Searching for alternative projects for California missions
Several parents and teachers have written to me lately, asking for alternatives to the usual California Mission project. I’ve decided to start sharing some of my research about this kind of teaching on the blog. Today I want to discuss a video from Annenberg called “Social Studies in Action: Grades 3-5,” which I found online. It’s geared toward teachers, but parents would benefit from the materials as well. You can view the video (and questions, prompts, etc.,) at:
This is an interesting video of teacher Osvaldo Rubio at Sherman Oaks Charter School, in a classroom of mostly bilingual (Spanish/English) students of Latino background. Rubio models good, solid teaching of the basics, and the class is blessed with terrific technology, but even though there is a brief segment about “sensitive topics,” I don’t see the human aspect of the Missions being addressed much. For example, Rubio asks, “What happened to the Indians?” and a student replied that they died from “diseases” and “hunger.” One child refers to the Indians getting a “whipping” if they tried to escape; where he learned this isn’t shared, and although he repeats it again later (clearly, this made an impression on him), we don’t learn any more details.
Students are not directed to any resources that give them statistics or a realistic view of how that huge decline (from about one million to 5-10,000 by 1900) happened, or the fact that survivors still exist, and many are struggling for Federal recognition, or basic health care, or educations. Information about contemporary California Indians would also bring up the topic of casinos, which are another sore spot for many residents in California, and for which a historical perspective is desperately needed. In general, the long-term effects of Missionization are never addressed (I realize that only one day of the longer project is filmed; there is no indication, although, that a Native holocaust was the result of Spanish Missionization).
In a segment at about the 24 minute mark, teacher Rubio recaps some of the group conversation about ethics, saying he wants the kids to question the ethics of the missions: “Is it right?” Why did the Spaniards treat the Indians like that?” but, he adds, at the same time “They need to accept it. History made us who we are.” Again, this simply seems to put all those injustices in the past, with no reverberations in the present or future; it also minimizes and trivializes the human suffering in a way that no Jewish Holocaust or slavery unit ever would. If the teacher wants to avoid guilt or shame, this kind of tunnel vision only prepares children for ignorance, and spares them temporary discomfort for long-term ignorance.
What do the kids come away with from this one-day lesson? As one child puts it at the end, “We should appreciate what the Spaniards did for us.” Another young boy says, “I’m both Spaniard and Indian, so it’s about who I am.” I would have liked a little more from that kid! It was the only time in the entire segment that anyone acknowledged that Native Californians still live and breathe.
Remember, kids at this age are also learning about the Jewish Holocaust, and the experience of African/African American slavery. They know that families get separated, cruelty exists, and the buying and selling of human beings is part of our American past. Why, then, shouldn’t they learn about the buying and selling of Indians in California during the Rancho period? Why shouldn’t they hear that girls aged 9 and older were separated from their families and made to sleep in the “monjerio” with all the other “young women”? Why dwell on the construction details of the Missions, the materials, the names, the dates, without a human context?
I admire Mr. Rubio’s teaching, his energy, and his good heart. The parents of his students should count their lucky stars, and thank him every day. But much work remains to be done in teaching about the Missions, and some of it, I feel, has to do with the teacher UNlearning some of his own biases and preconceptions about California Indians and the Mission system.
The Annenberg website has a brief list of teaching resources, any of which a brief Google search would turn up. Nothing innovative, and not ONE resource that is from a California Indian community or perspective.
While I’m not advocating that we teach fourth graders horribly gruesome details about Mission life for Indians, clearly they are mature enough to examine and discuss the basic ethics of colonization, especially when Native survivors are all around them, and having a California Indian storyteller or musician or writer visit would not be difficult.
The kids in this video are darn cute and smart, though, and I’m inspired to continue working toward a balanced teaching of the Missions, for their sakes.
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