The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1995, Volume 41, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

From Mission to Metropolis: Cupeño Indian Women in Los Angeles.

By Diana Meyers Bahr. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 184 pages. Buy this book.

Reviewed by Alan Kilpatrick, Professor of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University.

This slim volume, From Mission to Metropolis, is based on a series of interviews with the female members of the Dawn family who represent three generations of Cupeño women living in Los Angeles. Bahr’s concern is to document how these women, who exhibit various degrees of Cupeno Indian blood, perceive and articulate their own ethnicity while living in a distinctly urban setting.

The author frames her interviews around the theoretical perspective of mentalite. Thus, she is more concerned with “presenting the perceptions of the narrators than with documenting historical veracity” (p.5).

According to Bahr, three themes appear to emerge “dramatically” from these interviews: “family versus the individual”, “beneficence”, and “the metaphysical realm.” The problem with her assessment (as the author ruefully notes) is that, ethnographically, the historic Cupeño world view is not well-documented. As a result, there is no “Cupeño” standard by which one can compare these women’s statements. Are these women supposed to be a metonym for the whole Cupeño experience? Or are these the life histories of an eclectic group of individuals who, like the celebrated Mashpee tribe, appear to refract chameleon-like shades of Indianness?

One wonders why Bahr did not bother to interview some of the other one hundred and forty-seven living Cupeño members (or at least the women) to find out how the attitudes of the Dawn family resonate within the larger Indian community. Instead, she relies on sporadic ethnohistorical accounts to demonstrate how her contemporary subjects reflect continuities with, or change from, the past.

While Bahr is sympathetic and respectful to her subjects, she does, however, indulge in the fiction that “Indian” themes emerge from her tape, rather than admitting (as most ethnographers must) that she has consciously or subjectively ordered the material to make her case for the cultural trajectory of these women’s lives, and for the particular development of their mentalite. One wonders if a Cupeño ethnographer would have found the same themes emerging as “dramatically”?

What the book does clearly point out is the cultural confusion over what constitutes “Indianness” in the twentieth century. What emerges from these tapes is the struggle (not limited to these Cupeño women) of Native Americans across the country who strive to maintain a viable connection to their ancestry and to articulate that identity in a contemporary urban setting.

By limiting her study to these three women, Bahr offers us a micro-study which is too subjective, too narrow. Moreover, it only reconfirms what we already have read about the fragmentation of modern Native American ethnicity

For this reviewer, the strength of the book resides in its implicit message: that cultural transmission occurs most powerfully not in public displays of pan-Indianism such as pow-wows but in the private, unremarkable, ordinary day-to-day exchanges between mothers and daughters. As reflection of this phenomenon, Bahr’s book makes a modest contribution to the existent literature about ethnogenesis, the process of rebirth and renewal of Indian identity in the post-colonial age.

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