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Friday, February 2, 2018

A Short Correspondence About a Long Story





Dear Readers:

As a published scholar and poet, my email account is full of requests, comments, and conversations. When I can, I give the writers my best shot at a good response. Sometimes I receive lovely pieces of fan mail, or exciting questions about research. Sometimes I get asked to help come up with Esselen names for someone’s novel, or (honest), people who want to tell me that they’ve been Indian in all their reincarnations. Today, I’ve changed the name of this correspondent, but left the name of the high school – there are enough Junipero Serra High Schools that it’s not automatically an identifier.  I don’t have to change anyone’s name, of course, since emails that come to me are fair game for discussion.  However, in keeping with my previous practices, I’ll re-name this person “D. Thomas.”  Forgive me my small dig.

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Dear Dr. Miranda,


Mr. D. Thomas
Theology Department

Saint Junípero Serra, pray for us!

Junípero Serra High School

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Mr. Thomas,

I found this updated population information in the work of Dr. Russell Thornton (Professor of Sociology at UCLA) who has multiple articles and books on the topic of Indigenous populations in North America, their decline and rise.  In particular, his book American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492 has been invaluable and meticulous in sorting out the mishmash of population estimates from various earlier scholars.

The long-used Cook and Mooney et al estimates are long-outdated; given what little they had to work with at the time of his estimates, this is not surprising, but it has caused wide-spread damage in terms of not allowing us to see the full extent of the consequences of contact.  What IS surprising is how little scholars and the general public question such an obviously erroneous number as “350,000” for such a densely populated and well-resourced area.  Thornton’s overall conclusion is that within North America (more specifically, Thornton says, “the area north of Mexico,”) (32), Indigenous peoples measured about 7 + million, pre-contact."  California’s rich resources (land, sea and weather) account for about one million inhabitants within what are now the state’s boundaries.  In fact, he notes, Indigenous populations could have been far higher but for the natural limitations (disease, war, famine) and the cultural curbs adopted by Indigenous communities for child-spacing (breast-feeding, restrictions on sexual activity, and customs relating to marriage). Indians were well aware of the suffering that over-population could bring upon them.

When I came upon Thornton’s work, I wrote to Dr. William Preston, another social scientist working in the specific field of disease in California missions, asking what he thought. Dr. Preston replied, 

“At this point I think that Thornton’s high number is totally reasonable. In fact, keeping in mind that populations no doubt fluctuated over time, I’m thinking that at times 1 million or more Native Californians were resident in the state.”

I hope this answers your question, and gives you a new direction for your own research.

Sincerely,

Deborah Miranda
Professor of English

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Dr. Miranda,

Thanks for the response. So you are saying that because a couple of thousand Spaniards came to California that 650,000 California Natives died? And don't you think you it would be fair to present the consensus view to children until the "1 million to 350,000" argument is widely accepted?

Sincerely,

Mr. D. Thomas
Theology Department

Saint Junípero Serra, pray for us!

Junípero Serra High School


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Mr. Thomas,

Actually, Mr. Thomas, I avoid make huge sweeping claims without considerable investment of time and energy on research before coming to conclusions. I have been actively researching the effects of both the missions and the gold rush on California Indigenous populations for about ten years, as part of my own work on what these experiences were like for the communities involved.  I am part of a larger community of scholars and Indigenous communities dedicated to the separation of truth from mythology.  May I ask, how long have you been working on this?

Because of my research, I know three key ways the Spanish missions impacted the death rate of California Indigenous peoples:

A.    along with “a couple of thousand Spaniards” came diseases that reached epidemic level, and which not only killed many Natives, but weakened the survivors and undercut their ability to birth and raise healthy children.  Because of this, the death rate far, far outstretched the birth rate both within and without missions.  Measles, for example, was rampant at most of the missions one time or another, and recent research has revealed that measles actually erase a body’s immunity for many other diseases; the body has to “re-learn” these immunities, and that can take years. If, as happened in the missions, Indigenous bodies were already weakened from poor diet (something the priests themselves complained about), a bout with the measles often killed them. But even those who survived the measles epidemic were so immune-compromised that they succumbed in the next months or year to other, lesser illnesses.  European syphilis, another disease brought to North America by the Spaniards (a different, much less deadly form existed here pre-contact but did little harm), also became epidemic as Spanish soldiers (and, I’m sorry to tell you, some priests – again, according to the Church’s own records) raped Indigenous women, who then could not help but spread the disease to spouses and children. Other diseases also contributed to the death and/or weakening of Natives, so view this as an example only, not a conclusive list.  Syphilis became an epidemic early on in missionization, resulting in stillbirths, sterility of both men and women, deformities, and early death. Steven Hackel’s work notes that the average life expectancy for a child born within a mission was 7 years. 

B.    along with the Spaniards came thousands upon thousands of European domesticated animals such as cattle, ox, poultry, horses, donkeys, pigs, etc.  These animals roamed freely, eating and destroying the seeds, roots, fruits, and displacing game and other food resources upon which the Indigenous tribes depended (again, the priests documented that they were often so short on supplies from Spain that they were forced to release Natives into their homelands to scavenge for food – which, as time went on, was increasingly absent). Rivers and streams were polluted by the waste of cattle and horses, run-off from cleared land, thus much reducing Native fisheries, not to mention, clean water.  The Spanish priests had little in the way of medicines, and often relied on Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants, but those plants too quickly became difficult to find, so treatments for fever, childbirth-related problems, etc., became unavailable.

C.    Finally, don’t forget the emotional and psychological components of huge, often violent change and loss coming to a community in a very short period of time. Depression and grief take their own toll.  Please research the topic “Historical Trauma,” which, although founded by Jewish Holocaust scholars, has gone on to help shape our understanding of what long-term oppression does to a community’s soul and mental health.

Again, Mr. Thomas, this is all based on research of many years, by many scholars.  Rather than argue with me, you should be doing your own research and coming up with your own thesis and supportive facts. 

Let me remind you that, as a descendant of California Indians taken into Carmel, Soledad and Santa Ynez missions, I am the one who has a right to be angry, who grieves for all the lives and culture that has been lost, and who is still, at this late date of 2018, struggling to make our truth known to the larger American culture.  And yet, it is you, Mr. Thomas – a person with much privilege, whose version of history has long been accepted despite its flaws, mistakes, and outright lies -  who presents yourself as wronged, oppressed, and in denial of the facts.  Please, ask yourself why that is. 

You ask, “And don't you think you it would be fair to present the consensus view to children until the "1 million to 350,000" argument is widely accepted?”

I don’t think you are in any position to discuss fairness with me, Mr. Thomas, but let me add this: Indigenous children learn about the massive deaths of their Ancestors from the time they can listen to song, story, and take part in their culture. As do Jewish children whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, Black children who descend from enslaved Ancestors, and many other children who are the survivors of injustice.  I don’t think it’s asking too much of white children, or Catholic children, to learn a little about the impact of Spanish missionization, particularly when they benefit from the schools, churches and homes located directly on Indigenous land.

I wish you well on your research journey.  As an educator, you have a tremendous responsibility to do your own research, and come to your own conclusions. Don’t take my word for any of this. But also, don’t blindly recite the party line without researching that, too.  To do otherwise would be to cheat your students of the information they need to become righteous human beings.

Sincerely,

Deborah Miranda

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Dr. Miranda,

I am sorry that my question offended you. I am Catholic. Your assertion deals with my history.

Sincerely,

Mr. D. Thomas
Theology Department

Saint Junípero Serra, pray for us!

Junípero Serra High School

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Mr. Thomas,

Actually, based on your questions, I thought we were discussing California Indigenous history.  Hmmm.  Somehow, this has become all about you.

I won’t send this last response to you; it was obvious from your first email that you, yourself, have absolutely no respect for the work that I do, and in fact, probably disdain any research that does not agree with your own belief system and what you need to support that system.  Although I offered you my expertise and my research, my free time and my energy, you refuse to engage with that information in a thoughtful or constructive way. Instead, you continue to look for ways in which to make yourself and your religion “victims” of my research when, in fact, the Indigenous peoples of California have clearly borne the weight of missionization and the gold rush. Having taught Writing 100 (Introductory Composition) for many years, I know a weak argument when I see one; an opinion is not a thesis.  I’m not talking about your faith, Mr. Thomas; I’m talking about statements like “So you are saying that because a couple of thousand Spaniards came to California that 650,000 California Natives died?”  In my WRIT 100 course, that would not pass inspection as a rough draft. How can we have a conversation if you won’t invest in the details, won’t do the slightest bit of research?

Sometimes in my classes, I use thought experiments to jog loose the log jams in students’ heads. 

Let me ask you this, Mr. Thomas:  how many Catholics do you know?  Have you met Catholics in your neighborhood?  Have you ever had a Catholic doctor, librarian, mechanic, teacher?  Have you read a book by a Catholic author?  Have you been to a prestigious museum to see artwork created by contemporary Catholic artists?  Do you listen to music by people who practice Catholicism?

I’m pretty sure the answer to those questions is YES. 

Now ask yourself the same questions, but this time, replace “Catholic” with “Indigenous Californian.”  How small did your ‘yes’ become?

Now, ask yourself: why, in a land that was 100% Indigenous only 200+ years ago, do you know so few California Indians?  Why do so few California Indians have degrees from higher ed?  Why don’t you see more California Indians in your daily life?  In the media?  In entertainment?  What happened to that 100%?  What happened to their descendants?  What economic, social, cultural and psychological damage did losing most of their land, 90% of their population, and the freedom to choose their own religion, languages, and lifeways, do to them?

And what have you done, what will you do, to try and understand that disaster, work for justice on their behalf?

Those are the questions you should be asking, and which you owe it to your own moral code to try to answer honestly.  Particularly as someone who identifies with a religion founded on the actions of a man whose work on behalf of the poor, sick and marginalized, you might find that an interesting course of exploration.

Do I hate Catholics? Of course not! Many of my own family members are Catholic, and I could not love them more dearly.  I certainly don’t like what the Catholic Church did as missionaries in the post-Inquisition era; I don’t like what the Catholic Church is doing now, in regards to burying and denying its own crimes regarding pedophiles and responsibilities to Indigenous peoples around the world. Do I hate Jesus Christ? No, on the contrary, I have great respect and gratitude for someone who devoted a lifetime, short as it was, to caring for the poor, the sick, the undefended, the homeless, and who tried to pass on that creed to the world. 

What makes me angry, Mr. Thomas, are people who ask questions without ever listening for answers, who write bullying emails with absolutely no context, without bringing anything valuable to the conversation, and who in fact, don’t really want to have a conversation at all. What makes me angry are people who ask for my time, then walk away without one ounce of respect for what I’ve shared.

This is a long story in the lives of Native people. We are the ones living with the specter of historical genocide; we are the ones coming to terms with both historical and contemporary trauma; yet, we are the ones who, according to Euro-American history, know absolutely nothing about what happened to us.

Mr. Thomas, I feel that our “correspondence” (such as it is) will be instructive for others seeking knowledge, particularly about California missions and contemporary scholarship about that era, and its consequences.  So I’ll make this last reply to you here, on my blog, and leave it to be discovered by others more willing to grapple with difficult, but important, realities.

I’ll leave you with this thought: If you truly believe that Junipero Serra was doing the Lord’s work, and all the other missionaries too, then why does my work bother you at all?  How can one middle-aged, mixed-blood Chumash/Esselen Indian woman’s words possibly have any effect on the well-being of a saint?  Could it be that the truth of my words rings in your ears despite your protests?

Just wondering.

Sincerely,

Deborah A. Miranda

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4 comments:

  1. Bravo! I would not have bothered to reply to "Mr. Thomas" a second time. Still, I do hope your words start him thinking… perhaps not just yet, but eventually.

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  2. I really enjoy Ms. Miranda's writing. Her book is good too.

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  3. Brilliant and thoughtful reply, Debbie! I hope that although this man's mind was shut tight, your reply and documentation will pry it open over time and let in some sorely needed light.

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