Indians’ Civilization Before the Missionaries

Lois E. Rumohr, in her letter (April 9) states that the Indians of Father Junipero Serra’s days “never had it so good as they did under the mission system.” And she refers to them as “the lowest form of digger Indian, living in a state of semi-starvation, with no concept of an orderly society in which there was work as well as play and worship.”

I can’t allow the perpetuation of these very wrong ideas without protest.

It was the mission system itself that first disrupted the society which had been in place since 1200 and reduced the California Indians to the dirty, drunken, ragged remnant seen by the Anglos when they arrived. The system took away their land and livelihood, their religion, their language and history and their pride.

In 1770 on the Los Angeles area coastal plain, there were about 5,000 hunter-fisher-gatherers living in permanent villages, a population that attests to the good life they led, which in Southern California with its mild climate has been called “as close to Eden as any place before or since.”


These people, called Gabrielinos, along with the Chumash and Yokuts to the north and the Yumans to the south, had time and leisure after working for subsistance to develop a superb proficiency in basketry, wood and stone carving of utensils and sculpture, inlay work, feather work, games and game-pieces and hunting implements, jewelry and ornaments. They built houses of wood and bark, or wicker and thatch, sweat houses, communal granaries, dance floors and assembly halls, canoes of reeds caulked with tar as well as 12-man sea-going canoes made of steam-bent planks.

They had a complicated family-oriented social structure, an oral history of their origins and a rich inheritance of song, legend and a religion that included astronomy and paintings of dazzling skill and beauty unmatched even today.

They had learned to live without war and had developed trade with neighboring peoples. Part of their religion was bathing and cleanliness and respect for the environment and fellow creatures. They practiced birth control and honored their elders; they chose their leaders, (including some women) by vote of the assembly--in fact they were what we would call enlightened.

All this was gone in less than 70 years, their language and culture lost to the whips and brainwashing of the missionaries, their lives lost to disease and to ethnic suicide--many of them chose to abort their babies and flee to other tribes, abandoning their ancestral homes, rather than to live in slavery.


I am also an artist and have studied the culture of native Americans. I suggest that Lois Rumohr visit the Southwest Museum and read their publications for a different view of the mission story.


Playa del Rey