The Untold Story of California Missions

The Untold Story of California Missions


Religion and Capitalism as Motivators for Colonial Exploitation

Sovereignty, at its core, is the ability of governing bodies to make and enforce their own choices over the populations that they rule. To be sovereign is to be independent of the authority of other governing bodies. Legal theorist John Austin  defined the sovereign formally as “that certain member of the society, or that certain body of its members, to whose commands, expressed or intimated, the generality or bulk of its members render habitual obedience.”1 Sovereignty is intimately related to power and privilege; power-hungry nations will strive to strip other nations of sovereignty for their own gain, manipulating others into obedience by any means necessary. Native American tribes were sovereign nations for thousands of years before Europeans came to North America, but the Europeans did everything that they could to strip Native Americans of their sovereignty. Europeans gave themselves the power to decide who could be sovereign, and because they had more wealth, they saw themselves as morally superior to indigenous people, justifying their subjugation of the latter in large part on the basis of their religious beliefs. Justified by both religious and capitalist motives, California missions embodied a particular mode of colonialism used to deny indigenous people their sovereignty and their freedoms of movement and expression. The colonizers constructed the perception of the California missions, resulting in a legacy that does not honor, but suppresses, indigenous experiences.       

To grasp how religion has been used to justify colonialism, it is essential to understand the ideology of manifest destiny. Manifest destiny is a 19th century term that referred to the idea “that the rules of ‘civilized’ warfare did not apply to uncivilized peoples,” which was rationalized “by invoking the ‘higher good’ of bringing civilization to new lands and peoples.”2 Manifest destiny was used to justify westward expansion in the United States on the grounds that God intended that Christian people should spread their ideas across the entire globe. Manifest destiny was used to rationalize “numerous acquisitions of territory from both Indigenous nations and from countries acknowledged to be fully independent sovereign states.”3 Manifest destiny provided a moral and religious sanction for stripping indigenous nations of their sovereignty. They were seen as incapable of self-rule because they were not Christian, even though they had their own systems of government. Missions were used as tools to strip indigenous nations of their sovereignty without remorse or consideration because missionaries believed that spreading the Christian religion was more important than the wellbeing and freedom of Native Americans. Because manifest destiny was rooted in the idea that westward expansion had been divinely ordained, colonizers were able to decimate an entire civilization without thinking of themselves as bad people.

The missions were implemented as tools to expand European power, and the idea of manifest destiny was used to give moral justification to immoral actions in the service of expanding European control over land, resources, and labor. California was just one of the many “regions [in which] missions were the instrument for the extension of Spanish rule.”4 This further proves that missions were more about expanding an empire than about spreading the teachings of the Bible. Missions were not a uniquely Spanish enterprise; countries such as the United Kingdom and Portugal also used missions to expand their powers. Latourette also notes that the early efforts to spread Christianity beyond Europe served a geopolitical purpose designed to benefit the ruling class. As he explains,  “when Christianity spread in Western Europe beyond the former Roman boundaries, it was chiefly with the support of the monarchs.”Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Colonialism and Missions: Progressive Separation,” 330.[/fn] It was not to the missionaries’ benefit to leave their families and all they knew in their home countries to go to a place that was completely unknown. The priests may have been passionate about spreading Christianity, but the missions were ultimately put in place to benefit the ruling class. The Spanish crown wanted more power, and they ordered other people to do the empire-building for them.

California’s missions were first and foremost religious institutions, but they grew to encompass every aspect of life. Many Native American tribes were also very religious, but their beliefs were seen as valueless since they did not conform to Western ideals. The Chumash tribe, located on the California coast, had strong religious beliefs that guided many aspects of life. For Chumash people, religion was often a way to explain the unexplainable:  

[A] Chumash woman, Luisa Ignacio, also reported that the Indians often attributed witchcraft to sickness and death, suggesting that the use of bad medicine was probably the reason for the coming of the whites, “like a punishment from God.” Spiritual cause and effect was (is) often the explanation within Native communities for the unpredictable and incontrollable.5 

This logic was something that missionaries could easily use to their advantage. They knew that Native Americans would blame God for their suffering rather than the dismal conditions of the missions. Conversely, missionaries gaslighted Native Americans into believing that their own spiritual beliefs and practices were inferior to those of their conquerors, and that God would reward them for converting to Christianity. This religious manipulation was used to strip indigenous people of, not only their own unique spiritual beliefs, but their entire way of life. If indigenous people were more focused on avoiding punishment from God, then missionaries could exploit them as they wished without the threat of an uprising. 

In the California missions, religion was used as a tool to manipulate Native Americans into working under inhumane conditions. The Chumash, as well as other Native Americans in California, “died by the tens of thousands and most survivors were reduced to a humiliating slavery-like conditions.”6 Child labor was very common in the missions, and Indigenous people were subjected to many different diseases brought to America by the missionaries. Workers were not provided with adequate medical care or time off, and if they died they were seen as easily replaceable. The Spanish considered indigenous lives to be without any value, as is exemplified by their recruitment patterns. Because so many individuals were dying, missionaries needed to recruit as many people as possible to keep the missions functioning. Dartt-Newton and Jon M. Erlandson report that, as a result, “Spanish recruitment of the Chumash to the missions increased from approximately 200 individuals in AD 1802 to roughly 1,200 people in AD 1803.”7 There were many documented uprisings in California missions because indigenous workers began to see through the mission’s lies and demanded better conditions for themselves and their families. 

Indigenous uprisings in California missions should be considered to be some of the first strikes, boycotts, and protests, in U.S. history, but they are not often looked at through the lens of a labor movement. Many of Karl Marx’s ideas relate to the injustices indigenous people faced in the context of labor. Marx stated that “the first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.”8 Spanish missionaries would not have been able to expand Spain’s empire or develop new ways to spread the teachings of the Bible without unpaid indigenous labor. The indigenous workers in the missions were the ones making the food and building the infrastructure that made it possible for the priests to write history, yet they weren’t given either wages or the power to live autonomous lives. Religion was used as a tactic to manipulate indigenous people into working in conditions akin to slavery. In time, though, they began to realize, just as workers elsewhere in the world did, that they did not deserve to be treated as subhuman. 

The essential question for colonizers was often: How can we exploit people for cheap labor in order to get the resources that we want? What will give this work meaning for people? Missionaries used religion as a way to convince themselves that what they were doing to Native Americans was ethical, but the way in which they spread Christianity was far from moral. At their core, the missions were all about control. James Sandos’s history of California missions explains that“priests employed the immersion system of conversion by taking complete control of their wards’ lives from cradle to grave.”9 The Spanish believed that their religion and way of life were superior to that of the Native Americans, and that they therefore had the authority to dictate every aspect of another person’s life. Their tactics were “based largely upon persuasion rather than military conquest,” and this proved to be a more powerful strategy because the Native Americans were already religious.10 The Spanish knew that Native Americans would see their situation as having been brought upon them as a punishment by God, and because of that missionaries wouldn’t have to worry about having to take the blame. Manipulating someone’s perception of their own reality is infinitely more powerful than any physically violent tactic.

Ultimately, as Deana Dartt-Newton and Jon M. Erlandson write, “we can only speculate on the use of psychological and religious manipulation that occurred to accomplish this replenishment of labor.”11 The phrase “we can only speculate” is notable here; since indigenous people were not the ones writing history, there are many aspects of their experiences about which scholars today will never know. This circles back to Marx’s recognition that history is written by the rulers. For, even though California’s history was built on the backs of indigenous laborers, their stories will never be heard. History is written by those who have the privilege and power to amplify their own voices at the expense of others. 

The California missions have left a lasting legacy in the state, but the way that they are remembered is often more positive than negative. In California public schools, the fourth grade social studies curriculum is largely devoted to learning about the California missions, but their history is often whitewashed beyond recognition. According to a 2019 study of California’s history curricula, 

[…] children in California schools learn little, if any, of the history of the people who called California home for thousands of years before the first Spanish colonists disrupted tribal ways of life, exploited Indian labor, and introduced abuse and family separation when they implemented the mission system in California almost 250 years ago.12

As someone who attended a public school in California, I can attest that what we learned was largely from the perspective of the Spanish. I remember being confused when the missionaries were presented as explorers, because, in my eyes, they weren’t really exploring anything. The land they travelled to had already been occupied, and I didn’t see how forcing people to convert to a religion and exploiting them for labor could be perceived as a noble act. Moreover, missionaries are honored throughout California in various ways; there is a Junipero Serra Boulevard in San Francisco and a Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, to name just a couple of examples. Junipero Serra himself “rode the wave of the past, subjecting Indians to strictly enforced religious controls the way peasants had been treated in medieval times.”13 He forced thousands of Native Americans to reject their own religion and culture, subjecting them to a life of abuse. The history of the missions was written by Europeans, and any effort properly to address how colonialism affects indigenous people today must start in the education system and question how we choose to memorialize missionaries. Despite all of this, Native Americans are working hard to take back their culture and tell their stories:

California Indian History Curriculum Coalition (CIHCC), a confluence of California Indians, activists, educators, allies, and policy makers who are working to teach a history that incorporates Native California perspectives and covers a longer period of time than just that relatively brief period in which the missions operated.14

Native American history is not something that should be taught only in relation to European history. The history of indigenous people in this country is something that must be understood, not only to appreciate Native Americans’ own history, but also to understand the suffering that they endure today. Furthermore, schools must begin teaching not only about Native American history before the missions, but also about acts of resistance to colonial power. Despite the astronomical amounts of abuse that indigenous people suffered at the hands of Spanish missionaries, they still continued to fight back and preserve their unique and beautiful culture. 

One group should not be able to dictate the sovereignty of another group, but sadly Native Americans continue to have to fight for their freedom to self-govern to this day. White people continue to try to decide who deserves the privilege of sovereignty and who does not, using religious and capitalist motives as justifications. Native Americans are still othered in this country today, which is partially due to the fact that they work to preserve their own religious beliefs, beliefs that are very different from those of Christianity. In America, Christianity is still associated with morality and civility. Native Americans are still being mistreated in the name of capitalism, a recent example being the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was built through indigenous land, contaminating their water. Native Americans continue to have it impressed on them repeatedly, through the actions of the United States government, that their lives don’t matter. Learning about the California missions in a way that not only uncovers the egregious violations of the lives of those to whom they supposedly ministered but also contextualizes them within a wider narrative of how religion has abetted the oppression of nonwhite populations from the beginnings of capitalist expansion down to the present, are the first steps in ensuring that history ceases to be repeated.

  1. John Austin, The Province of Jurisprudence Determined, (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  2. Natsu Taylor Saito, Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law, (New York University Press, 2016).
  3. Saito, Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law, 107.
  4. Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Colonialism and Missions: Progressive Separation,” Journal of Church and State vol. 7, no. 3 (1965): 330–49.
  5. Deana Dartt-Newton and Jon Erlandson, “Little Choice for the Chumash: Colonialism, Cattle, and Coercion in Mission Period California,” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3 (2006): 416-430. doi:10.1353/aiq.2006.0020.
  6. Dartt-Newton and Erlandson, “Little Choice for the Chumash: Colonialism, Cattle, and Coercion in Mission Period California,” 419.
  7. Dartt-Newton and Erlandson, “Little Choice for the Chumash: Colonialism, Cattle, and Coercion in Mission Period California,” 422.
  8. Karl Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker (W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 1978).
  9. James A. Sandos, Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions, (Yale University Press, 2008).
  10. Sandos, Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions, 3.
  11. Dartt-Newton and Erlandson, “Little Choice for the Chumash: Colonialism, Cattle, and Coercion in Mission Period California,” 423.
  12. Khal Schneider, Dale Allender, Margarita Berta-Ávila, Rose Borunda, Gregg Castro, Amy Murray, and Jenna Porter, “More Than Missions: Native Californians and Allies Changing the Story of California History,” Journal of American Indian Education vol. 58, no. 3 (2019): 58–74.
  13. Sandos, Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions, 3.
  14. Shneider, Allender, Berta-Ávila, Borunda, Castro, Murray, and Porter, “More Than Missions,” 59.
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