Friday, June 15, 2012

"Dear Sonora": Writing to a Fourth Grader About Her Project

Recently, my sister Louise J. Miranda Ramirez, Chair of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, received a request from a sharp fourth-grader asking about the Native experience in California Missions.  My sister, who does about 35 tasks per minute on a slow day, asked if I would tackle the response.  I said, I've been needing to do this for awhile anyway.  Here it is. 

The letter reads:

Dear Ms. Ramirez,

I am a fourth grader and I am doing my report on Mission Nuestra Senora Dolorosisima de la Soledad. I discovered that Coastanoan and Essellen are some of the names of the tribes that went to the Soledad mission, and I was searching for some info on them when I stumbled across your email address on Me and my mom decided that maybe you could help us\me. Anyway, what I was searching for was the opinion of the Coastanoan and Esselen Native Americans. I want to know if the Native Americans liked the mission, which priests were their favorites....stuff like that, and I'm hoping you can help me. If you can help me, or even if you can't, thanks a ton!

Sincerely, Sonora

Dear Sonora (what a great name!),

My sister Louise passed your message on to me; she's very busy as Chair, and since I'm a writer, she often asks me for my 2 cents worth when fourth graders write to her.

You wanted to know the Ohlone-Esselen-Costanoan opinion of the missions.  That's a tough question.  Some Indian people will tell you that the missions were great, and brought us Catholicism and agriculture; others will tell you that anything that kills about 80% of your people can't be good.

California Indians were doing fine before the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans arrived.  We had everything we needed, including our own religions, leaders,  music, languages, jobs and education.  They were different from the way Europeans did those things, though, so lots of people thought we needed "civilizing."  We were curious about the Spanish, and about their religion, but we should have been allowed to decide for ourselves what we wanted.  Instead, the missionaries made that decision for us.  Sometimes they would "baptize" women and children who came to visit, and refuse to let them go.  The husbands and fathers would come to get them, and were told that they could not see their families unless they, too, allowed themselves to be baptized.  Of course, none of the Indians knew what baptism really meant, and when the padres then told them that they could not leave, it was a big surprise.  The missionaries and soldiers thought of themselves as "civilized" so they figured THEY must be right, and the Indians were wrong.

Civilized people don't hurt other people for being different, though.  Many Indians do not think the Spanish were very civilized.

The Missionaries did a lot of things that hurt Indian people and families.  For example, all little girls over the age of 7 had to go sleep in the monjerio, a small building with no bathroom and small windows way up taller than anyone could reach.  These rooms were dark, smelly and dirty, and the young women and girls kept in there got sick from germs and lack of fresh air.  They were also very homesick for their families.  They didn't see their parents much, since during the day the parents were forced to work for the missionaries, doing all the work to build, maintain, and farm for the mission.  Also, I'm sorry to say, at the Missions, Indians were whipped if they broke any of the priest's rules - and since Indians didn't know Spanish, and missionaries didn't know Indian languages, there were a lot of misunderstandings about what the rules were.  Plus, of course, sometimes the Indians (who had taken very good care of themselves for thousands of years) didn't agree with the Spanish rules in the first place, so they would do things that were against the rules like gather wild food, go hunting, leave the mission to visit their families elsewhere, marry whom they wanted to marry, or other things they considered part of their rights as human beings.

I think everyone, historians and Indians alike, agree that Missionization was a disaster for the Indians:  our estimated population numbers went from about one million to 15,000 in just under 200 years.  We lost almost all of our land, all of our natural resources (that provided food and shelter), many of us lost our language, religion, and communities.  Can you imagine if 8 out of every 10 people you know died from being taken over by another group of people who showed up in your town?  Diseases from Euro-Americans did so much damage that we almost didn't survive.

The hardest part was losing our homelands.  The Missions made us move into the Missions, and sixty-five years later when the missions closed down, all of our land was taken by other non-Indian people, so we had nowhere to go, no way to feed ourselves.  Mexicans used Indians as free labor - for a meal and a place to sleep, Indians worked almost like slaves for the Mexican Ranchos.

The American laws were even worse - American law prevented Indians from owning land, voting, or taking a white person to court.  As late as 1866, Indians could be bought and sold just like slaves in the south - and thousands were, including women and children.  Even my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Fructuoso Cholom Real, who received land in a Mexican Land Grant after the missions were closed down, lost that land to Americans who simply told his family that Indians weren't allowed to own land.

So mostly, the missions were not that much fun for Indians.  The average baby born in a California mission only lived to be 7 or 8 years old; some disease or other would kill them.  Also, because of a Euro-American disease called syphilis, many Indian men and women could no longer have babies, so there were no new kids to replace the people who died.  Every time an old person died, it was like an entire library of knowledge, history and stories burned down.  That's tough to survive!

But some of us did survive, and some of our communities are slowly growing.  It's hard when many of us, like the Esselen, don't have any land (no reservation, no place to meet).  Whenever we have our annual gathering, for example, we have to pay someone to use their land.  So we don't have too many gatherings, but we're also petitioning the U.S. government for recognition - that means, we would be eligible to have a small piece of government "surplus" land in our homeland that we could use as a center, apply for educational scholarships that are only available to federally recognized tribes, and receive some basic health benefits.  It's funny, but even though I can prove my family history all the way back to 1770 was Indian, the government still considers me "non-Indian"!

You can check out my blog, called , for more information about California Indians.  On the right side of my blog page are a bunch of links to California tribes, mission research, and so on.

I hope you learn a lot about the missions and the California Indians who had to live there.  It was a crazy time, a hard time, and a sad time.  It's a miracle anyone survived at all.  My sister and I know that we have a lot of work to do!  We want our Ancestors to be proud of us, because we are only here because a few of them managed to survive, and used up all of their strength so we could live.

(Oh, p.s.: I realize that I didn't actually answer your question about favorite priests.  The Spanish priests, and later the Mexican priests, were human beings with the same gifts and flaws as anyone else.  So, like most people, some priests were considered 'kind' and others were considered 'mean.'  Father Serra, for instance, wrote in his letters about how much he loved the Indians, and how badly he felt when the Spanish soldiers hurt or killed Indians.  But as kind as he was, Father Serra never questioned whether the missions should be built or maintained.  He believed that Spaniard's way of living was the ONLY way of living.  So Indians, who lived differently, must be made to change - even if it meant killing, or spreading disease, or denying human rights.  This way of thinking is called "colonization."  Colonization, or in California what we call "Missionization," is a cruel and unkind way to treat other people.  It means, basically, that a Colonizer doesn't think Indians or Native people are really human beings yet.)

Good luck,

Deborah A. Miranda

NOTE:  When I posted this response to Sonora on my FaceBook page, these are the comments I received:

L Frank Manriquez, Kimberly Robertson, Ire'ne Lara Silva and 50 others like this.

Anita Endrezze great response! as to Indians owning property, when my father tried to buy a house in the 1950s, he couldn't because he was Indian. And so my mother tried to buy it, and she couldn't because she was a woman (she was white). So her father had to co-sign.  May 29 at 11:45am

AnaLouise Keating.  Wow. What a great response...gentle and yet've given this student quite a gift!  May 29 at 11:47am · Like · 5

Beverly Slapin Wow, Deborah! What you've given to Sonora will become an important part of her life. Imagine the lessons she is learning, not only about the missionization of the Indian peoples, but about how a people's truth is not taught in school.  May 29 at 12:01pm · Like · 2

Elizabeth Archuleta What a beautifully written response about a tragic piece of history!  May 29 at 12:24pm · Like

Asali Solomon Thank you for including me in this amazing note. I think a lot of "educated" people like myself know a little bit--but not much more-- than this student.  May 29 at 12:29pm Like

Anita Endrezze I wrote a poem about the missions of CA. The conditions were monstrous and the system was evil. Those who didn't fall in line were severely punished. One man was put inside a calf skin and roasted. Girls were raped after being sent to live on haciendas to work as servants. Women were beaten to conceive more slaves. I wrote the poem in response to a movement to elevate Junipero Serra to sainthood.May 29 at 12:40pm · Unlike · 2

Ernestine Saankalaxt’ Hayes  Excellent, insightful, honest glimpse into indigenous experience. Thank you for sharing! Gunalcheesh!  May 29 at 1:35pm · Like

Patricia Killelea This should be required reading for all the children here in CA studying missions! Thanks for sharing it with all of us.  May 29 at 1:38pm · Like · 2

Linda Rodriguez Beautiful reply to the young student's request, Deborah! I'm so impressed with your clarity and calm lucidity when telling of things that bring rage and tears to the surface so easily.  May 29 at 1:46pm · Like

Deborah Miranda Y'know, Linda, in a strange way I think I can thank my father for that. People often tell me I have a great poker face. It comes from having learned not to show reaction, and to negotiate my way out of a scary situation. My dad suffered from post-colonial distress syndrome!  May 29 at 1:48pm · Like · 3

Tiffany Midge That was a great letter from the student -- I was forced to make a satire out of the nitwits who have written to me and wish I had the opportunity to reply with your kind of sincerity. :-)  May 29 at 1:55pm · Like

Deborah Miranda Well, fourth graders ... there's still hope, you know?  May 29 at 2:28pm · Like

Lorenzo HerrerayLozano Thank you for sharing, Deborah! This is beautiful. May 29 at 2:39pm · Like

Rain Gomez Wonderful response! I wish I could cultivate that perfect blend of motherly ethos with education smack down creating nuanced timbre just perfect for a fourth grader yet with undertones in such a way that you know her mother will catch certain bits... As always Deborah, the skills and knowledge give me awe. When I taught HS English in CA I start with non-alphanumeric lit, so Native lit, wampum, baskets, etc... And as I talk about Indigenous Americas... and what they know, inevitably their responses where Disney Pocahontas, and "we gave them Catholicism..." Thank-you California educational system... May 29 at 4:00pm · Like

Rachel Jennings Dang! Very direct, straightforward, respectful...explicatory....this fourth-grade girl is very fortunate to have found a source like you!  May 29 at 8:38pm · Like

Louise J. Miranda Ramirez Nimasianexelpasaleki for such a great response, I knew it was a job for you ichi! I will just forward them all to you from now on. Back from Monterey had an interview about land at Fort Ord. I will let you know when it is published. I was asked what do you see when you look at the land? My response HOME! Mislayaya Kolo  May 29 at 10:00pm · Unlike · 3

Elizabeth A Woody Thanks four letting me read that response. Yowzah.  May 29 at 10:58pm Like

Magdalena Nieves Wings, Sonora has a new lens to look through. She was tenderly told the other, non-sanitized story and I've no doubt it will change her journey. Years ago L. was angered when I told my grandson about the horrible treatment of the Tainos. She thought it too harsh for a boy to handle; better that he should be taught the toxic lies about our people and celebrate a vitriolic leader with a story about discovery accompanied by a day off. There's a weighted freedom and a insight that comes with powerful, uncovered truths. This is why Creator gave you the wings!  May 30 at 8:43am · Like

Rebecca Solnit I grew up on Coast Miwok land knowing something was missing (and that there was more to CA history than making missions out of sugar cubes in fourth grade). I'm glad that the first nations of the Bay Area are more visible and more respected now, and I think Sonora is very lucky to get this powerful letter from Deborah Miranda.  May 30 at 12:30pm · Like · 1

Kimberly Robertson great work Deborah! this will be super helpful for me when Estella hits fourth grade in two years.... May 30 at 2:33pm · Like

Kathleen Alcala Thanks for this thoughtful response, Deborah. I hope you don't mind that I am keeping this for future reference.  May 31 at 3:09pm · Like

Ellen Fernandez-Sacco A wonderful letter for Sonora to have from you Deborah!  May 31 at 9:48pm · Like

L Frank Manriquez we learned that cruel histories can still produce kind peoples...  June 2 at 9:48am · Like

Violeta Martin My mom and I were having breakfast this morning and was asking about Native Americans in the PNW. The conversation then shifted to Mexicans and America's Southwest and I was reminded of this letter. I had her read it. After a long while, I asked her what she thought and realized she was reading all the comments too. I told her she didn't have to and she said, "I just couldn't stop reading. This is beautiful."  June 2 at 2:16pm · Unlike · 1

Minal Hajratwala · We were at Mission Dolores a few years ago when another visitor asked a docent why so many Native Americans died (there is a graveyard behind the Mission). The docent replied that they had "poor hygiene"!! We protested vigorously (mentioning syphilis, forced labour, and outright killing) and, when the docent argued back, complained to the director of the Mission (who apologized and gave a decent response). The level of ignorance is incredible, and your writing is such a gift.55 minutes ago · Unlike · 2

L Frank Manriquez thank you m. hajratwala

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