For whom the bells toll Native tribe seeks to remove mission markers in Santa Cruz

By Andrea Patton

To most casual passersby, the cast iron mission bell markers that are found hanging from shepherd’s hooks throughout California just seem like a nod to well-known state history. Found along highways, in public spaces and in parks, the bells generally don’t arouse questions or consternation. But for members of the Amah Mutsun tribe and other Native peoples, the bells are a painful reminder of the horrific abuses their ancestors suffered within the mission system.

That’s why the Amah Mutsun leaders are meeting with Mayor Martine Watkins and later the City Council to request the removal of two more bells in the city of Santa Cruz, following the removal of the first mission bell on UCSC campus in June.  The Amah Mutsun say that the bells, like Confederate monuments in other parts of the country, are presented as benign historical markers but are in fact deeply political symbols which shape public perception, enshrining distorted visions of the past and obscuring historic crimes.

The two remaining bells in Santa Cruz are at the Mission Plaza on Mission and Sylvar Streets and at the corner of Soquel Avenue and Dakota Street. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is focusing on removing bells within their tribal boundaries, hoping to achieve a domino effect on the removal of bells in surrounding areas such as Monterey, which lies outside their traditional territory just north of the Salinas River.

“These bells are deeply painful symbols that celebrate the destruction, domination and erasure of our people,” said Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “They are constant reminders that our people, and our history, continue to be disregarded to this day.”

Eleanor Castro, a 68-year-old tribal elder who lives in Fresno but is involved in the Amah Mutsun’s Land Trust Stewardship program, said when she was growing up in Gilroy and San Jose, the missions seemed like beautiful, revered places and she felt some connection to them. It wasn’t until 2006 when her father died that she learned she was a surviving member of the Amah Mutsun tribe, and about the role the missions played in decimating Native peoples.

“The bells weren’t really in my consciousness,” she said, “but now they are, because they represent a mission that tried to destroy our people. We were considered animals. We weren’t human beings. So these bells, even if they were put up innocently, people should learn what it represents, and that’s my mission, to teach as much as I can.”

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, collectively referred to by many as Ohlone, are the indigenous peoples of territories ranging from Año Nuevo to the northern half of Monterey Bay and the San Juan Valley. The traditional territory of the Amah Mutsun encompasses all or portions of the modern counties of San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo.

The tribe historically consisted of 20 politically distinct communities that shared cultural practices and tribal traditions as its members occupied the San Juan Valley for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1700s. The Spanish began their colonization of Central California in 1770 when Father Junipero Serra founded Carmel Mission, the second of 21 missions stretching up the coast from San Diego to Sonoma, each within a day’s ride of the next one.

The modern tribe consists of the descendents of indigenous people who survived Missions San Juan Bautista (Mutsun) and Santa Cruz (Awaswas) during the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. In the docuseries Exterminate Them! The California Story, Floyd Redcrow Westerman tells viewers there were approximately 340,000 native people in California when Serra arrived in 1769, and by the turn of the century there were only 17,000 remaining. According to San Juan Bautista Mission records, meticulously kept by priests, more than 19,421 Indians died at that mission alone.

The Amah Mutsun’s history section of their website provides details of their mission experience that are absent from history textbooks and classrooms:

When the Spanish came to Tratrah they conducted a campaign to subjugate the Amah Mutsun. First they invaded the religious shrines of the Amah replacing them with Christian icons. When this was not totally successful, the Spanish soldiers forcibly removed the Indians from their villages and brought them to the Mission compound, separating children from parents. The Amah were considered Mission property upon baptism, and were not permitted to return to their Tribal Lands.

Even the ringing of the mission bell was a painful reminder of the Catholic Church and Spanish state’s domination over every aspect of indigenous people’s lives, calling them to forced labor and compulsory prayer in Latin while kneeling on hard tile floors.

Lopez points out that the missions today bring many millions in annual tourism revenue to the Catholic Church, the state of California and local businesses, while most of the tribes that survived the mission times continue to lack basic resources. “Our tribe owns no land within our territory, and our members struggle with poverty and the impacts of historic trauma.”

The tribe currently has a record of around 600 descendants who are documented by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, although Lopez and Castro say many of the members can’t afford to live in their territory.

Castro was born in Madera. “Our people traveled a lot. They did farm labor and sheared sheep, did whatever they could to feed families,” she said. Her grandfather and uncles were sheep shearers, and her father started out shearing sheep as well, but when she was young, they moved to Gilroy and later San José, where he worked in construction to provide for the family. “We held on as long as we could in San José, but finally had to move to other places.”

When Castro reconnected with the tribe, she brought along her family members. Her nephew now teaches traditional dance, and she regularly speaks at the Native Stewardship Corps events along with Lopez, educating the next generation on their history in talking circles.

“I try to instill that pride in who we are. I try to be there and guide them if they need help,” said Castro. “A lot of our stewards have come from trauma in their young lives. They’re trying to change their life to be better, and along the way I’m there to help them. I tell them my story. It wasn’t good either. It wasn’t an easy life from a young age.

“So I’m there to help them and guide them, and keep them in line,” she said with a chuckle.  “Our ancestors went through a lot, so we try to bring that into their sight and let them know that we can get through this.”

“The bells weren’t really in my consciousness. But now they are, because they represent a mission that tried to destroy our people." Eleanor Castro, tribal elder

The Royal Road

El Camino Real is a 600-mile trail that extends from Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma.

In the 1890s, civic boosters including the Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, who describe themselves as a fraternal and patriotic organization founded on the principles of Love of Home, Devotion to the Flag, Veneration of the Pioneers, and Faith in the Existence of God, coalesced to preserve and mark California’s historical landmarks.

The first bell marker was placed at the Plaza Church in Los Angeles in 1906, with 450 bells later added through the state. Originally conceived by a consortium of developers, automobile promoters and civic boosters seeking to expand tourism and settlement in California, El Camino Real was promoted as a romantic and fanciful vision of a “golden age” of the region’s Californio past.

In 1959 the California State Assembly designated several sections of state highway and connecting roads as the official route of El Camino Real. Caltrans initiated a plan to maintain the system beginning in 1974, when fewer than 100 of the original 450 mission bell markers remained.

In 2000 and 2010, Caltrans received nearly $2 million in federal transportation enhancement grants to fund restoration of the mission bell marker system on El Camino Real from Orange County to Sonoma.

The project of restoring 585 bells along the roadside in the northbound and southbound directions of State Routes 101, 82, 37, 121, and 12 was completed in 2012 under the direction of Keith Robinson, who served as principal landscape architect for Caltrans. “The traveler is reminded of a California before malls, traffic, and blight,” said Robinson in an interview with Digital Journal upon completion of the project. “Just under the pavement is real California history many were unaware of. El Camino Real is ‘The first highway’ in the state.”

Mission bell markers located within the roadside of a state route are maintained by Caltrans. Maintenance of markers located on local streets are the responsibility of the local entity.

The two mission bell markers in Santa Cruz had a different, more recent origin. Spearheaded by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and the California State Automobile Association, the bell at Mission Park Plaza was dedicated on March 8, 1999, and dedicated to the city by the Santa Cruz Women’s Club.

Later, in April 2005, the Santa Cruz City Council accepted a $3,000 grant from the Questers Group to cover the installation of multiple bells, but only one was installed at the corner of Soquel Avenue and Dakota Street in 2006.

"If they don’t want to tell that truth, if they just want the Indians to tell their truth, we have no interest in that." Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

Too little, too late?

At an annual gathering of tribal leaders in Sacramento in June, Governor Gavin Newsom offered an executive order apologizing for California’s history of “violence, maltreatment, and neglect” against Native Americans. Lopez says he is waiting to see how Newsom’s words manifest in action before he accepts the apology.

“Our tribe has had so many phony apologies, so we no longer accept apologies,” Lopez said. “Whenever we hear apologies, we basically hear, ‘Well we apologized, so now will you shut up and stop talking about that brutal history, about the genocide, about the rapes, the murders, the killings and death, and the stealing of the land. Basically it’s an effort to move on and keep the truth behind closed doors.”

What caught Lopez’s attention in Newsom’s apology, however, was the promise of a  tribally-led Truth and Healing Council, and that has Lopez holding onto some hope that this one is different than the others, which for him have fallen short of accepting responsibility for the historic and ongoing trauma inflicted on indigenous peoples.

“The truth and healing can’t just be done by the native people, though,” Lopez said. “The state of California, the Catholic Church, Spain, Mexico, and the American governments — they must tell their truth, and they must do their healing.

“So the call for truth and healing, if that is meant for the Indians to tell their truth and to do their healing, but it does not include the truth of all the perpetrators who are responsible for the destruction and domination of millions of people, of 96 percent of indigenous people in the Americas, if they don’t want to tell that truth, if they just want the Indians to tell their truth, we have no interest in that. We aren’t going to play their game.”

That is the truth-telling that Lopez is looking for — an honest depiction of the missions that accounts for native perspective as well. Lopez believes that the missions should not be a source of pride when it comes to California’s history.

“There’s no pride in genocide. There’s no pride in destroying indigenous people. Hopefully he will understand our call for the mission bells to be removed and he will work to remove all mission bells on California State property,” Lopez said.

The bells, Lopez said, can be melted down to be used for peaceful purposes and whenever possible replaced with appropriate signage that tells an accurate history.

When it comes to reckoning with the history of this region, Lopez remains hopeful. “We have a lot of support in Santa Cruz for this action,” he said.

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Andrea Patton

About Andrea Patton

Andrea grew up in Salinas, moved to Ohio to teach high school English and journalism, and returned to Santa Cruz where she wrote for Good Times and taught at Cabrillo College. An avid traveler, she currently resides in Seattle.