Old California Missions: Force for Good or Evil?

The Autry Museum goes too far down the atrocity-propaganda road.

few weeks ago, I visited the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, in Los Angeles. It astonishes me that I’d never been there, but better late than never. It’s an extraordinary place dedicated to the history and art of the American West and, yes, the museum is named for Gene Autry (1907–1998), the “Singing Cowboy” and movie, radio, and TV star, along with his horse, Champ.

Display of Gene Autry memorabilia at the Autry National Center. (“Display of Gene Autry memorabilia.JPG” by Jllm06 is licensed under CC BY 3.0)

Aside from singing and acting, Autry made a bundle as a rodeo czar, L.A. media magnate, and hotelier, owning the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. “Back In the Saddle Again” is his signature tune, though most Baby Boomers and their juniors remember him for his Christmas carols, among them “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which he wrote and performed.

The museum opened in 1988 with Autry’s collection of cowboy-related art, ephemera, and artifacts and Native American material. It has expanded and deepened to become a scholarly museum specializing in cowboy culture, Anglo conquest and settlement of the West, and Native American art, culture, and history. It’s the country’s top history museum specializing in the American West and a must-visit place.

Does this fruit-crate label hide genocide? (Public domain/via Wikimedia)

I’ll write about two exhibitions I saw and the Autry Museum’s fascinating, indeed trailblazing and transcendent takeover of the nearby Southwest Museum, for which it gets a rousing “whoopi-ti-ay-oh” as it does for its Masters of the American West show. Reclaiming El Camino: Native Resistance in the Missions and Beyond, on the other hand, is a stampede of resentment as well as anti-Christian, fantasist, blinkered, druidical, and dispiriting.

“Whoopi-ti-ay-oh,” for those who’ve never been a cowboy, is the celebratory holler and refrain in “Back in the Saddle Again.” It signals springtime cattle drives, the end of winter, rebirth, and rejuvenation. Reclaiming El Camino is a bludgeon — dark and hopeless, fixated on trauma and aggrievement. What a terrible message for young people to see and hear. It would give Champ cramps.

A critic at work, no .44 in tow. (Photo courtesy of George Andros)

“Back in the Saddle Again” ambles in doggerel meter through “ridin’ the range once more / totin’ my ol’ .44,” sleeping outside every night, “where the longhorn cattle feed / on the lonely jimsonweed,” which is hallucinatory, so there must have been plenty of phantasmagoria on the prairie. Autry wrote and sang hundreds of these tunes, humble, yes, but about big things like work, humanity, love, danger, order, chaos, and loneliness, in a nutshell of a few lines. In another nutshell, Reclaiming El Camino defines the Franciscan priests as tonsured führers running concentration camps. Of course, we Anglos, who rebuilt the missions and made Juniper Serra a hero, are worse.

Installation showing noisy bells and atrocity-propaganda labels. (Photos courtesy of George Andros)

“El Camino” is a car, a Breaking Bad sequel, and Spanish for “the road,” in the Autry’s case the royal road from colonial times that links 21 old Franciscan missions in California. The exhibition — which purports to reclaim the mission story and set people straight — is about ideology. In tossing out terms such as “genocide” and “settler-colonialism,” without scholarship to back them, it’s history Hamas-style, which means it’s cant. In its mission statement, the Autry says it aims to “connect the past with the present to inspire our shared future.” Reclaiming El Camino inspires people to hate one another. Aside from that, the show looks nice, though it’s too wordy and dense with mediocre Native American art. But, of course, the art’s a billboard and propaganda.

Reclaiming El Camino debunks what it calls the “mission myth,” which “conjured notions of the missionaries bringing light and salvation to the Native peoples.” This, we’re told, is false. The mission system led to 100,000 Native deaths. El Camino Real, the royal road, wasn’t the first network for trade, travel, and communication in California — it actually displaced long-standing Native roads.

Natives bitterly resisted Spanish and then American conquest, but all we learn about them in schools and in respected histories is their passivity. California, a state since 1850, is still a racist, colonialist enterprise. Before the genocidal gringos, Natives thrived, lived amid beauty, were at one with the land and sea, had a chicken in every pot, and student loans were forgiven, abortion happened free and on demand, science was real, love was love, no human was illegal, and the Palestinians were free from the river to the sea.

On and on Reclaiming El Camino goes. Curating the exhibition was Deana Dartt, a consultant specializing in decolonization, which aims at “overturning the colonial structure and realizing indigenous liberation.” Our lives as Americans — our political, economic, and social systems — are built, decolonizing ideology supposes, on the subjugation of indigenous people and the exploitation of their land, water, and other resources. Dartt focuses on organizations serving Native Americans materially and, in the case of museums, interpreting their culture and stewarding heritage objects. She coaches them to repent and, of course, pay hush wampum so scolds like her will absolve them of their guilt.

Left: Edward S. Curtis, Desert Cahuilla woman, 1926. (Public domain/via Wikimedia) Right: Pictorial map showing California missions. (Library of Congress/via Wikimedia)

The exhibition first establishes the complexity, richness, spirituality, and self-sufficiency of California’s Native tribes before the Spanish period. Next, it contends that the Spanish incursion starting in the 1500s, with its military, economic, and religious components, destroyed Native systems. By the end of the Spanish period, around the 1820s, coerced conversions and labor, land grabs, extraction of minerals, epidemics, and periodic rebellions reduced Native culture to a beleaguered husk. Spanish economics and Christian rules diminished Native identity. The Mexican regime from 1821 to 1848 was little better, and the worst was yet to come. By valorizing the mission system starting in the 1880s, Californians incorporated mission evils into contemporary culture, read as “everything they do.”

Here are some of the exhibition’s salient points, drawing from the labels.

“We Californians are the beneficiaries of genocide.”

“The starting point of the California Indian genocide began with the arrival of the Franciscan missions and continues today.”

The mission bells were too loud. “Scholars have asserted that this regimenting of time using loud noises is psychologically damaging.”

Indigenous Californians were like slaves held in the South. “Those owning them use them as they please, beat them with clubs and shoot them down like dogs,” with apologies to Kristi Noem’s 14-month-old wirehaired pointer.

“The border patrol” — U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement — “has been a cult of brutality since 1924.”

Parsing this exhibition would take forever. It gives no consideration to authentic conversions. The Franciscans, we’re told, were demonic. “European diseases killed thousands,” we’re told, but these diseases had already killed millions of Europeans. No one knew what caused them or how to treat them.

The show blurs many distinct epochs into one for a 500-year-long orgy of trauma. The mission period in what we call California, for example, lasted, at most, 50 years. The new Mexican regime dismantled them in the 1820s. After the Mexican War ended in 1848, Californian Anglos grappled with the Gold Rush, the Civil War, financial panics, depressions, vast demographic changes, not to mention the Fatty Arbuckle trial. You’d think, walking through the exhibition, that genocide was their primary occupation.

Overlooked, too, is the essential importance of assimilation in the American civic order. The country, the freest and most prosperous in human history, doesn’t work without the universal acceptance of core virtues such as respect for the law, work, the primacy of economic freedom, self-improvement, freedoms of speech and religion, and egalitarianism. People who don’t assimilate get the sharp elbow. Natives, we’re told, couldn’t assimilate even if they wanted to. Native Americans didn’t win full citizenship until 1924, in part because advocates for reservations opposed it, in part because of the Indian wars of the 1880s, in part because they were — and still are — a tiny percentage of the population, and in part, surely, because of the racism and opportunism of greedy yanquis. Imperfectible humanity, you are legion.

By 1900, most of the missions were in ruins. (Public domain/via Wikimedia)

The Mission Revival movement was architectural as well as pedagogical, charming, touristical, and ideological. I don’t see it as erasing California’s Native American tribes, sad to say for Reclaiming El Camino. By the time of statehood, the missions were in ruins. By the 1880s, when Anglo interest in the missions revived, California’s population boomed, with people, many middle-class but some shady and some ornery, from all over the country moving to the state. They might have found a new Promised Land, with perfect weather, palm trees, endless abundance, and good surfing, but what their new home lacked was an origin story.

New York had Dutch market savvy, the one-legged Peter Stuyvesant, and Manhattan for $24 in beads. Boston had Plymouth Rock and the Puritans. Virginia had Pocahontas and “I cannot tell a lie.” Californians got the missions, cleansed of popery, and Father Serra, a benevolent despot, he who must be obeyed, an authority figure and, not insignificantly, an early capitalist. The Natives, it seems to me, were props. The Mission Revival movement wasn’t designed so much to suppress them as to give unmoored gringos a model for good behavior.

One of Reclaiming El Camino’s many problems is that it conflates California’s Natives with Mexicans immigrants, legal and illegal. The histories are very different. Also, in carrying the exhibition to the present, Reclaiming El Camino involves the incendiary politics of immigration, grievance, guilt, and reparations. The Autry is a history museum, not a megaphone for special pleaders on behalf of today’s imbroglios. In pushing the contemporary myths of child separation and “putting people in cages,” it loses credibility.

Nonetheless, I didn’t hate Reclaiming El Camino. The show, moved by anger and resentment, tries to cover too much ground and is extraordinarily strident. To a very limited degree, this is understandable. Most of the old missions, renovated, revered by many, and touted as tourist attractions, have museums that present the church view, which Native groups see as both inaccurate and hagiographic. It makes tribal blood boil. The Autry is giving these groups a chance to tell their version.

I don’t doubt the exhibition’s contention, backed by facts, that the missionaries weren’t all angels or that many Natives, as conquered people, were treated badly. Alas, the past can be very ugly. Ask the Saxons in Kent, the Moors in Spain, the Etruscans in Italy, and the losing tribes in countless wars among our Native Americans.

Reclaiming El Camino comes across as a narcissistic, “look at me, look at me” stab at forcing topics to the foreground in order to fill people — young people especially — with guilt, anger, and a sense of powerlessness, which, of course, is the goal of victim ideology.  That does them no favors. They’re looking to the future. We can’t change what people did 100 or 200 or 300 years ago. History needs to give young people the tools to attain a happy, prosperous future and to be good citizens.

Lobby card for the American drama film Ramona (1928). (Public domain/via Wikimedia)

Thinking about the gold nuggets in the exhibition, and having no investment in glorifying Roman Catholic missions of yore, I would have suggested a sharper focus on Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel. I read it when I was in graduate school and loved it. It was America’s best-selling novel between Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone with the Wind and, at least to me, with a taste for high Romantic drama, it’s a book that ages well. Ramona, half Native and half Scottish, struggles for love and acceptance in a fraught world where bad Anglos, haughty old Spain, colonial aristocrats, and a fast-fading Native culture push and pull.

Reclaiming El Camino explores Ramona too briefly, ignoring its significance — a weighty, original topic — and instead delivering a rant about fruit-crate labels depicting Native stereotypes. What a waste. Another topic worth exploring is how California schools taught the mission story over time and how it’s taught now. The exhibition cries for a scholarly catalogue. It’s the show’s permanent record. Knowing that her points would appear in a book rather than in labels that will be tossed when Reclaiming El Camino closes would insure against hyperbole

Overall, though, I’m impressed with the Autry. Reclaiming El Camino is probably a case of an outside curator — an ideologue and formulaic thinker — running amok. This happens. A savvy museumgoer will realize that he or she is getting played by an agenda and, sorry to say, discount the exhibition’s strong, valid points. Shrill, vain, rancorous, and bloated as it is, the exhibition is worth visiting.

The Autry is a big place, big in square footage, big in the topics it covers, and big in can-do spirit. The Autry Museum and the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles’s oldest museum, merged in 2003, but it’s truer to write that the Autry absorbed its failing peer in an act of institutional kindness — a phenomenon in the world of heritage preservation.

The Southwest Museum, dedicated to Native American culture, opened in 1907 and was based in the Mount Washington neighborhood in L.A. Around 2000, the museum failed, through bad management, no money, a dilapidated building, and no nothin’. I’m sure there’s a cowboy song in this.

The Autry, in an act of heroism, took responsibility for the Southwest Museum’s 400,000-object collection of Native American art and artifacts, the biggest collection after the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian.

It took the Autry 20 years to find a building to store the collection, raise the money to renovate it to meet museum standards, do the needed construction, raise more money, staff the project, and catalogue, debug by freezing, conserve, barcode, pack, move, and store the treasure trove.

I visited the Southwest Museum in the mid ’90s. Its director had just been convicted of embezzlement and theft of art. A beleaguered registrar took me into the vault. Miss Havisham would have cried “what a dump.” A Yankee gentleman, I could only say, “Oh, dear.” The Autry cavalry came to the rescue, no .44s needed.

Left: Maeve Eichelberger, California-Dreamin, UV ink on plexiglas. Right: Brett Allen Johnson, Two-Mountains, oil on linen. (Photos courtesy of the Autry Museum of the American West))

I’m looking forward to my next visit to the Autry to see its new research center, where the Southwest Museum objects live. And in the spirit of accentuating the positive, I loved the Autry’s Masters of the American West exhibition, a group show of contemporary cowboy art and Western landscapes, all for sale. Years ago, a lot of the art at the Whitney Biennial was for sale, with price tags dangling from the frames.

Among the wonderful works, all beautifully arranged, were Maeve Eichelberger’s vinyl sculptures of saddles, landscapes by Matt Smith, Kathryn Stedham, and Brett Allen Johnson, and cowboy scenes by John Abeyta. Variety is the spice of life at the Autry. Masters of the American West is a yearly event promoting the best in Western art today.

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