Thursday, May 15, 2014

"I hate this topic": Welcome to the Club

This morning, two interesting things happened:

First, I received an anonymous comment on this blog (for the post "Thought Experiment").  The poster, the frustrated parent of a California fourth grader, had this to say:

"i hate this topic. my fourth grader just finished her report, and we concentrated as much as possible on the lives of the indians -- though that was not much discussed in the official books and materials available at the mission itself. she got instantly that the whole reason the missions existed was to export religion -- bully for her. now, i need a bloody checklist of materials used to construct the mission. her mission was burned down by rightfully angry indians and a padre was killed...would it be bad to try to capture that night, and have the bloodied body of the priest in the courtyard? hm....." 

I sat in my office and mulled over this note.  "I hate this topic..." - Missions?  California Indians?  Telling a difficult truth?  Being forced to excavate the truth in an educational and cultural system that would prefer you not?

This comment brings up some of my deepest reservations about the Fourth Grade Mission Project.  I hear both frustration and resentment in this parent's voice - understandably - but both seem to be directed at the Indian figure at the center of this project.  I want to re-direct that anger just a bit.

The parent acknowledges that finding truthful information about the lives of Indians was difficult, something I can appreciate.  But I'm sorry that this re-education seems to inconvenience the parent; I suggest he or she imagine how living in a country in desperate need of re-education "inconveniences" Indians on a minute-by-minute basis!  Parent, you just have to deal with this one project in one year of your child's life.  California Indians have this struggle day in and day out, decade after decade, century after century.  I understand that the pressure put on parents and children to create "perfect" mission reports and models/dioramas of a mission, but there is a bigger picture out there, and it is worth investigating.

For one thing, I'm a little concerned that the parent feels having the fourth grader in question learn that "the whole reason the missions existed was to export religion" was one of the main points of the project.  This is another fallacy about the missions that needs careful consideration.  Yes, the Spanish Crown originally sent priests out to convert - that was and continues to be a central part of Catholicism - but any "saved" Native souls were really just a bonus.  Historians agree with me on this one: the real point in colonization was land, resources, and political power.  Religion was just the vehicle these passengers arrived in; a wonderfully self-congratulatory vehicle with which to carry out the genocide of millions by a group of people without the semblance of a driver's license.  Greed, not religion, is at the center of this event.  And that changes a lot about how fourth graders (or adults just coming to this realization) process this revelation.  More about that later.

I have no argument with a religion that tells us to love thy neighbor, practice charity and compassion, and reminds us that we are all human beings struggling toward the sacred.  I do have some serious issues with the practitioners of a religion who says it's okay to kill other people, take their land, rape them physically and emotionally, as long as they are baptized before they succumb to torture or a disease brought in by the religion's practitioners.  I worry about the idea that religion becomes the scapegoat for what is, essentially, human misbehavior.  A comedian named Flip Wilson used to have a great tagline: "The Devil made me do it."  Blaming religion is kind of like saying, "God/Jesus made me do it."  How scary is that for a child to hear?

But back to the concept of greed.  I also worry that by putting the blame solely on religious conversion, we can avoid knowing that colonization of California Indian lands benefited the triple stream of colonizers - Spanish, Mexican, and American - and, in fact, benefits anyone who currently owns or uses land in California.  In other words, by saying that the missions were just about spreading Catholicism at any cost - as horrible as that sounds - Euro-Americans don't have to admit that the thefts of land and rich resources had anything whatsoever to do with them.  Or that California Indians still suffer from that loss; or that these losses continue into present and future Native generations.  Or that gee, something should be done to rectify that obvious and painful injustice.  Blaming religion allows Euro-Americans to take their privilege and benefits from the mission era blindly, without seeing who was run over in order to obtain it for them. Admitting that California (and sadly, this entire country) was built on greed and exploitation of human beings and the land - that's a steep learning curve, but one that, when we are brave enough to attempt it, can lead to real change, real justice.  Not simply admitting privilege, but working to heal wounds that now hurt not just Native people and the earth, but anyone living on the planet.

I also wish this parent had left an email or name, so I could send him or her a copy of Vincent Medina's excellent article "Plastic Siege: A New Twist on the Fourth Grade Mission Project," where Vincent talks about helping his little brother, both members of the Ohlone Chochenyo tribe, take on a more realistic construction of a mission; a mission experiencing revolution and resistance by its Native population that included armed self-defense.  After explaining why the California Mission Mythology is so painful for Indian children, especially, to swallow and fight back from, Medina writes,

"To start the project, we bought the typical Mission supplies from an arts and craft store – Styrofoam, white paint, sand, glitter glues, figurines of Spanish priests, plastic horses, and little fake gold bells. But we also bought orange cellophane to look like flames, toothpicks to paint to insert in the model to look like arrows, and military toy figurines which we would later paint to be our Ohlone militia. A new twist to a traditional model. The priests are held hostage as Ohlone fighters are inside the bell tower. I asked Gabe what he wants to title his Mission project, and he says with pride “let’s call it… you gotta do what you gotta do.”

I would love for Mr or Ms Fourth-Grade-Parent to read this essay by Medina, and perhaps learn (aside from the fact that California craft stores overflow with Mission Kit materials - hard to AVOID them) that yes, it is okay to be angry about the project, about the lies, the inaccurate education we all received and the way those inaccuracies require us to act in order to properly educate our children.  Medina and his little brother used their anger to create a mission project that illustrated the necessity for Native people to defend our way of life, our families, our cultures.  Self-defense is something that our ancestors practiced in the past, and we survivors and descendents practice it in the present as well.  A poem can be a form of self-defense.  A fourth-grade mission project in which the "priests are held hostage" is a form of self-defense.  

A mission model with a bloody priest in the courtyard might be one way for this parent-child duo to express their exasperation about the lack of a good fourth grade curriculum.  In fact, I would love for this parent's child to create a mission under attack (was it just me, or did I catch a whiff of sarcasm in the parent's comment?), even the scene at Mission San Diego, where the priest was killed outright by angry Indians.  This kind of honest representation would demonstrate an understanding on the part of parent and child that self-defense of one's homeland and people is a human right.  Whether the teacher would accept such a project, I don't know, but I'd be willing to bet that fourth grade teachers are receiving more and more reports and mission models from a less Eurocentric perspective.

But here's the thing: don't blame us - Native people - for this inconvenient and difficult assignment.  Please.  "I hate this topic" - when the topic is the suffering of my ancestor's lives, and my own life as the survivor of colonization and Historical Trauma - carries such misdirected anger and fear.  Be angry at a more deserving target!  Like your school district, or the California Fourth Grade Curriculum.  Take some responsibility for your child's education, especially if the curriculum being used is outdated, incomplete, or downright inaccurate.  Talk to the teacher.  Go to curriculum adoption meetings.  Research books for the school library (see Heyday's catalog for a good start!). Use the internet to contact local California tribes and ask if they have a person who speaks to fourth graders, or know of Native educators who will come to the classroom - after all, we are still here - at least, some of us.

And hey, welcome to the club.  This is just a taste of what it's like to take on colonialism and imperialism in the 21st Century.

Oh, and that second interesting thing today?  See the illustration above.  Bad Indians is still rockin' the charts at Heyday.  Maybe that parent should have paid attention to the blog s/he landed on.  Might have learned about a book that models how to respond to infuriating injustices.


  1. I don't think the parent's frustration was directed at the Indian at the center of the project at all. I think it's pretty clear that his/her anger is at the superficiality of the approach to California Missions itself. S/he hates this topic because the approach used in the schools is offensive. In other words, you're on the same team--and hopefully the parent will read what you've said about "it wasn't just religion" and learn a lot from this post.

    1. I agree 100% I didn't get the idea that the poster hated the Native Americans at all. I am of a similar mind. I refused to do this project as a child and now that my son is at that age I had been debating allowing him to do it but focusing on the cultural and physical genicide of the natives in the report and creating a mission that highlights the variety of ways that native Americans were tortured and murderd complete with bones sticking from the walls but I've decided that since this is an extremely liberal school they've probably had parents refusing to do this every year and will have alternate projects availible and tgat might be better than making an inflammatory statement that might not work out too well for him.


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