Wednesday, March 25, 2009

California Missions

For my U.S. History class, we read a short book entitled Monterey in 1786: Life in a California Mission, The Journals of Jean François de la Pérouse.

Since I realize not everyone lives in California, here's a short history. The California Missions of the 1700s were placed along the coastal areas of California: San Jose, Monterey, San Rafael (one I've visited), San Francisco, Santa Cruz, etc. Each of these missions were headed by Spanish colonists and were there for the express purpose of converting the Native American people to Catholicism.

With questions regarding the new land, trade possibilities, and other issues, King Louis XVI of France asked Pérouse to head an expedition to the colonies to make notes of everything: land, weather, plants, people, etc. so they could learn more of it to see if they could perhaps capitalize on it. This book is part summary and part Pérouse's personal journal of the trip and says much of the Spanish treatment toward the Native American people.

A few things struck me as I read:

First, that the Spaniards sought not to understand the Native American way of life, but simply to judge it, deem it anarchist and godless, and then seek to save them. No matter the motivation they would use to convert the people, those in charge "agreed that converting the Indians to European ways was not merely desirable, but indeed a moral necessity" (40). It earlier states "There was, in their eyes, only one true religion, the one the Spanish monks were bringing with them to the Monterey Bay area" (28).

The Indian people for various reasons all came to the missions voluntarily and, once baptized, were stuck. Without experience with organized warfare, a tradition of strong leaders and of long, drawn out decision-making processes, they also had language barriers between them. No real weapons to speak of.

Mostly, though, they had the fear of God instilled in them. It states,

"The Spaniards also had an enormous psychological edge...while the Indians seemed to have been burdened by the incapacitating belief that the Spaniards were powerful magicians, deriving their powers not just form the bullets in their guns, but directly from the gods. Proof of the alliance between the Spaniards and the gods was everywhere: the monks were seen constantly talking directly to their gods, and it seemed obvious that their gods were answering them. To rebel against the monks and soldiers meant to rebel against their gods as well" (31)
Does anyone think these people had a choice?

In civilizing the Indian people, the Spaniards managed also to take away everything that defined them. Their link to the land. Their homes (they weren't allowed outside the mission). Their calendars and rituals. All gone. Mission president Fermín Lasuén said of the conversion process:

"This can be accomplished only by denaturalizing them. It is easy to see what an arduous task this is, for it requires them to act against nature. But it is being done successfully by means of patience and by unrelenting effort" (33)

The result of such actions? Deep depression. "Unable to rebel, their old way of life destroyed, they sank into the deepest gloom" (33)

But this one really stuck out to me:

"To enjoy membership in this new community, the Indians were invited to partake in the ritual of baptism, thus allowing them to communicate with the spirits and gods who had given the newcomers such great power and wealth. What the Indians could not have understood, however, was that the waters of baptism were, in the eyes of those administering it, taking away not only something called 'sin' but freedom as well...

The Indians had to be kept at the mission, by force if necessary, lest they revert to their old ways and stray into sin. To preserve the soul, the monks understood to regulate the Indians' every activity, monitor their behavior, and teach them (by whatever means necessary) the correct mental and spiritual attitudes...they were now wards of the church - their lives, their bodies, even their thoughts no longer their own." (30)

I think this could all be read in a few different ways aside from the literal historical aspect of it.

Any thoughts?


natalie said...

Oh man, totally disturbing.

One of the grossest parts of history is the "white man's burden". Its most exaggerated examples are with the Native Americans and especially with the colonization of Africa. As the quotes you put here amply demonstrate, there were some seriously messed up ideas.

But the other disturbing part is that these attitudes have not entirely disappeared today. It pisses off a lot of people to hear this, but I think that one of the most serious obstacles to real change in our society is our army of middle-class "do-gooders". So many people volunteer for a few hours a week, doing some band-aid service activity, and then think that their contribution to society is complete, and that if people's lives don't improve, it's because they didn't appreciate the service they were given.

And it's really astonishingly clear in things like international service missions, or trips to go teach English to poor children. This part is better argued by a guy named Ivan Illich, in this speech, "To Hell with Good Intentions".

that girl said...

obviously you want to compare this to how the LDS church has converted you and made you depressed and feel like you're in chains. while there seems to be some similarities, i don't think it's fair to single out the LDS Church. ours is not the only religion that believes we have the true gospel and wishes to share it with everyone. and by no means does the Church force it down people's throats - at least i don't think so. unless you live in UT :) ha. second, i think it's important to note that it seems like the Native Americans weren't given a choice, wheras we believe in the choice and accountability, free agency. which to me, is not just an LDS thing. every choice we make is ours to make, whether we believe in God or not, and with every choice comes a consequence. anyway, just my thoughts. religion is religion, to each one's own, i think all faithful people have some desire in their hearts to in some ways instil their beliefs onto someone else and all in good will. i'm open to that. but i am not open to force, which is the main thing in your post that bothered me. as much as you may think the Church forces you to be something you're not, you have a choice to not go with it and do something else that will make you happy. it's your life, man. are you afraid people will judge? i bet they'll just be happy and relieved you found something else that made you happy.

Lisa said...

I never said anything about singling out the Church. I think it's an unfortunate side effect of many religions and one that we should all learn from, as individuals and as a whole.

That doesn't mean it's all bad. Of course the Franciscans had the purest of intentions and the worst of methods.

We are to learn from history, and the parallel is hardly 100%. I found the most striking parallel with that of the missionaries micromanaging everything the Indians did as to keep them safe from themselves. I do find that very prominent in the LDS church.

I do find some issue with the idea of free agency. As you'll notice in the entry, one of the noted reasons the Indian people never left the missions is due to the fear of God. There is no choice when it's "Heaven or eternal damnnation" you know? So you suffer and you martyr yourself so that later you'll be happy. I don't think this is necessary but there are *so* many members of this church today (feminist, gay, liberal, etc) who feel they have to give up even a part of who they are/what makes them them in order to be happy in the next life.

In time I feel some people will be happy I'm happy. I hoped such when I joined the Church that my family would see the fruits thereof and be thrilled.

But they're not. They're ok, they see I'm not stuck in some compound in Africa drinking kool-aid, but they worry so much for my eternal soul and that I may not be using my brain, that I've given it to the Prophet and other leaders of the Church (like the Prop 8 letter).

This is not everyone, but most whom I've come in contact with. I really felt alone until I came online and discovered other blogs/friends. That said, I actually am grateful I found the Church. It brought me my husband and I've met good people and learned a lot of good things. But I'm still growing, and it's taking me this way. I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing.

But is it perfect? Hell no, and my issue is that the Church likes to pay lip service to being imperfect but refuses to see where it could better and refuses to acknowledge past indiscretions by way of apology (not just profound regret - though the MM Massacre statement of regret was a great step forward).

While the Church has changed, it insists it's through revelation and not because of society. Excuses run rampany. This Church refuses to see the good in the progression of society, instead likening it to the ripening of the world in sin. I don't believe that is so, at least not to the extent many others do.

I also, btw, think religion can be a wonderful thing for most people. Studies have shown it is beneficial in more ways than one.

We could also look at this politically with regard to situations like Vietnam and Iraq, the idea that we're right and they're wrong and we need to impose our ideals on the world. It doesn't work as we've learned.

Sorry this took so long to reply to and I do hope you get it :)