The Missions of California
July 1, 1989
Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
The Missions of California; A Legacy of Genocide.
Edited by Rupert Costo and Jeannette Henry Costo. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1987. 233 Pages. $10.50. Paperbound.
Reviewed by William E. Weeks, of the San Diego State University History Department.
The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, edited by Rupert Costo and Jeannette Henry Costo, examines the consequences of and the controversy concerning the mission system. This book makes no pretense of scholarly “objectivity” -i.e., detachment from its subject. Its editors are long-time Indian rights activists with a passionate interest in how the mission system is viewed historically. The book attempts to document the catastrophic effects of the mission system on the California Indians and by doing so to discredit the efforts to elevate Junipero Serra, founder of the missions, to sainthood.
The Missions of California consists of three main parts: essays on various aspects of the mission system, Indian testimony concerning the mission period, and a transcript of the “Serra Report,” interviews with eight scholars conducted in 1985 by the Catholic Diocese of Monterey that were designed to answer criticisms of Serra and his work.
Ironically, it is the interviews with the scholars defending Serra that contain the strongest evidence against the mission system. The ethnocentrism of the interviewees and their at times embarrassing lack of knowledge regarding Indian ways leads to numerous questionable assertions. Thus, Doyce Nunis comments that until Serra’s arrival “the Indians had no sense of fidelity to each other” and that “living just meant eating and staying alive. “Harry Kelsey states that “I think the Indians lived in misery before the missionaries came.” David Hornbeck asserts that the Indians had “no strong social, political, or economic structure.” From the interviews in the Serra Report, one gets the impression that Serra’s work can be defended only by demeaning the culture and traditions of the native Californians. Repeatedly, the interviewees call on Serra’s critics to produce the “documents” that prove the charges levelled against him and the mission system.
The essays in The Missions of California are chiefly concerned with responding to the claims made in the Serra Report. Especially useful are the pieces by Florence Shipek and Edward Castillo. Shipek documents the catastrophic effect of the mission diet on the Indians while Castillo rebuts Nunis’s claims concerning the benevolence of the mission system. Castillo artfully counters Nunis’s point that Serra must be viewed within the context of an “18th century perspective” by citing numerous contemporary accounts of the brutality and degrading conditions endemic to the mission system. Indeed, Serra’s defenders generally acknowledge that the employed methods to convert the Indians that would be unthinkable for missionaries to use today.
Of interest, too, are the oral remembrances of Indians of the mission period, passed down through the generations. As a historical source they are as valuable as any documents, and like other documents, subject to being critically evaluated. The tendency for scholars to discount oral histories in favor of the printed word reflects a Eurocentric bias inappropriate to openminded historical research.
The work of A. L. Kroeber, Sherburne Cook, Robert Heizer (all cited in the text) and others establishes that the arrival of the Europeans was a cultural and demographic catastrophe for the California Indians. Too often it is forgotten that Serra aimed not just to convert the Indians to Catholicism but to eradicate Indian culture as well. It is in this sense that the book’s subtitle. “A Legacy of Genocide” is justified. Many of Serra’s fiercest critics are individuals actively engaged in efforts to heal Indian society by recovering and honoring the traditional ways that bound tribes together for centuries. The attempt to sanctify a man who dedicated his life to the destruction of those ways is, understandably, galling to them.