Critiquing the Critics: Assessing California's Native Peoples

Critiquing the Critics: Assessing California's Native Peoples
By Robert G. Schafer


For over a century and a half the standard view of California's native peoples has been based squarely on an 1825 essay written by Fr. Gerónimo Boscana.1 Boscana's view was personal but it reflected also the opinions of his fellow Franciscan missionaries in the period when he began his ministry in San Juan Capistrano. It is thus the most widely-based contemporary description of the nature of the people, as these padres saw them in the second or settlement stage of the Spanish occupation of California.

With Boscana as their spokesman and Mission San Juan Capistrano as their focus, what view of the native people was held by the padres? It was that they were faithless, lying, lazy, selfish, unintelligent schemers: i.e., very poor specimens of humanity. Boscana's sour view was based on close acquaintance with the people of San Juan Capistrano in and around their Mission over a period of a dozen years (1813-1825). He was one of their two pastors. No doubt the special circumstances of that particular settlement shaped his opinions although similar views had been expressed in 1813 and 1814 by the missionaries at seventeen other missions, even if they had not experienced the same circumstances as Boscana; nor did they offer as much detail as he did.2

For anyone familiar with the early history of Mission San Juan Capistrano, Boscana's opinions would have made no sense. Judging by the annual increase in the number of neophytes and by the statistics of production of grains, stock and other goods, they would have observed that the mission had prospered almost from its beginning in 1776. In some years the increase was less than in others, but overall there was a steady rise in the number of neophytes, who were also workers, and in stores of food and other supplies. The result was that by utilizing these resources, it was possible for the people of San Juan Capistrano to begin work in 1797 on the most ambitious building project the Spanish were to undertake in their half-century long occupation of California. However, before their Great Stone Church could be completed, in 1806, there began a series of unfortunate happenings which taken together must have so disheartened the people as to have given Fr. Boscana an unfavorable opinion of their overall disposition which he was to pen so memorably two decades later. The first of these catastrophes was a measles epidemic in 1802, followed by another in 1805. These not only decimated the population but also possibly raised questions in the minds of the survivors about the wisdom of having so wholeheartedly adopted a new culture which could bring such devastation down on them.

Still, the 1806 completion of the splendid new church--the "Jewel of the Missions"--must have stilled some of these doubts and misgivings. Unfortunately, only six years after the building's completion, another catastrophe struck in the form of a powerful earthquake which destroyed the great church, killing some forty native worshipers inside. One can only imagine the feelings of the survivors. Many must have questioned (and not for the first time) whether the new culture was indeed such a good thing. The very human tendency to lay blame would have focused on the new system's representatives (soldiers and priests) causing them to bear the brunt of native disillusionment.

Edwards Vischer's 1865 rendition of the ruins of thechurch and buildings of Mission San Juan Capistrano. From Vischer's Drawings of the California Missions, 1861-1878

Edwards Vischer's 1865 rendition of the ruins of the church and buildings of Mission San Juan Capistrano. From Vischer's Drawings of the California Missions, 1861-1878

It was into the midst of this demoralized community that in 1813 Fr. Boscana arrived. Thus, he would not have known the people in the earlier more positive phase of their community building, but would have come into the unhappy and perhaps resentful circle of survivors of a series of disasters unlike anything they had experienced in their pre-mission existence. It is not surprising that after a further period of service among these disillusioned people, Boscana was inclined to picture San Juan Capistrano's neophytes--as well as the surrounding non-Christian population--as being unmotivated, selfish, untrustworthy, and lazy.

To make such a charge is to paint with a very broad brush. No doubt there were some individuals who indeed fit this description, but it is hard to believe that such qualities characterized the majority of the converts of the mission. These were people who, while maybe never as disciplined in their work habits as the Fathers would have wanted, still had learned over the years to sow and reap, plant and harvest, tend cattle, sheep and other domestic animals, all with notable success in accumulating wealth for the community. They also had built adobe structures, year by year increasing the Mission's available housing. From 1797 to 1806 they had labored to create a monument to Spanish planning and their own hard work in the form of the Great Stone Church. These are not the achievements of a lazy, unreliable, untrustworthy and unintelligent rabble.

Among San Juan Capistrano's people there certainly were some who were faithless, missing their work assignments, refusing to attend church services or betraying their spouses. But if the Mission Registers3 are to be believed, those who acted in this fashion were a small percentage of the neophytes. The charge of lying cannot be refuted, but can perhaps be related to the universal tendency of persons who, when accused of some questionable activity, deny the charge unless overwhelming evidence is presented.

As to the charge of laziness made not only by Fr. Boscana but also by all the priests at all the missions, I believe this can be seen as a classic example of the application of the standards of one culture when used to judge the behavior of people who were, after all, merely observing the normal practices of their own quite different social system. The California natives were hunter-gatherers. Their European critics were long time practitioners of settled agriculture. 4 To observers from each group, the behavior of members of the other would have seemed irrational.

In some respects the mission neophytes could be said to have had the best of both systems, even if they did not always appreciate the fact. In 1814, many of the Fathers had reported that the natives, including the neophytes, ate all the time.5 They consumed grasses, seeds and roots and such customary items whenever they were hungry. But the neophytes also had three meals a day at the Mission, one of which was likely to contain meat. According to the Fathers, they were also inclined to gorge themselves, undoubtedly a habit carried over from pre-mission days when the practice was to eat whatever was at hand with little inclination to collect and store what were obviously very perishable items. Old habits die hard and viable cultures do not immediately transform themselves. So, if survival in their native state involved sudden bursts of energy to gather food, interspersed with periods of idleness, that was the reality of the situation.

Further, according to the Fathers, California's native peoples had little notion of time, at least as Europeans conceived of it. At the missions, however, all activities were regulated by the ringing of the mission bells which no doubt the natives would have found an onerous intrusion on their traditional pattern of much leisure broken by occasional bouts of intense activity. It is possible to guess that the people would have found the tyranny of the bells, which were the Fathers' main means of ordering their daytime activities, to be among the most irritating features of the new way of life. Thus, the regimentation symbolized by the bells was possibly the direct cause of many of the petty rebellions with which the Fathers had to contend, and which would in turn have underlain their universal charges of laziness. It was probably not the work itself which the natives found so objectionable, as it was the compulsion to labor much of the time, without lengthy rest periods of their own choosing.

Another possible reason for native intransigence with regard to work, leading to charges of laziness, may lie in the example set by the local non-Indians. In 1814, Fr. Olbes wrote from Mission Santa Bárbara:

"The people who live in this province known as gente de razón (basically, the Spanish) are so lazy and so given to idleness that they know nothing else than to ride horseback and consider all work as dishonorable. To them it seems that only Indians ought to work. So it happens that even for the most necessary personal maintenance they solicit the services of the Indians for cooking, washing, working in the garden, minding a baby."6

Lest anyone might think the soldiers and settlers of Santa Barbara were a special case, there was this report from Mission San Gabriel:

"...both men and women who are pagans assist in the work of the fields. Also, they are employed as cooks, water carriers and in other domestic occupations. This is one of the most potent causes why the people who are called gente de razón are given to so much idleness. Since the pagan Indians are paid for their labor by a half or a third of the crops, they remain constant in the service of their masters during the season of planting and harvesting. The latter (gente de razón), with few exceptions, never put their hands to the plow or the sickle."7

Overall, the picture of what actually was the nature of California's native peoples becomes more blurred the more one looks at the surviving records. One safe conclusion, however, is that the stereotype drawn by Boscana and his fellow commentators, and repeated ever since in books, articles, and movies, like all such attempts to describe the members of a complex social group in a few summary words, should not be taken as absolute. It probably should be seen as an unfortunate, even misguided, effort to make simple what is of course enormously complex.

In conclusion, there would seem to be a lesson here for all of us. We must take great care when judging people inhabiting systems profoundly different from our own. It is more than likely that such systems will have a rationale which, not immediately apparent, on examination will make more sense than at first appears possible.


1. Boscana, Gerónimo.
CHINIGCHINICH, revised and annotated version of Alfred Robinson's 1846 translation, by John P. Harrington (Santa Ana: Fine Arts Press, 1933).
2. Geiger, Maynard, O.F.M.
These records were kept by a succession of priests, and so tend to vary in the amount of information given in the individual entries. But on the whole, they appear (some errors excepted) to be accurate and dependable.
For a work making extensive use of these records, see Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO MISSION (Los Angeles: Standard Printing Co., 1922).
4. This point was made in Geiger, AS THE PADRES SAW THEM
5. For biographies of these men, see Geiger, Maynard