California Indians, Before, During, and After the Mission Era
The California Missions Foundation is committed to the full and accurate depiction of history in early California. CMF will continue to work with California Indian scholars, leaders, and cultural experts to develop this site into a robust source of information about California Indian experiences. In the future, this site will feature links to historical resources and will connect visitors to contemporary California Indian Communities. What follows is a brief introduction to California Indian experiences before, during, and after the Mission era.
California Indians Before Colonization
California has always been one of the most culturally diverse areas of the world. The term California Indian is an oversimplification. The tribal groups that have lived in California, since time immemorial, did not call themselves California Indians. Instead, they knew themselves by countless village and family affiliations.
Early European explorers described California as an earthly paradise where native inhabitants simply “survived” off of what nature provided. But California Indians never left their sustenance to fate. Throughout the state, Native Californians carefully managed their environments. Through controlled burning, they cleared underbrush and promoted new growth of important plants. They upturned soil by harvesting bulb plants, which caused such vegetation to multiply. They harvested seeds from grasses and in doing so they unintentionally, and at times intentionally, spread plant species into new areas. Such practices not only ensured an abundance of food, but also provided the raw materials for instruments of utility and art, such as regalia, baskets, and household items.
Despite European views to the contrary, California Indians developed complex cultures and traditions millennia before the arrival of the Spanish missionaries.
Missions: A Time of Little Choice
Although Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed California for Spain in 1542, Spain did not attempt to occupy the land until the late 1700s. Occupation of New Spain radiated outward from Mexico City. The primary strategy of Spanish colonization was to convert Native Peoples into loyal Spanish citizens. Missionization, the act of converting Native Americans through cultural and religious instruction, was central to the Spanish colonial strategy.
By the mid-1700s, Spain had already founded missions in Baja California. Feeling pressure from rival empires, such as Russia and Great Britain, Spain worried about maintaining its claim over land in the Northern reaches of New Spain. Russian trappers worked their way South along the Pacific Coast and British ships reconnoitered Alta California. In 1769, Spain ordered a military expedition to explore and occupy Alta California. Led by Captain Gaspar Portola and Father Junipero Serra, this initial exploration would come to be known as the Sacred Expedition. The expedition resulted in the founding of Mission San Diego, the first in the chain of 21 missions that would eventually stretch all the way to Sonoma.
Besides the padres and military personnel, the missions were closed Native American communities. Padres generally sited the missions close to existing Native American communities. Native Americans came to these communities for a variety of reasons. Recent historical scholarship suggests that Spanish diseases and rapid environmental degradation, caused by invasive species brought by the Spanish, dramatically changed the environment and traditional societal structures. As Native food sources became less reliable and as disease ravaged California Indian communities, the missions presented an option in a time of great upheaval.
The missions created new types of communities, although often uneasy ones. It was a life that was controlled by the padres. In the missions, Native Americans received religious instruction and were expected to perform labor, such as building and farming for the maintenance of the community. It was a life that was dramatically different from the life they knew before the Mission era. The Mission System was highly coercive and once California Indian people entered the community, they were expected to live in ways that the padres and military officials deemed acceptable. Missionaries discouraged aspects of Native religion and culture. Native Americans who had entered into the mission communities through baptism were not allowed to leave without permission. Corporal punishment, such as floggings, for Native Americans who disobeyed the rules was frequent and at times severe. Although such punishments were not uncommon in contemporary Spanish society, they were quite a departure from traditional Native American practices.
Not all Native Peoples in Alta California came to the missions and not all of those who did experienced mission life in the same way. The Spanish established the missions across a great geographical distance and over a long period of time. Junipero Serra founded the first mission in San Diego in 1769. Father Jose Altimira founded the last Alta California Mission, San Francisco de Solano, in 1823. Although there was a mission system and the Padres who administered them did so under established guidelines, there was much regional variation. This variation was reflective of the Native Americans who made up the missions communities and the personalities of the missionaries.
Whatever the modern view of the missions, one thing is clear: California Indians built each mission and it was California Indians who lived, worked, and died in them. It is clear that life at the missions was often difficult. Disease frequently ravaged mission communities. But even in these times of great hardships, California Indians made the best lives they could. They got married and had children, they passed down traditions and cultural knowledge, and they experienced moments of great joy, however brief. Above all, they were not “mission Indians,” they were people.
California Indian Cultural Continuity
Although missionization forever altered California Indian cultures, it could not erase them. California Indian people are central to contemporary life. They own businesses, work as public servants, and hold political offices throughout the state. But many also continue aspects of their pre-colonization cultural traditions. Elders teach younger generations how tend plants to yield traditional foods and basket weaving materials. Multiple generations of families continue to dance and sing in ways that long predate Spanish colonization. Where the thread of memory has broken, California Indians are reviving traditions through research and practice. Indeed, California Indian cultures are indelible.
Anderson, M. Kat, Tending the Wild (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
Hackel, Steven, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (Williamsburg, Virginia: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2005).
Jackson, Robert H. and Edward Castillo, Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization: The Impact of the Missions System on California Indians (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1995).
Margolin, Malcolm, “Introduction,” in Life in a California Mission (Berkeley: Heyday Press, 1989).
Milliken, Randall, A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1769-1810 (Banning, CA: Ballena Press, 1995).
A drawing of Natives Americans by Artist Louis Choris. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.