March 29, 2015

California's 4th-grade mission mythology

Lying to Children About the California Missions and the Indians

By Deborah A. MirandaAll my life, I have heard only one story about California Indians: godless, dirty, stupid, primitive, ugly, passive, drunken, immoral, lazy, weak-willed people who might make good workers if properly trained and motivated. What kind of story is that to grow up with?

The story of the missionization of California.

In 1769, after missionizing much of Mexico, the Spaniards began to move up the west coast of North America in order to establish claims to rich resources and before other European nations could get a foothold. Together, the Franciscan priests and Spanish soldiers "built" a series of 21 missions along what is now coastal California. (California's Indigenous peoples, numbering more than 1 million at the time, did most of the actual labor.) These missions, some rehabilitated from melting adobe, others in near-original state, are now one of the state's biggest tourist attractions; in the little town of Carmel, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is the biggest attraction. Elsewhere, so-called Mission d├ęcor drenches Southern California, from restaurants to homes, apartment buildings, animal shelters, grocery stores, and post offices. In many neighborhoods, a bastardized Mission style is actually required by cities or neighborhood associations. Along with this visual mythology of adobe and red clay roof tiles comes the cultural storytelling that drains the missions of their brutal and bloody pasts for popular consumption.

In California schools, students come up against the "Mission Unit" in 4th grade, reinforcing the same lies those children have been breathing in most of their lives. Part of California's history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the educational system and impossible to avoid, a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology to which 4th graders have little if any resistance. Intense pressure is put upon students (and their parents) to create a "Mission Project" that glorifies the era and glosses over both Spanish and Mexican exploitation of Indians, as well as enslavement of those same Indians during U.S. rule. In other words, the Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny rather than actually educational or a jumping-off point for critical thinking or accurate history.

I can confirm that my California school had a "mission" unit. I was in 5th grade, but it was a joint social studies class with grades 3-5 (experimental school). We divided into teams and made some sort of cutout missions, but nothing as good as these.

What's up with constructing missions, anyway? What about the White House, the Alamo, or Sutter's Mill? Why is a mission the only historical building constructed by California students?

Someone could make the case that this veers too far into state-sponsored religion. I mean, you could read the Bible or reenact a Catholic ceremony and claim it was for learning about California's mission era. Constructing a mission isn't much different.

For more on California's missions, see Indoctrinating Students About Missions.

Below:  Happy-go-lucky Indians Preaching and Farming at Mission Dolores by Anton Refregier. Former Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco, California.

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