Sunday, December 30, 2007

"Retired bishop apologizes for mistreating the Miwoks"

On December 26, 2007, the Marin Independent Journal ran a story about what I view as an important moment in the history of relationships between the United States and American Indians. Missionaries and their missions figure prominently in our histories. Religious denominations set up schools and sought to Christianize us. Today, there are many children's books about the missions, especially those in California.

Some years back, I was asked to review a children's book (non-fiction) about the California missions. It was a biased book, devoid of the harsh conditions and brutal treatment of American Indians. In preparing my review, I drew upon Native scholarship on the missions. The review was rejected.

I'm hopeful, therefore, that the event described in the Marin article will be repeated in other churches across the country, and that more people will learn an unbiased history of the missions, and that books about the missions will become more accurate.

You can read the entire story in the Marin paper by clicking here. I am pasting the opening paragraphs below:

You could have heard a pin drop when Bishop Francis A. Quinn, during a Mass at the Church of St. Raphael in San Rafael, apologized to the Miwok Indians for cruelties the church committed against them two centuries ago.

Indians who were present seemed stunned.

The retired bishop, in green brocade robes, lofty miter and carrying a shepherd's crook, lent heart and historical gravitas to the Mass, part of the 190th birthday celebration of Mission San Rafael Arcangel the other day.

Coast Miwok Indians once occupied the lands from the Golden Gate to north of Bodega Bay. When Spanish padres launched the San Rafael mission in 1817, the Indians built it, maintained it and helped it survive, according to anthropologist Betty Goerke, who has studied the Indians for 30 years.

But they paid dearly for their participation. Bishop Quinn conceded that the church authorities "took the Indian out of the Indian," destroying traditional spiritual practices and "imposing a European Catholicism upon the natives."

He conceded that mission soldiers and priests had sexual relations with Indian women and inflicted cruel punishments - caning, whipping, imprisonment - on those who disobeyed mission laws. He acknowledged that the Indians had a "civilization" of their own - one that valued all of nature - long before the Spanish imposed an alien, European-type life upon them.
The article goes on to quote the tribal chair of the Miwoks, Greg Sarris. Sarris is the author of some terrific books (not written for youth), but depending on one's view on what is appropriate, they'd be fine in a high school English class. One is Grand Avenue, and another is Watermelon Nights. I'll leave further discussion of Sarris for another day.

The point of today's post is to ask you to look over books on your shelves---books about the missions, specifically those in California, and consider the content of those books. Does the book gloss over the treatment of Indians? Does it make the mission look like a wonderful thing for the Indians?

Bishop Quinn's apology stands out because the United States government has not yet acknowledged what the Canadian government has acknowledged and apologized for. That is, the history of the boarding and mission schools that were designed to "kill the Indian, save the man."

We are all aware of the sexual abuse experienced by non-Native youth. Nightly news has covered it quite a lot in recent years. In addition to sexual abuse, however, Native people were on the receiving end of a concerted effort, a government-funded effort, a Christian effort to erase Native identity, culture, values, language.

I don't expect that any work of juvenile nonfiction about the mission schools will include description or even mention of sexual abuse. But what do we do with the books full of half-truths (speaking generously)?

And, what will be the impact of Bishop Quinn's apology?


Anonymous said...

Will you consider posting that review here, now that the mainstream publishers no longer have the power to determine who can read it?

Anonymous said...

What's to be done with the books? What we do with any racist propaganda, we weed them out. And we watch for publication of truthful books. That there's nothing in print yet that's truthful is not a reason to keep inaccurate books on the shelf.

africakidandtheworld said...

I'd be interested in seeing your review too. Have you thought about posting it?

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting this.

I too would love to read your review.

Debbie Reese said...

I was asked to write a 60-word review for the Horn Book Guide. That it was being reviewed in the Guide instead of the Magazine (Horn Book's primary journal) is an indicator that the Horn Book editors didn't think well enough of the book to give it space in the Magazine. The book is by Mary Ann Fraser. It's title is A MISSION FOR THE PEOPLE: THE STORY OF LA PURISIMA. Here's what I said:

"Fraser’s benign, relatively sterile treatment of the colonization of indigenous people of California by the missionaries and soldiers of Spain gives short shrift to recent research that indicates this contact was far more brutal and coercive than typically presented. Sidebars of factual information are useful."

I'd have to go through old boxes to find the book now. Sorry (Kathy and africakid) that I took so long to dig up this review. Thanks, skywardprodigal for the prompt.

Anonymous said...

the link to the article is a dead end, here's another link ::)

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, anonymous. I changed the link.