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<em>A Cross of Thorns</em> by Elias Castillo revises rose-colored accounts of California Indian life under Spanish rule.

A Cross of Thorns by Elias Castillo revises rose-colored accounts of California Indian life under Spanish rule.


Misery at the Missions

Thorny Spanish Life for California Indians Described


CRUELTY AND DEATH: Contrary to historical myth portraying Franciscan missionaries as kind, benevolent shepherds of the California Indians they encountered, author Elias Castillo depicts the Franciscans as cruel masters who used the Indians for forced labor.

In a new book, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions (Craven Street Books, Fresno), Castillo says that archives prove that the missions were places of deliberate cruelty and death.

Barney Brantingham

Beginning in 1769, the Indians were enticed from their lands into missions where they and their descendants were imprisoned for 60 years of forced labor and beatings, according to Castillo, a former reporter for San Jose Mercury News and the Associated Press, holder of two degrees from San Jose State University, and a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

My calls to the Franciscan headquarters in San Francisco seeking comment were not returned.

Tourists visiting California missions are being misled by a false picture of peaceful bucolic life, and fourth graders are falsely being taught, in a course required by the state, that friars and Indians lived in peace and mutual respect, Castillo writes. Friar Junipero Serra, founder of the chain of missions and now pushed for sainthood, advocated whipping of the Indians, according to documents in archives and letters, Castillo said.

In a forward, Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Costanoan/Ohlone Indians, writes, “Until now, the true and full history of the California Missions has never been told. As a young boy I listened to stories from my elders about the cruelty of the Missions,” how the Indians “suffered under harsh and brutal conditions.”

“Yet Serra is revered by many in California as a gentle friar who loved and treated the Indians as if they were his children,” Castillo writes. In reality, the missions were “little more than death camps run by Franciscan friars where thousands of California’s Indians perished,” Castillo said.

The death rates in the missions “were so appalling that more Indians died than were born annually, crippling the Indian population that was already reeling from disease, malnutrition, depression and physical abuse,” Castillo said. To counter the death rate, friars were “haranguing” the women to have more and more babies, he added.

The Indians “had terrible, sadistic punishments inflicted on them by the Franciscans,” Castillo said. “In one incident, the leader of a group of runaways who were recaptured had his hands and legs bound, then had the skin of a newly slaughtered calf tightly wrapped around him and sewn shut. He was then tied to a post and left to suffocate under a hot sun that slowly shrunk the skin,” a nightmarish event recounted by Russian seal hunter Vassili Petrovitch Tarakanoff.

“At Mission San Francisco, the captain of a trading ship came upon Franciscan friars using a red hot iron to burn a cross into the faces of a group of men, women and children who had tried to escape from the mission,” Castillo said.

One visitor to Mission Carmel was shocked at the “fetid squalor” in which Indians were forced to live. A French admiral was appalled at what he saw there in 1786: “Bedraggled Indians, some in shackles and stocks, were being walked to a work site, accompanied by Indians guards who swung whips to ensure their staying together,” Castillo wrote.

He compared it to slave plantations in the Caribbean. Not surprisingly, the Indians fought back. The most famous rebellion was known as the Chumash Revolt of 1824.

The uprising involved three missions: Santa Inés, La Purisima, and Santa Barbara. While California was now under Mexican rule following independence from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican commanders had done little to ease life for the Indians, according to Castillo.

After more incidents, a full-scale, bloody war was touched off. At the end, “With Mission Santa Barbara in their [Chumash] hands, they stripped it of all they could carry, including all the fabrics they could find, a substantial treasury of gold coins, gold and silver accouterments used in the large church, its tools, grain, seed and food. Virtually nothing was left behind.”

The Indians fled as far as they could and reestablished their tribal life and farming using techniques learned at the missions, he said.

“Perhaps had Serra and his successors not defied the Spanish crown’s orders to educate the Indians for ten years and then release them, California would have been dotted with thriving Indians communities … ” Castillo surmises.

MUSICAL DANES: I’ve been to Denmark, where I found a peaceful, easy-going people who don’t start wars (never mind ancient history) but send peacekeepers to the far ends of the earth. At Hahn Hall in Montecito, I found four Danes who looked like shy college boys but played like the seasoned pros they’ve become. The famed Danish String Quartet splashed at the Santa Barbara beach (“to us it’s like summer”) then mesmerized a sold-out audience. Over wine at the reception that followed, they chatted with the concert’s sponsor, Dr. Bob Weinman. High point of the evening was Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor. The next day they were to head home, trading our sunshine for Copenhagen’s high of 45. (Concert arrangements thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures.)

CAMERATA: A few days earlier, Camerata Pacifica displayed what the best of chamber music is all about: pianist Michael McHale performing Schubert’s Four Impromptus, McHale and violinist Paul Huang joining in Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 3, and as a fine finale, cellist Ani Aznavoorian joined them in Dvorak’s Piano Trio No. 3.

TOUSSAINT THE GREAT: In my jaunts down to New Orleans, twists of fate kept me from Preservation Hall and its wonderful music. But what I missed was more than made up for Tuesday night at the Lobero when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band hit the stage along with the world-famous Allen Toussaint. Born in New Orleans’ working class Gert Town neighborhood, Toussaint became a global jazz saint who came marching into the musical world as a pianist, composer, and producer. Silver-haired Toussaint was recently awarded the coveted National Medal of Arts by President Obama at a White House ceremony. He closed the show singing his Southern Nights, backed by a swinging band that included sensational trumpeter Mark Braud. Also on hand was the band’s creative director and bass player, Ben Jaffe, son of cofounders Allan and Sandra Jaffe.



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