Saturday, January 3, 2009

San Francisco/Mission Dolores/4th Grade Mission Project

Those are Ohlone designs painted on the rafters and beams of the mission.

They love their children to excess (if that can be said), but they give them no education whatever. They merely recount to them the fables which they heard in their pagan state. They do this to entertain and satisfy the children. The latter believe these things as if they really happened, for a certain period. They held and do hold those as wise men who knew and could relate more of these fables. This is their chief knowledge. - Mission San Juan Bautista, response to the Interrogatorio (Questionnaire) sent by Spanish Viceroy in Mexico to all California Missions, 1812.

Last week, I was in San Francisco for a conference, and visited Mission Dolores. This essay comes from that visit. (For more on the 4th Grade Project, see my entry Thursday, June 26, 2008 Excerpts from "My (very late) Mission Project" ).

In California schools, students come up against the "Mission Unit" in fourth grade, although the same children have been breathing in the lies most of their lives. Part of California’s history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the system, and impossible to avoid. The Mission Unit is a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology against which fourth graders have little if any resistance, and intense pressure 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 those same Indians during American rule.

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 thinking or accurate history.

Can you imagine teaching about slavery in the U.S. South while simultaneously requiring each child to lovingly construct a plantation model, complete with happy darkies in the fields, white masters, overseers with whips, and human auctions? Or ask fourth graders to study the Holocaust by carefully designing detailed concentration camps, complete with gas chambers, heroic Nazi guards, crematoriums?

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. This book is, in a way, my belated offering to that particular altar.

Visiting the Missions as an adult, proud mixed-blood California Indian woman, I found myself unprepared for gift shops well-stocked with CDs of pre-researched Mission Projects, Xeroxed chapbooks (one for each Mission), coloring books, packaged models of Missions (“easy assembled in 10 minutes!”) and other project paraphernalia for the discerning fourth grader and worried parents.

Many Missions provide large, elaborate dioramas within the actual Mission, for fourth graders and tourists to view and imagine the same rote story, “the olden days” when the Padre stood in the shade of the church doorway and watched the Indians – men, women, children – go meekly about their daily work – clothed, Christianized, content.

The Carmel Mission website maintains a “Fourth Grade Corner” where daily life for padres and the Indians who “lent themselves whole-heartedly” is blissfully described. Other online websites offer “easy” “quick” “guaranteed A+!!!” Mission projects, targeting anxious parents – for a price.

Generations of Californians have grown up steeped in a culture and educational system that trains them to think of Indians as passive, dumb, and disappeared. In other words, the project is so well-established, such a predictable and well-loved rut, that attempting to veer outside of the worn but comfortable mythology is all but impossible.

On my visit to Mission Dolores, I found that out in a particularly visceral way.

I was in San Francisco for a conference, and my friend Kimberly and I had hopped on a streetcar to visit Mission Dolores. As we emerged from the Mission church via a side door into a small courtyard (featuring one of those giant dioramas behind glass), we inadvertently walked into video camera range of a mother filming her daughter’s fourth grade project.

Excusing ourselves, we studiously examined the diorama while the little girl flubbed her lines a few times – she was reading directly from the flyer given tourists in the gift shop, and could say “basilica” but not “archdiocese” – but maintained her poise through several takes until she nailed it.

Both mothers ourselves, Kimberly and I paused to exchange a few words of solidarity about school projects with the mother, which gave Mom the chance to brag about how she and Virginia were trying to “do something a little different” by using video instead of making a model.

“That’s great!” I said, giving them both a polite smile, “I’ll bet your teacher will be glad to have something out of the ordinary.” Contrary to what many believe, I do not attack unsuspecting white women and children; I am not a Political Correction Officer prowling the Missions hoping to ruin some hard-working child’s day.

“Well, it is different actually being right here,” Mom said excitedly, “to think about all those Indians and how they lived all that time ago, that’s kind of impressive.”

I could not resist. “And better yet,” I beamed, “still live! Guess what? I’m a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation myself! Some of my ancestors lived in this mission. I’ve found their names in the Book of Baptism.” (See? I didn’t mention that they are also all listed in the Book of Deaths soon afterward.)

The mother was beside herself with pleasure, posed me with her daughter for a still photo, and wrote down my name so she could Google my work. Little Virginia, however, was literally shocked into silence. Her face drained, her body went stiff, and she stared at me as if I had risen, an indigenous skeleton clad in decrepit rags, from beneath the clay bricks of the courtyard. Even though her mother and I talked a few more minutes, Virginia the fourth grader – previously a calm, articulate news anchor in training – remained a shy shadow, shooting side glances at me out of the corner of her eyes.

As Kimberly and I walked away, I thought: that poor kid has never seen a live Indian, much less a “Mission Indian” – she thought we were all dead! Having me suddenly appear in the middle of her video project must have been a lot like turning the corner to find the (dead) person you were talking about suddenly in your face, talking back.

Kimberly, echoing my thoughts, chortled quietly, “Yes, Virginia, there really are live Mission Indians.”

The problem is, thanks to Mission Mythology, most fourth graders will never know that.

That’s why it’s time for the Mission Fantasy Fairytale to end. This story has done more damage to California Indians than any conquistador, any priest, any soldado de cuera (leather-jacket soldier), any small pox, measles or influenza virus. This story has not just killed us, it has taught us how to kill ourselves and kill each other with alcohol, domestic violence, horizontal racism, internalized hatred. This story is a kind of evil, a kind of witchery. We have to put an end to it now.

But where to start? What’s the best way to kill a lie? Like bad spirits, they are notoriously immune to arrows - in fact, they are often known to rise after being killed, even after being buried. We must know where to aim, pick our targets, remain clear-sighted.

I say “we” because my efforts here are part of a much wider circle of California Indian peoples and allies talking back to mythology, protesting, making waves.

We each have our chosen weapons. My sister Louise chooses language: pulling the Esselen words out of field notes, off wax cylinders, singing the words over the bones of those she reburies with intimate tenderness, writing new stories in an old tongue. My friend Georgiana chooses storytelling and song, clappersticks and rhythm, teaching and education. My friend Beverly aims at the misrepresentations told to children, Indian and non-Indian alike, in children's literature, so that American children have a chance to grow up without the same stereotypes and lies that tainted so many of their parents' experiences in books. James Luna creates live and video performances that turn stereotypes on their heads, inventing new ceremonies to reclaim ancient identities.

Many other California Indians weave baskets, harvest acorns, write poems, compose Bird Songs, document museum holdings, string abalone shell, construct tule boats and tomols, carve stone bowls, create visual art, work for repatriation of bones and belongings.

I choose to make this book: to create a space where voices can speak after long and often violently imposed silence. Constructing this book has been hard, listening to those stories seep out of old government documents, BIA forms, field notes, the diaries of explorers and priests, the occasional writings or testimony from Indians, family stories, photographs, newspaper articles; it’s been painful, dreaming of destruction, starved children, bones that cry. But at the end of it, I feel voices present that the world hasn’t heard for a long, long time. Voices telling the antidote to lies.

My ancestors, collectively, are the story-bridge that allows me to be here. I’m honored to be one of the bridges back to them, to their words and experiences.

Stories are their chief knowledge, wrote the Padre from Mission San Juan Bautista.

Yes - and are, still. May it always be so.

One of the Mission Dioramas so common, which 4th graders lov e to emulate - complete with happy Indians in the plaza/fields doing what Indians do best. Mission Delores.

You have to look closely (I took these with my phone camera, so they aren't the best), but you can see the Padre standing in the doorway to the Mission, watching over his flock (perhaps wondering where to best hire them out today).

I have had nightmares about these doors, and I am not kidding. Mission Delores.

In those nightmares, I wish I'd had this key. A key to the doors at Mission Delores.

Inside the mission. I wondered what the Indians thought about, looking out this window during services. Soldiers and alcaldes (Indian overseers) used long cudgels to reach into the crowd and whack anyone not listening, or (archeology shows) drawing Indian graffiti on the walls!

Beautiful fox quiver for arrows in the mission museum. Tomas Miranda, my great-grandfather, shot a fox at Carmel because it was "acting strangely," and he gave it to one of his elder kinswomen. I've always wondered if she made it into a quiver or medicine bag (there are stories that she had a fox medicine bag at one point, but it was lost - "was lost" - that passive voice!).

a closer look at the designs. Re-painted now, of course, but based on the original Ohlone designs.

I asked my companion Kim, "If I smash the glass, grab the abalone necklace and run, how far do you think we'd get?" I'm such a Bad Indian.

My title for this notice: "Weapon of Mass Destruction: The Passive Voice." Definitely going to write something about this strategy for blameless colonization, which is EVERYWHERE in California Mission Mythology.


Even though I'm no longer at UCLA, I'm still working on the book. It has a new title! "Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir." The title revision came about in talking with people about why I wrote the poem "Novena to Bad Indians" - an effort to redefine "bad" as "resistant." I want to honor those ancestors who fought back any way they could.

While in San Francisco, as part of the Modern Language Association Conference, I was excited to meet with friends and family for a session titled "Storytelling from Native California" with Pit River elder Darryl Babe Wilson. I strongly urge folks to check out Babe's website, "Hay'dutsi'la" at: for some great samples - both written and audio - of Babe's work.

My sister Louise, her husband Ernie, and their granddaughter Alex, were able to come up from San Jose for the storytelling event. Louise gave the blessing in Esselen and English, and also gifted Babe with a beautiful shell, abalone and yellow turquoise necklace she created just for him. Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), an old friend of Babe's, gave us a rousing introduction.

Special, special thanks to Kimberly Roppolo (Cherokee/Choctaw/Creek) for smoothing the way for Babe after a bad day that included a run-in with SF police for "Driving While Indian," to Greg and Elonda (Salinan) for giving Babe a much-needed ride home, and the the audience at our gathering, who listened, bought books, and made donations to the "get Babe's car out of impound" fund!

For my part, I read this poem, dedicated to all the Bad Indians - past, present, and future. Each Indian in this poem is based on research I've done; each Indian's story is real, and recorded in historical documents.

Novena to Bad Indians
“The only good Indians I ever knew were dead.” – General Philip Sheridan

Day 1.

Indian outlaws, banditos, renegades,
rebels, lazy Indians, sinful Indians, you gamblers
who squatted out behind the church instead of assuming
the missionary position behind the plow;
oh, lusty Indians who tied bones to sheets
thrown out of the women’s monjeria, climbed
up that swaying skeleton of salvation
and made unsanctified love all night, oh,women
who tossed down those sheets, hear my prayer.

Day 2.

Hail troublemakers, horse thieves, fornicators, I implore
you, polygamists, Deer Dancers, idol-worshippers,
chasers of loose women, heathens who caroused
in the hills, stole wine from the sacristy,
graffiti’d Indian designs on the church wall,
told Coyote stories instead of practicing Catechism,
torched mission wheat fields, set fire to tule roofs,
ran away, were captured, flogged, put in stocks or irons,
ran away again – help me, suffer me, in this hour of loss.

Day 3.

I ask for your grace, you dirty Indians, you stupid Indians
who wouldn’t learn Spanish or English, lazy bastards
who mumbled “no quiero,” when asked to load wagons
with tons of stinking skins, who chased the bottle
instead of cattle, who were late for Mass, confessed
everything and regretted nothing, took the whip
thick as a fist, laughing; you who loved soapstone
charms, glass beads, eagle feathers but wouldn’t learn
proper usage of land or gold; have mercy on my weakness.

Day 4.

Queens of earth, you women who sold yourselves
for a tortilla, a handful of beans, the dog’s meat;
sons of incorrigible cattle thieves like Juan Nepomuceno
who could no longer find elk or deer or salmon;
cabecillas, ringleaders like Hilario, who endured
the novenario for throwing a stone at a missionary –
twenty-five lashes on nine separate days – and then,
on nine consecutive Sundays, forty more, oh my martyrs
grant me strength, grant me courage in my desperation.

Day 5.

Oh magnificent Aniceto, who refused to name thieves
of money, chocolate, shoes, string, knives from the presidio –
thirteen years old, you took a flogging in silence;
oh renowned Yozcolo, alcalde from Mission Santa Clara
who raided mission stores, freed two hundred women
from the monjeria; dear Atanasio, found guilty of stealing
from the comisario, shot dead by a firing squad at seventeen
years of age, begging for your life as you knelt in the estuary
at Monterey – guide me out of the stone walls of this cell.

Day 6.

Accept my praisesong, you women who aborted
pregnancies conceived in rape by soldier or priest,
attend me, barren Indian woman stripped and prodded,
who refused to let Father Ramon Olbes examine
your genitals or test your fertility – you, who bit him,
suffered fifty lashes, shackles, imprisonment, a shaven head,
forced to carry a wooden false baby for nine days;
blessed Apolinaria, midwife, curandera, dancer,
keeper of potent medicines – heal me.

Day 7.

Ever full of faith, Pomponio, who cut off your heel
with your own knife to slip out of leg irons, terrible
heart of Toypurina, shaman revolutionary who dared
raise your gods against Spain’s, blessed Chumash woman
who heard the earth goddess Chupa tell you to rebaptize
neophytes in the tears of the sun; Licquisamne,
most merciless Estanislao, telling the Padre,
“We are rising in revolt . . . we have no fear
of the soldiers”; make me unrepentant.

Day 8.

Oh valiant Venancio, Julian, Donato, Antonio,
Lino, Vicente, Miguel, Andres, Emiliana, Maria Tata
who suffocated Father Andres Quintana at Santa Cruz
before he could test his new wire-tipped whip;
oh Nazario, personal cook to Fr. Panto at San Diego,
who slipped 'yerba,' powdered cuchasquelaai,
into the padre’s soup after enduring 124 lashes
(you said, “I could find no other way
to revenge myself”); I beseech your tenderness.

Day 9.

Oh unholy pagans who refused to convert
oh pagans who converted, oh pagans who recanted,
oh converts who survived, hear our supplication:
make us in your image, grant us your pride.
Ancestors, illuminate the dark civilization we endure.
Teach us to love untamed, inspire us to break rules,
remind us of your brutal wisdom learned so dearly:
even dead Indians are never
good enough.

The source of this poem, besides all the "Bad Indians" I found in my research (these are all true stories), was an article from the New York Times titled "Bad Indian Goes on Rampage at Santa Ynez." I have not figured out how to enlarge the article so that it is easier to read on this blog; give me time!
Also, my father once said to me, "Hell - even when Indians are dead, we're not good enough." That has always stuck with me. Out of the mouths of sinners.

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