On a cold, wintry Friday in late January, with much-needed rain gently falling, my friend Robynn and I join a tour of San Mateo fourth graders at the Mission Dolores in San Francisco. The students, a teacher tells me, have been prepped for the visit by making models of the mission. “They use all kinds of materials, some buy kits. Last year, one kid used sugar cubes. It was awesome.” The kids are restless, wet and hungry, herded into pews in the chapel to sit through an introductory talk given by Vincent Medina. He quickly gets their attention. “My Ohlone and Bay Miwok great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents were married here,” says the docent by way of introduction, pointing to a spot in front of the altar. “And they’re buried here too,” he adds without indicating any particular place.
The docent frames the history of the missions as a story of culture conflict between the Spanish and Indians. It’s unusual to have a native person in charge of the mission narrative, even more unusual to have natives hold their own inside the narrative. Medina is determined to rescue his ancestors from historical oblivion and paternalism. It was Miwok, Yokut, Patwin, Wintun, Wappo, and Ohlone peoples, he tells us, who made and assembled some 36,000 adobe bricks that comprised Mission Dolores. Soon after the mission was dedicated in 1791, Ohlone artists created a large mural that combined native and Catholic imagery. But in 1796, the mural was literally, as well as metaphorically, eclipsed from view by a baroque-style relief sculpture imported from Mexico. It remained hidden from history, not unlike the Ohlone, for some two hundred years. Now, re-discovered, it’s still off-limits to the public for reasons of preservation, but you can see what it looks like in a faithful recreation painted on the wall of Mission Community Market on Bartlett Street.
“People often say that the Spanish built the missions. But it was the Ohlone who built this one, under the supervision of the Spanish. Important to give them credit, it’s a matter of fairness and truth,” Medina tells the fourth graders. He asks them what they know about the mission. Shyly and briefly, they mention Junipero Serra, adobe walls, hard work. “Any questions?” he asks. One kid wants to know if the mission had toilets.
We are told that the Spanish missions “left an important mark on our culture” – buildings, architecture, and art. As for the Indians’ experience in the mission, says the docent vaguely, “it was sometimes a very, very difficult place.” Gesturing to the chevron-patterned beams in the ceiling, he makes the point that the “Ohlone were not willing to give up all their culture.” Behind the altar is the mural that “we are trying to figure out how to preserve and show to people.” Medina leads the group in saying some basic Ohlone words – hello, good morning, and so on – and informs us that under the mission system “the Indians couldn’t speak their traditional languages.” It’s left to the teachers to later fill in the blanks and explain this system of linguistic enforcement. Very few teachers, however, take on this responsibility.
The mission’s small cemetery is preserved in the inner courtyard. We know from Mission Dolores’ registry of baptisms, marriages, and deaths that native people who converted to Catholicism (typically after two weeks of training) were buried on mission grounds. The ancestors of Andy Galvan, another native docent, are interred somewhere in the mission, but he tells me, “We don’t know the exact location of their burial.” This is true of the 11,000 mostly Ohlone buried at the mission. There are human remains everywhere beneath our feet. The playground of the mission school sits on top of a huge cemetery, bodies stacked below. Kids play basketball over a pit of unmarked graves. “It’s a weird situation,” says Medina to the fourth graders, hinting at injustice.
As the kids line up to ring the mission bells, Robynn and I leave the group and wander off into the cemetery. Some of the non-native dead are named and acknowledged in individual graves.
There’s also a full-scale model of an Ohlone hut and a modern, wooden tombstone that generically acknowledges the native dead. Strange to see a long-gone home resurrected in a cemetery, but at least the Church is making an effort to bring native people to life and acknowledge their central role in the mission.
Better to tell half a story than none. But the untold half – the “difficulties” faced by native peoples in the mission – still remains off limits. We know that one result of Spanish colonialism in Alta California was at least a fifty percent decline in native populations. Disease was the main killer, but how did dislocation, servitude, and cultural annihilation undermine resistance to disease? Was it the early stage of a genocide carried out later during the American gold rush? In the name of Christian civilization, how uncivilized was the Catholic Church? The mission tour, much like the textbooks required of fourth graders, skirts these issues.
But a large wall text on “Treatment of Indians,” prominently displayed in the Mission Dolores’ museum, defends the party line, making the near demise of native peoples during the mission period a matter of natural inevitability. It’s a chilling reminder how easy it is, in the words of George Orwell, to “make lies sound truthful and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”:
“There is absolutely no documentary evidence to indicate that [Junipero] Serra ever mistreated any one, either personally or individually… The California missions and missionaries have always had their detractors and probably always will. Fuelled by emotion rather than persuaded by fact, the allegations tend to generalize and blame Serra for every excess and abuse that occurred during the entire 1769–1834 mission period. The mission system’s greatest ‘sin’ was not individual shortcoming, but inculpable eighteenth-century ignorance. Unable to solve complex medical, social and environmental problems, the Indian population was drastically reduced, especially through disease…. Whether Spanish, English, Russian, or even if no settlers had preceded the Americans, the result would have been the same.”
I leave the mission’s museum with mixed feelings: surprised and glad to see native people rescued from historical amnesia; distressed that perpetrators of injustice once again evade a reckoning. On the way home, I take Robynn to the shrine of Tartine’s for some comfort food.