Two hundred years later, ‘Mission Indians’ receive an apology from local Catholic bishop
On the night of Oct. 12, 1812, a small group of Mission Indians conspired to kill Padre Andres Quintana, a priest at Mission Santa Cruz, for his brutal treatment of native people.
A few days earlier, one of the conspirators, an Indian named Donato, was whipped under orders from Padre Quintana with a whip specially fitted with wire at the ends to make it more painful. Another whipping with the new whip was scheduled for the next day, which the conspirators intended to prevent.
One of the more extraordinary records of Mission Indians history is the written transcript of interviews with Lorenzo Asisara, an Indian born at Mission Santa Cruz, collected in the “Reminiscences of Lorenzo Asisara.” This record includes an account of Padre Quintana’s murder as told to Asisara by his father, who was one of the conspirators, recorded 65 years later in 1877. According to Asisara’s father, when captured by the Indians just outside the mission compound on Mission Hill, Padre Quintana pleaded for his life with the question, “What have I done to you children for which you would kill me?” to which one of the Indians responded, “Because you have made a horsewhip tipped with iron.”
Through the eyes of the Spanish colonialists, compared to other missions in Alta California at the turn of the 19th Century, Mission Santa Cruz was not especially successful in garnering a sufficient number of “neophytes” (newly baptized natives) for its workforce.
According to Asisara, treatment of Indians at most missions, regardless of their economic success, was about the same: “The Spanish Fathers were very cruel toward the Indians … They had bad food, bad clothing, and they made them work like slaves. I also was subject to that cruel life. The Fathers did not practice what they preached in the pulpit.”
Fast forward 200 years. On Dec. 22, 2012, the Saturday following the Winter Solstice, a sacred day for many Native Americans, Bishop Richard Garcia of the Diocese of Monterey offered a historic Mass of Reconciliation at Mission San Juan Bautista to the descendents of Mission Indians. The Mass included a resolution of apology to about 200 native Californians in attendance whose ancestors were brutally enslaved, relocated and forced to build the very church in which the Mass was offered.
According to Tribal Chairperson Valentin “Val” Lopez, a retired commander with the California Highway Patrol, the Mass of Reconciliation was the culmination of more than four years of effort by the Tribal Council of the Amah Mutsun to persuade the diocese to recognize the brutal treatment of local Mission Indians. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, whose ancestors originally lived around what is now Gilroy and Morgan Hill, include descendents of the Awaswas tribal group, who were centered around Santa Cruz.
The original inhabitants of the lands the Spanish would name Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Juan Bautista were referred to as the “Ohlone” or “Costanoan” by the Spanish, which Lopez believes is a misnomer for the Amah Mutsun, Awaswas and Quiroste people who lived in these areas. Lopez, who graduated from Live Oak High School, currently resides in Galt, Calif., just south of Sacramento, but his tribal roots are in Santa Cruz County.
With a mixture of sadness and pride, Lopez says that his great-great-grandmother, who passed away in the 1920s and is buried in Watsonville, was the last known native speaker of the Awaswas language.
The family lineage of another Amah Mutsun Tribal Council member includes the last speaker of the Mutsun language. “We are working to relearn our own languages,” Lopez says, “as well as reclaiming our own history. This Mass of Reconciliation is a giant step forward.”
Bishop Garcia outlined the meaning of the Mass of Reconciliation in the following statement for the press: “I believe as a Roman Catholic Bishop that it is necessary to create opportunities for forgiveness, healing, and paths to move beyond our brokenness … [The Mass of Reconciliation] will serve as a time for healing and peace that all of us together may move beyond and walk the path to the light as one.”
In addition to the Mass of Reconciliation, the bishop invited Lopez to speak at an annual “all priest retreat” scheduled for this month, giving Lopez an opportunity to explain Amah Mutsun tribal history to priests throughout the Monterey Diocese, which includes Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz. This is a history that, prior to Bishop Garcia, the church has been “ashamed or embarrassed to talk about,” Lopez says.
“There is a history here [that] the Catholic Church has wanted to deny for many years, so this is really something of a breakthrough in reclaiming our history, and gaining recognition as the survivors of cultural genocide,” Lopez says between cell phone interruptions from other organizers of the event the day before the Mass of Reconciliation. The event included a traditional village-style speaking council and Mutsun tribal dance before the Mass.
Under Lopez’s leadership, the Amah Mutsun Tribal citizenry have become better organized and committed to reclaiming their tribal identity, self-determination, and recognition by the Federal government as a Native American Indian tribe.
“The Federal government terminated its relationship with the Amah Mutsun in approximately 1930,” Lopez wrote in a press release for the Mass of Reconciliation, “an act which, to this day, has yet to be rectified. Because of their lack of federal status, the Tribe currently has no land. Few citizens can afford to live in the area of their ancestors. Many reside in Central Valley communities and will be traveling significant distances for this historic event.”
For Lucio Cloud Ramirez, a Hochunk Indian who recently received a master’s degree in social psychology from UC Santa Cruz, and is currently earning a doctorate in cultural psychology at the University of Michigan, the “dominant narrative” minimizes the history of Indian genocide, and the history of the California mission system as currently taught in grades K-12 is generally “a romanticized notion of what actually happened.”
“Most people today are very uncomfortable with the idea of an American holocaust in their history,” Ramirez says. “But if you’re interested in the contemporary social psychology of American Indians, you have to think about history and historical trauma.”
Martin Rizzo, a doctoral candidate in the History Department at UCSC, is currently writing his dissertation on the indigenous people of Santa Cruz. Rizzo attended the Mass of Reconciliation at San Juan Bautista, and wonders what the event may mean as the Amah Mutsun continue to struggle for federal recognition.
“Reconciliation is great for the Catholic Church, but what does that mean for the U.S. government, which actively paid ‘scalp bounties’ to exterminate Indians in California in the 1850s, and legally allowed kidnapping and sale of Indian children into indentured servitude well into the last century?” Rizzo asks.
Partially in response to another California Indian tribe encroaching on Amah Mutsun territory in an attempt to locate a casino in Hollister back in 2004-5, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band reached out to many government, academic and community partners to recognize and revitalize Mutsun culture through projects, cooperative agreements and research into their local tribal heritage. These include Mutsun language instruction and a Mutsun Speaker Series offered by the Native American Resource Center at UCSC, designation of an archeological site near Pescadero, thought to be a “first contact village,” as a State Cultural Preserve by the California State Parks Commission, and an agreement with the National Park Service to study and preserve native practices in and around Pinnacles National Monument.
For Lopez, the Mass of Reconciliation is not only a very public recognition of historic trauma, it also supports the ongoing quest of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band for self determination and recognition as a legitimate Native American Indian Tribe.
“Perhaps most important,” Lopez says, attendance at the Mass by so many Amah Mutsun Indians “was testament to the fact that we’re still here.”