UC Teams Up With Indigenous Academics To Reshape The History Of The California Missions

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“If you ask California Indians what they want, one answer would probably be that we want to speak for ourselves and share our views and knowledge,” said Jonathan Cordero, executive director of the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone from the San Francisco Peninsula.

In a UCLA-led grant program called Critical Mission Studies, Indigenous scholars and community members are bringing their lived experiences and ancestral histories to a project that is rewriting the history of the California missions.

They seek to shed light on the brutality and inhumanity experienced by natives in the California missions during Spanish colonization and beyond. Tell the truths about trauma, slavery, genocide and abuse. The truth around centuries of intentional obscurations. The Truth About the Continuing Impact of Settlement Colonialism.

The truth of what it means now to be a native of California, which in part means taking every opportunity to share their truths, Cordero said.

“We want our truths, our stories to be told from the perspective of the average California Indian, from the perspective of the elder who may have even more traditional knowledge,” said Cordero, who is also a visiting professor. at UC Hastings. “We want this to be told from the perspective of those involved in education, of allies, of those of us with masters or doctorates. We want all these perspectives to contribute to the knowledge we have of the period of the mission without privileging one type of knowledge over another.

Portrait of Jonathan Cordero
Jonathan cordero
Courtesy of Jonathan Cordero

Based at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center and launched in 2019, Mission Critical Studies have created opportunities for knowledge sharing thanks to a grant from the Office of Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives of the President of the University of California.

The program operates with a board of four members of California Indian research partners who endorse and lead the projects that are part of the grant: Valentin Lopez (president of the Amah Mutsun tribal band), Yve Chavez (Tongva), Stan Rodriguez (Santa Ysabel / Kumeyaay) and Cordero.

They frequently collaborate with four academics from across UC who serve as grant administrators: Charlene Villaseñor-Black, UCLA professor of Chicago and Chicano and Central American studies; Renya Ramírez (Ho-Chunk / Ojibwe, enrolled in the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska), professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz; Jennifer Scheper Hughes, professor of history at UC Riverside; and Ross Frank, associate professor of ethnic studies at UC San Diego.

Together they guide knowledge production related to the missions in California, by building a body of literature that critically analyzes the period of the missions in California and Spanish colonialism in the Americas.

“We’ve been dealing with the fantastic legacy, the romantic myth of the mission period for a very long time,” Cordero said.

It is all done transparently – and with deference to the California Indian research partners, the California Indian Advisory Council and, ideally, the communities they represent, which has not always been the case here. history of the UC system or in academic work around indigenous peoples. , Cordero said. The advisory board includes representatives from many California Indian communities.

The project has a prescribed protocol for interacting with tribal communities, including guidelines to ensure that academics seek and receive appropriate permissions, that members of the indigenous community retain intellectual property rights and cultural material, and that they control the use and distribution of any newly created digital or printed materials.

Charlène Villasenor Noir
Charlène Villasenor Noir
Courtesy Charlene Villasenor Noir

Advancing a new methodology

Mission Critical Studies advance what are known as “California Indian Studies” and “Mission Studies” and will add breadth and depth to Native American studies in general. Critical mission studies focus on the perspectives, experiences, and cultures of California Indians, using approaches that question conventional scholarship, said Cordero, who is also a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California.

Yves chavez
Yves chavez
Courtesy of Yves Chavez

Chavez, assistant professor of art history and visual culture at UC Santa Cruz, contributes to this body of work in her book that highlights examples of Indigenous agency from 1769 to 1936 via case studies and examples of Aboriginal art, architecture and visual culture. . His current work manuscript was supported by a Mission Critical Studies program grant. Chavez is also one of the first Tongva women to receive a doctorate from UCLA.

Chavez said she believes she may be California’s first Indian art historian and Tongva’s only art historian. It is important for her to prioritize indigenous perspectives in the history of art, in particular a new way of looking at the architecture of the Spanish mission.

“The missions were built by Aboriginal people, and my priority has been to educate others about this story,” she said. “I’m looking for ways my writing can be used in the classroom at the college level, but also to educate the public and make this work accessible to the Indian community in California. “

Providing access to information is a big part of the impetus for mission critical studies, she said. The group is working on a manual that would be accessible to anyone wishing to learn about the missions and experiences of Aboriginal people.

Reveal untold stories

In 1769, long before California became a state, the Spanish ordered the construction of missions to convert hundreds of thousands of native inhabitants to Catholicism and use them as labor. By 1833, when the missions were closed and California was part of Mexico, 21 missions spanned 600 miles and the native population had declined due to disease and exploitation.

Portrait of Val Lopez
Val López
Courtesy of Valentin Lopez

“The truth has never been told about our history,” said Lopez, who is working on his own book that refutes the account that the California Indians voluntarily surrendered to the missions. “Many academics and young people have just learned about the history which is taught in history books. And let me say that when these books were written, they never went to the tribes, they went to the Franciscans or the Catholic Church to find out this story. We just want the truth to be told.

By the time California became a state in 1850, the narrative of the missions as expressed by the Catholic Church dominated. After statehood and as more and more white settlers arrived, Native Californians faced perilous decades of state-sanctioned genocide, as Governor Gavin Newsom officially recognized for the first time in 2019.

To this day, the images of the missions on the flags and seals of the states, the statues of Father Junípero Serra and his beatification are painful symbols of the destruction and domination of the Indians of California, Lopez said.

“They try to present it as a proud, wonderful and glorifying story, when it is all about slavery, incarceration, rape, murder, torture and destruction, destruction of cultural knowledge, destruction of indigenous spiritualities, the indigenous environment and indigenous indigenous knowledge. he said.

Beyond the truth about the brutal impacts of mission history on California tribes, Lopez said he also hoped the Mission Critical Studies project would highlight “the absolute need for writers to recognize and be responsible for this story “.


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