Saints and Citizens: Indigenous Histories of Colonial Missions and Mexican California

Nov 8th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-2: American Indian Law, Media Reviews

saints-and-citizensBy Lisbeth Haas
University of California Press (2014)
272 pages

Review by William Bauer

A portrait of Archangel Raphael hangs at Mission Santa Ines, located in present-day Solvang, California. It is the only surviving canvas painting produced by a California Indian from the mission period (1769–1834). The unknown Native artist indigenized the depiction of the Catholic saint: Raphael possesses prominent wings, reminiscent of the California condor; he cradles a killer whale, which served as an effigy in ‘Antap ceremonies; and he wears a traditional Chumash cape. Relying on a rich Indigenous archive produced by Indigenous painters, writers, and dancers, historian Lisbeth Hass argues that California’s missions “became sites of Indigenous authority, memory, identity and historical narration.”

The “saints” in Hass’ title refers to those California Indians who, after baptism, received the names of Catholic saints and interpreted Spanish colonialism to other Native people. Beginning in 1769, epidemic diseases undermined Native populations, and domesticated livestock impinged on hunting and harvesting areas. Some Chumash and Luiseños moved to the missions and others remained in their own communities but forged social and economic ties with the mission inhabitants. At the missions, Chumash and Luiseño “saints” entered a caste system at its lowest level, represented by clothing, language, and the Spanish use of violence against them. California Indians mediated these colonial impositions by continuing to tattoo their bodies, dancing, and painting images—such as Chumash symbols—on mission walls.

The “citizens” in the book’s title refers to those California Indians who translated emancipation and citizenship after Mexican Independence. In 1824, after missionaries opposed the emancipation of neophytes, Chumash at Missions San Jose, La Purisima, and Santa Barbara revolted against colonial authorities. Other Chumash left the missions and brought horses and knowledge to Yokut communities in the San Joaquin Valley. Chumash oral tradition emphasized “powers held by Indigenous leaders and the precarious state of things they experienced during the war.” After the small-scale uprising ended, California Indians found independence a mixed blessing. In 1834, the Mexican government secularized the missions and promised to distribute land and tools to the Natives. Some California Indians attempted to make a living near the missions, but found increased controls over their life, lands, and labor. Those Indians who remained at the missions fought to acquire the land, claiming their labor gave them a right to it. Others left the former mission areas, reclaiming ancestral places and lands or travelling throughout the borderlands.

Haas revises long-standing beliefs about California Indians and their encounters with Spanish colonialism. Some scholars have agreed with colonial sources and suggest that the Native people of California lacked any intellectual traditions. By bringing our attention to the deep Indigenous archive that exists for colonial- and Independence-era California, Haas insists that future scholars consider Indigenous ways of knowing and understandings of the world they inhabit. Haas also reminds scholars that there was no one response to European colonialism. Some Native people decided that moving to the missions was a good idea; others remained in their homelands. Survival in colonial-era California was not an either/or proposition, but rather a series of difficult choices California Indian people made under changing circumstances.

William Bauer, Ph.D. (Wailacki/Concow), is an associate professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who focuses on California Indian history.

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