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The Old Franciscan Missions Of California By George Wharton James Characters: 17867

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

It is generally believed that the California Indian in his original condition was one of the most miserable and wretched of the world's aborigines. As one writer puts it:

"When discovered by the padres he was almost naked, half starved, living in filthy little hovels built of tule, speaking a meagre language broken up into as many different and independent dialects as there were tribes, having no laws and few definite customs, cruel, simple, lazy, and--in one word which best describes such a condition of existence--wretched. There are some forms of savage life that we can admire; there are others that can only excite our disgust; of the latter were the California Indians."

This is the general attitude taken by most writers of this later day, as well as of the padres themselves, yet I think I shall be able to show that in some regards it is a mistaken one. I do not believe the Indians were the degraded and brutal creatures the padres and others have endeavored to make out. This is no charge of bad faith against these writers. It is merely a criticism of their judgment.

The fact that in a few years the Indians became remarkably competent in so many fields of skilled labor is the best answer to the unfounded charges of abject savagery. Peoples are not civilized nor educated in a day. Brains cannot be put into a monkey, no matter how well educated his teacher is. There must have been the mental quality, the ability to learn; or even the miraculous patience, perseverance, and love of the missionaries would not have availed to teach them, in several hundred years, much less, then, in the half-century they had them under their control, the many things we know they learned.

The Indians, prior to the coming of the padres, were skilled in some arts, as the making of pottery, basketry, canoes, stone axes, arrow heads, spear heads, stone knives, and the like. Holder says of the inhabitants of Santa Catalina that although their implements were of stone, wood, or shell "the skill with which they modelled and made their weapons, mortars, and steatite ollas, their rude mosaics of abalone shells, and their manufacture of pipes, medicine-tubes, and flutes give them high rank among savages." The mortars found throughout California, some of which are now to be seen in the museums of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, etc., are models in shape and finish. As for their basketry, I have elsewhere[2] shown that it alone stamps them as an artistic, mechanically skilful, and mathematically inclined people, and the study of their designs and their meanings reveal a love of nature, poetry, sentiment, and religion that put them upon a superior plane.

[2] Indian Basketry, especially the chapters on Form, Poetry, and Symbolism.

Cabrillo was the first white man so far as we know who visited the Indians of the coast of California. He made his memorable journey in 1542-1543. In 1539, Ulloa sailed up the Gulf of California, and, a year later, Alarcon and Diaz explored the Colorado River, possibly to the point where Yuma now stands. These three men came in contact with the Cocopahs and the Yumas, and possibly with other tribes.

Cabrillo tells of the Indians with whom he held communication. They were timid and somewhat hostile at first, but easily appeased. Some of them, especially those living on the islands (now known as San Clemente, Santa Catalina, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Cruz), were superior to those found inland. They rowed in pine canoes having a seating capacity of twelve or thirteen men, and were expert fishermen. They dressed in the skins of animals, were rude agriculturists, and built for themselves shelters or huts of willows, tules, and mud.

The principal written source of authority for our knowledge of the Indians at the time of the arrival of the Fathers is Fray Geronimo Boscana's Chinigchinich: A Historical Account, etc., of the Indians of San Juan Capistrano. There are many interesting things in this account, some of importance, and others of very slight value. He insists that there was a great difference in the intelligence of the natives north of Santa Barbara and those to the south, in favor of the former. Of these he says they "are much more industrious, and appear an entirely distinct race. They formed, from shells, a kind of money, which passed current among them, and they constructed out of logs very swift and excellent canoes for fishing."

Of the character of his Indians he had a very poor idea. He compares them to monkeys who imitate, and especially in their copying the ways of the white men, "whom they respect as beings much superior to themselves; but in so doing, they are careful to select vice in preference to virtue. This is the result, undoubtedly, of their corrupt and natural disposition."

Of the language of the California Indians, Boscana says there was great diversity, finding a new dialect almost every fifteen to twenty leagues.

They were not remarkably industrious, yet the men made their home utensils, bows and arrows, the several instruments used in making baskets, and also constructed nets, spinning the thread from yucca fibres, which they beat and prepared for that purpose. They also built the houses.

The women gathered seeds, prepared them, and did the cooking, as well as all the household duties. They made the baskets, all other utensils being made by the men.

The dress of the men, when they dressed at all, consisted of the skins of animals thrown over the shoulders, leaving the rest of the body exposed, but the women wore a cloak and dress of twisted rabbit-skins. I have found these same rabbit-skin dresses in use by Mohave and Yumas within the past three or four years.

The youths were required to keep away from the fire, in order that they might learn to suffer with bravery and courage. They were forbidden also to eat certain kinds of foods, to teach them to bear deprivation and to learn to control their appetites. In addition to these there were certain ceremonies, which included fasting, abstinence from drinking, and the production of hallucinations by means of a vegetable drug, called pivat (still used, by the way, by some of the Indians of Southern California), and the final branding of the neophyte, which Boscana describes as follows: "A kind of herb was pounded until it became sponge-like; this they placed, according to the figure required, upon the spot intended to be burnt, which was generally upon the right arm, and sometimes upon the thick part of the leg also. They then set fire to it, and let it remain until all that was combustible was consumed. Consequently, a large blister immediately formed, and although painful, they used no remedy to cure it, but left it to heal itself; and thus, a large and perpetual scar remained. The reason alleged for this ceremony was that it added greater strength to the nerves, and gave a better pulse for the management of the bow." This ceremony was called potense.

The education of the girls was by no means neglected.

"They were taught to remain at home, and not to roam about in idleness; to be always employed in some domestic duty, so that, when they were older, they might know how to work, and attend to their household duties; such as procuring seeds, and cleaning them--making 'atole' and 'pinole,' which are kinds of gruel, and their daily food. When quite young, they have a small, shallow basket, called by the natives 'tucmel,' with which they learn the way to clean the seeds, and they are also instructed in grinding, and preparing the same for consumption."

When a girl was married, her father gave her good advice as to her conduct. She must be faithful to her wifely duties and do nothing to disgrace either her husband or her parents. Children of tender years were sometimes betrothed by their parents. Padre Boscana says he married a couple, the girl having been but eight or nine months old, and the boy two years, when they were contracted for by their parents.

Childbirth was natural and easy with them, as it generally is with all primitive peoples. An Indian woman has been known to give birth to a child, walk half a mile to a stream, step into it and wash both herself and the new-born babe, then return to her camp, put her child in a yakia, or basket cradle-carrier, sling it over her back, and start on a four or five mile journey, on foot, up the rocky and steep sides of a canyon.

A singular custom prevailed among these people, not uncommon elsewhere. The men, when their wives were suffering their accouchement, would abstain from all flesh and fish, refrain from smoking and all diversions, and stay within the Kish, or hut, from fifteen to twenty days.

The god of the San Juan Indians was Chinigchinich, and it is possible, from similarity in the ways of appearing and disappearing, that he is the monster Tauguitch of t

he Sabobas and Cahuillas described in The Legend of Tauguitch and Algoot.[3] This god was a queer compound of goodness and evil, who taught them all the rites and ceremonies that they afterwards observed.

[3] See Folk Lore Journal, 1904.

Many of the men and a few women posed as possessing supernatural powers--witches, in fact, and such was the belief in their power that, "without resistance, all immediately acquiesce in their demands." They also had physicians who used cold water, plasters of herbs, whipping with nettles (doubtless the principle of the counter irritant), the smoke of certain plants, and incantations, with a great deal of general, all-around humbug to produce their cures.

But not all the medicine ideas and methods of the Indians were to be classed as humbug. Dr. Cephas L. Bard, who, besides extolling their temescals, or sweat-baths, their surgical abilities, as displayed in the operations that were performed upon skulls that have since been exhumed; their hygienic customs, which he declares "are not only commendable, but worthy of the consideration of an advanced civilization," states further:

"It has been reserved for the California Indian to furnish three of the most valuable vegetable additions which have been made to the Pharmacopoeia during the last twenty years. One, the Eriodictyon Glutinosum, growing profusely in our foothills, was used by them in affections of the respiratory tract, and its worth was so appreciated by the Missionaries as to be named Yerba Santa, or Holy Plant. The second, the Rhamnus purshiana, gathered now for the market in the upper portions of the State, is found scattered through the timbered mountains of Southern California. It was used as a laxative, and on account of the constipating effect of an acorn diet, was doubtless in active demand. So highly was it esteemed by the followers of the Cross that it was christened Cascara Sagrada, or Sacred Bark. The third, Grindelia robusta, was used in the treatment of pulmonary troubles, and externally in poisoning from Rhus toxicodendron, or Poison Oak, and in various skin diseases."

Their food was of the crudest and simplest character. Whatever they could catch they ate, from deer or bear to grasshoppers, lizards, rats, and snakes. In baskets of their own manufacture, they gathered all kinds of wild seeds, and after using a rude process of threshing, they winnowed them. They also gathered mesquite beans in large quantities, burying them in pits for a month or two, in order to extract from them certain disagreeable flavors, and then storing them in large and rudely made willow granaries. But, as Dr. Bard well says:

"Of the Vegetable articles of diet the acorn was the principal one. It was deprived of its bitter taste by grinding, running through sieves made of interwoven grasses, and frequent washings. Another one was Chia, the seeds of Salvia Columbariae, which in appearance are somewhat similar to birdseed. They were roasted, ground, and used as a food by being mixed with water. Thus prepared, it soon develops into a mucilaginous mass, larger than its original bulk. Its taste is somewhat like that of linseed meal. It is exceedingly nutritious, and was readily borne by the stomach when that organ refused to tolerate other aliment. An atole, or gruel, of this was one of the peace offerings to the first visiting sailors. One tablespoonful of these seeds was sufficient to sustain for twenty-four hours an Indian on a forced march. Chia was no less prized by the native Californian, and at this late date it frequently commands $6 or $8 a pound.

"The pinion, the fruit of the pine, was largely used, and until now annual expeditions are made by the few surviving members of the coast tribes to the mountains for a supply. That they cultivated maize in certain localities, there can be but little doubt. They intimated to Cabrillo by signs that such was the case, and the supposition is confirmed by the presence at various points of vestiges of irrigating ditches. Yslay, the fruit of the wild cherry, was used as a food, and prepared by fermentation as an intoxicant. The seeds, ground and made into balls, were esteemed highly. The fruit of the manzanita, the seeds of burr clover, malva, and alfileri, were also used. Tunas, the fruit of the cactus, and wild blackberries, existed in abundance, and were much relished. A sugar was extracted from a certain reed of the tulares."

Acorns, seeds, mesquite beans, and dried meat were all pounded up in a well made granite mortar, on the top of which, oftentimes, a basket hopper was fixed by means of pine gum. Some of these mortars were hewn from steatite, or soapstone, others from a rough basic rock, and many of them were exceedingly well made and finely shaped; results requiring much patience and no small artistic skill. Oftentimes these mortars were made in the solid granite rocks or boulders, found near the harvesting and winnowing places, and I have photographed many such during late years.

These Indians were polygamists, but much of what the missionaries and others have called their obscenities and vile conversations, were the simple and unconscious utterances of men and women whose instincts were not perverted. It is the invariable testimony of all careful observers of every class that as a rule the aborigines were healthy, vigorous, virile, and chaste, until they became demoralized by the whites. With many of them certain ceremonies had a distinct flavor of sex worship: a rude phallicism which exists to the present day. To the priests, as to most modern observers, these rites were offensive and obscene, but to the Indians they were only natural and simple prayers for the fruitfulness of their wives and of the other producing forces.

J.S. Hittell says of the Indians of California:

"They had no religion, no conception of a deity, or of a future life, no idols, no form of worship, no priests, no philosophical conceptions, no historical traditions, no proverbs, no mode of recording thought before the coming of the missionaries among them."

Seldom has there been so much absolute misstatement as in this quotation. Jeremiah Curtin, a life-long student of the Indian, speaking of the same Indians, makes a remark which applies with force to these statements:

"The Indian, at every step, stood face to face with divinity as he knew or understood it. He could never escape from the presence of those powers who had made the first world.... The most important question of all in Indian life was communication with divinity, intercourse with the spirits of divine personages."

In his Creation Myths of Primitive America, this studious author gives the names of a number of divinities, and the legends connected with them. He affirms positively that

"the most striking thing in all savage belief is the low estimate put upon man, when unaided by divine, uncreated power. In Indian belief every object in the universe is divine except man!"

As to their having no priests, no forms of worship, no philosophical conceptions, no historical traditions, no proverbs, any one interested in the Indian of to-day knows that these things are untrue. Whence came all the myths and legends that recent writers have gathered, a score of which I myself hold still unpublished in my notebook? Were they all imagined after the arrival of the Mission Fathers? By no means! They have been handed down for countless centuries, and they come to us, perhaps a little corrupted, but still just as accurate as do the songs of Homer.

Every tribe had its medicine men, who were developed by a most rigorous series of tests; such as would dismay many a white man. As to their philosophical conceptions and traditions, Curtin well says that in them

"we have a monument of thought which is absolutely unequalled, altogether unique in human experience. The special value of this thought lies, moreover, in the fact that it is primitive; that it is the thought of ages long anterior to those which we find recorded in the eastern hemisphere, either in sacred books, in histories, or in literature, whether preserved on baked brick, burnt cylinders, or papyrus."

And if we go to the Pueblo Indians, the Navahos, the Pimas, and others, all of whom were brought more or less under the influence of the Franciscans, we find a mass of beliefs, deities, traditions, conceptions, and proverbs, which would overpower Mr. Hittell merely to collate.

Therefore, let it be distinctly understood that the Indian was not the thoughtless, unimaginative, irreligious, brutal savage which he is too often represented to be. He thought, and thought well, but still originally. He was religious, profoundly and powerfully so, but in his own way; he was a philosopher, but not according to Hittell; he was a worshipper, but not after the method of Serra, Palou, and their priestly coadjutors.

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