despite Heizer’s optimism, Mission records themselves illustrate that even an endless supply of fresh Indians would not have changed the death rate, merely prolonged the closing down of the factory.

The bottom line is that individual Missions were successful only for the missionaries, who spent their lives secure in the belief that they served their Supreme Deity faithfully and had done no wrong.

Always know the limitations imposed by fuel availability.

NEOFITO (Neophyte).

1. A religious convert; a newly baptized Indian, or Indio, a sub-human, animal-like being from regions immediately around each mission. Judged to be desperately in need of Spanish religion and discipline in order to earn a soul, become human, be saved from everlasting damnation. Like very young children, Indians lived by instinct and desire, not knowing what was best for them. Priests regarded themselves in loco parentis, fatherly overseers with the responsibility to instruct and guide in both temporal and spiritual matters. This state of child-like existence continued on for the life of the Neophyte who, even should she live to one hundred years old, have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, was never legally an adult and so could not leave the mission without written permission or own land. Officially emancipated in 1836 by Mexico; declared citizens of the United States in 1924. Are we grown up yet?

2. They are born among the mountains and in the ravines like savages, feeding on wild seeds, and are without either agriculture or arts. In their pagan state the Indians … mated after the fashion of animals. Their superstitions are as numerous as they are ridiculous and are difficult to understand.

3. Indigenous human beings who were loved to death by the Franciscan Fathers.

4. The Indians … possess in a heroic degree, in eminent fashion, only the virtue of obedience . . . They cease to operate by themselves as if they were a corpse, neither more nor less. It is certain that a gardener, though he knew his business very well, would plant a vegetable in the ground upside down if the father commanded him. When the missionary desires to punish them all that is necessary is to order them to prepare themselves and they receive the strokes. The other virtues they do not know.

5. Bestias. Lazy. Meek. Submissive. Humble. Timid. Docile. Obedient. Superstitious. Stupid. Ignorant. Children.

6. Feliciano Maria Quittit. Martina Josefa Tutuan. Santiago Ferriol Tocayo Maxya. Cunegunda Maria Malaxet. Juan Damansceno Yjaschan. Maria Nicolasa Yaccash. Yginia Maria Yunisyunis. Fructuoso de Jesus Real Cholom. Diodora Maria Mihausom. My ancestors.


It is a holy word: nine days' devotion to obtain special graces. The litanies used are called novenas, supplications to The Precious Blood, The Holy Face, The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. O Mother of Perpetual Succour, behold me, a miserable sinner at thy feet. I have recourse to thee and put my trust in thee. O Mother of Mercy, have pity upon me. In California Missions, a novenario was a form of punishment for “serious offenders,” a special flogging: twenty-five lashes on nine separate days (sometimes followed by twenty-five lashes on nine consecutive Sundays). Succour me for the love of Jesus Christ; stretch forth thy hand to me, a poor sinner, who recommend and dedicate myself to thee, as thy perpetual servant. No doubt intense prayer was involved, but the objective of a special grace escapes me. The grace of leather slicing into skin? The grace of muscle ripped from bone? The grace of blood pooling, dark and thick, beside the mission steps? Or did grace come afterwards in the form of swollen scars, or sores roiling with fat white maggots? This then is the grace I seek from thee, and I beg of thee, to obtain it for me, namely, in the assaults of hell, always to have recourse to thee and to say to thee; O Mary, help me, Mother of Perpetual Succor, suffer me not to lose my God. Amen.


“The neophyte community was like one great family, at the head of which stood the padre . . . To him the Indians looked for everything concerning their bodies as well as their souls. He was their guide and their protector …” (Zephyrin Englehardt ).

The Padre baptized us, gave us names and godparents; he taught us our catechism, officiated at our first communion, posted our marriage banns, performed our weddings, baptized our babies, administered last rites, listened to our confessions; he punished us when we prayed to the wrong god or tired of our wives or husbands. The Padre worked the fields with us, plowing and sweating in ragged wool robes; he rode horses into the corrals, roping cattle or herding sheep as well as any vaquero. The Padre attended us when smallpox or measles or flu or la galica took hold, wiped our faces and bodies with cool water, wept when our children died, prayed for the stillborn, castigated their mothers with hobbles and shame.

He taught us to sing (our own songs were ugly), he taught us to speak (our own languages were nonsensical), he made us wear clothes (our bodies were shameful), he gave us wheat and the plow (our seeds and acorns fit only as emergency gifts to keep the soldiers alive until real crops could be brought in). The Padre was driven insane at the sight of our women raped by soldiers, fled home to Spain a broken man; the Padre raped our daughters and wives, baptized his own illegitimate children, sold our mission lands out from under us, and when the mission fell apart, he abandoned us, moved away.

Yes, that Padre, he was everything to us Indians. At the giving end of a whip, he taught us to care for and kill the cattle whose hides were called “mission dollars,” worked us in the fields of wheat and corn and barley, instructed us in the building of adobe to make the Church, the monjeria, storerooms – promised it all to us if we would just grow up, pray hard enough, forget enough.

But it all went to Spain, to Rome, to Mexico, into the pockets of merchants, smugglers, priests, dishonest administrators and finally the cruel Americans. Nothing left for the children the Padre had worked so hard to civilize, poor savages pulled from the fires of certain Hell. He was our shepherd, we were his beloved and abused flock; now the fields are eaten down to the earth, we claw the earth yet even the roots are withered, and the shepherd has gone away.

But we are pagans no more! Now we are Christian vaqueros, Christian housekeepers, Christian blacksmiths and shoemakers and laundry women and wet nurses and handymen – none of us paid with more than a meal or a shirt or a pair of discarded boots – but Christians, poor Christians, drunken Christians, meek targets for 49’ers crazed by goldlust or ranchers hungry for land. We are homeless Christians, starving Christians, diseased and landless Christians; we are Christian slaves bought and sold in newspapers, auction blocks, San Francisco, Los Angeles, one hundred dollars for a likely young girl, fifty dollars for an able-bodied young boy, free to whoever bails the old men out of jail: every one of us baptized by the Padre, our primitive souls snatched from this Hell our bodies cannot escape, we are Christian, we are Catholic, we are saved by the Padres and for that, Jesus Christ, we must be grateful.

1 comment:

  1. This was moving. Thank you. I wish this were the story told in 4th grade classrooms. Thank you.


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