Environmental Justice

Indigenous Educators Fight for an Accurate History of California

April 30, 2019

This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on April 19, 2019

Gregg Castro first roamed the Santa Lucia Mountains at the age of 8, going out with his father to hunt deer and wild pigs in the fall, when the oak trees and manzanita bushes turn gold and the famously blue California skies go gray.

Rising along the central California coast, the Santa Lucias are dotted with pines and redwoods and home to rattlesnakes, bobcats and, some say, the ghost of a headless woman — a settler who died crossing a creek in the 1800s. The tallest peak in the range, Junipero Serra, is more than a mile above sea level, and caves and grottos can be found throughout the region, many of them used by Castro’s Salinan ancestors on trips to and from the Pacific Ocean. The mountains are also home to Mission San Antonio de Padua, one of the 21 Catholic outposts Spain built in the late 1700s to establish a colonial foothold here and convert Indigenous people to Christianity.

During winter, on the way to Jolon, California, when the rains came and it was cold, Castro remembers his dad turning up the heat in his old Chevy truck and rolling down the windows. The scent of oaks, rock rose and willow floated into the truck — the “Jolon smell,” Castro calls it, the smell of home.

It was a long drive between the mountains and the city of San Jose, where the family lived at the time, so Castro’s dad would often stop and camp near Mission San Antonio de Padua. That made for an earlier hunting day and gave them a chance to linger in their traditional homeland, where his dad felt comfortable. After dinner, as the campfire died and sunset neared, Castro would wrap himself in his favorite green coat to ward off the mountain valley evening chill and explore the mission’s gardens and tiled walkways.

San Antonio de Padua was built in 1771, but by World War II, the mission was in ruins: Tiles were falling from the roof, and looters stole paintings and other valuables from the interior. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the Hearst Foundation donated money to begin renovating the crumbling building. A volunteer-run gift shop was opened to peddle rosaries and self-published books about the mission.

In the 1950s, after renovations were complete, visitors could wander into the chapel and see statues of saints and pictures of the Virgen de Guadalupe on the stucco walls. They could see the simple wooden pews that still filled the church and, outside, the stones once used to grind grain, and then wander through the Spanish-style garden with its large gray fountain, rose bushes and lemon trees that glowed in the California sun. Tour guides typically avoided the darker details of its history, of course, such as the 4,000 Salinan tribal members buried in a mass grave about 500 feet from the church — their deaths and disposal a final reward for their work in building the mission. At 9 years old, Castro first saw the burial site and its marker: A crudely made sign, better suited for a spaghetti Western, that just read “Indian Graves.”

“My parents would say they ‘got sick and passed away,’ ” recalls Castro. “Euphemisms. These ways of blunting the terrifying truth of it: That they died by the thousands building these missions.”

Tour guides typically avoided the darker details of its history, of course, such as the 4,000 Salinan tribal members buried in a mass grave about 500 feet from the church — their deaths and disposal a final reward for their work in building the mission.

Less than 70 miles from here, thousands of tourists enjoy the iconic views of Big Sur. But Mission San Antonio de Padua still casts a pall over the Santa Lucia Mountains. In the wake of its construction, thousands of members of the Salinan tribe and other Indigenous people died of hunger, violence and slavery. Sacred sites were destroyed. Traditional foods were forcibly replaced by European staples, such as cattle. When the Mexican government took control of the region, Indigenous people were massacred to fulfill the Spanish land grants promised to colonists. Then the Americans came.

As Castro grew up, that history eluded him, much as it would escape me. In school, there was no mention of the Chumash, the Esselen, Ohlone, Salinan or other tribes that once thrived on the very grounds we played kickball on. There were no lessons on the places important to us, like the Wagon Cave or Morro Rock, which my grandmother and I visited when I was a child. We learned in school that there were no Indians left. No Chumash near the town of Shell Beach, or Salinan near the town of Templeton where I spent my elementary school years; we were extinct. At home, our grandparents were tight-lipped, and often bitter, about our family histories.

Castro remembers his dad telling him, “Know who you are and be proud of it, but don’t tell anyone.” That was the fear talking — fear passed down from parents and grandparents who remembered when it was still legal to kill Indians in California.

Ever since he found the graveyard at Mission San Antonio de Padua, Castro has carried an image in his head — one of Native bodies stacked like firewood. Mission tours rarely mention this history, but even more troubling is the fact that California’s public schools don’t teach it, despite a 2017 law that requires them to do so.

Assembly Bill 738, the Native American curriculum model, was sponsored by Democrat Monique Limón, a former school board member from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and passed with strong bipartisan support. “This bill would require the commission to develop, and the state board to adopt, modify, or revise, a model curriculum in Native American studies,” the legislation reads.

However, that requirement doesn’t come with funding for training, development, or even textbooks, leaving teachers with a difficult choice: Comply with the law on their own dime, or continue to downplay or ignore the atrocities committed against Indigenous people by settlers and colonists in the foundation of what is currently California.

In other words, the Golden State understands that it has a problem with what it’s teaching its children. It just isn’t doing much about it.

Today, Castro, a communications technician, activist and writer, has banded together with other educators to say they’ve had enough.

Max Rafferty was stern, clean-cut and had a face that conveyed a strict, no-nonsense personality. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he served as a superintendent of a small school district in Southern California, a nobody by most accounts. But in 1961, everything changed when he delivered his fiery speech, “The Passing of the Patriot.”

A conservative sermon of sorts delivered at La Cañada School in the northeast suburbs of Los Angeles, “The Passing of the Patriot” won numerous awards and was reprinted in Readers Digest, not usually seen as an influential magazine but one that was read by Rafferty’s core audience — conservative, white and middle-class.

A product of the California politics that later brought Ronald Reagan to power as governor in 1967, Rafferty’s speech blasted educators for failing to teach schoolchildren “traditional values,” lamenting that the youth were losing their way due to “morally unfit teachers” and that “youngsters were growing up to become booted, sideburned, duck-tailed, unwashed, leather-jacketed slobs, whose favorite sport is ravaging little girls and stomping polio victims to death.” After his performance at the La Cañada School, Rafferty’s image as a conservative firebrand was cemented.

In 1962, Rafferty ran for state superintendent of public instruction, the first year the job was an elected rather than appointed position, and won by 200,000 votes. It was the perfect opportunity for Rafferty to infuse California’s school system with his conservative values.

“If it is ugly to teach children to revere the great Americans of the past, to cherish the traditions of our country, to hate communism and its creatures, then I say let’s be ugly.”

California, like much of the country, was undergoing turbulent times. In the 1960s, college campuses became focal points of protests against the Vietnam War, even as the Civil Rights movement threatened to overturn established institutions — something Rafferty virulently disapproved of. Speaking on television and through a weekly newspaper column, he pushed back against anti-war protesters and condemned what he saw as violence on campus. He opposed teacher strikes in the 1970s, fought sex education, and advocated against legislation designed to provide fair housing or busing to better integrate schools. In his 2010 essay “Standing Up to Sugar Cubes,” Louisiana State professor Zevi Gutfreund asserts that under the Rafferty administration, schools were prodded to restore “traditional values” in the classroom by creating patriots steeped in the values of great American leaders like Andrew Jackson and George Washington. “Education during the last three decades has deliberately debunked the hero,” Rafferty once said. “If it is ugly to teach children to revere the great Americans of the past, to cherish the traditions of our country, to hate communism and its creatures, then I say let’s be ugly.”

To create an educational experience unique to the Golden State, Rafferty chose to extol the virtues of the region’s early settlers. The most prominent “leader” was Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar from Mallorca, Spain, often described as the “founding father of California.”

Serra arrived in what is currently Mexico in 1749. After a few years of mission work, as well as a stint with the Spanish Inquisition, he made his way north to what was then known as “Alta California” to spread the Catholic faith. Most accounts and scholarly work about Serra characterize him as practicing a faith that was downright medieval compared to his Franciscan contemporaries; he eschewed modern comforts like beds and refused to wear shoes, even when traveling the rugged terrain of Mexico or the Californian deserts, even when injured.

To purify his spirit, he punished himself, often practicing self-flagellation with a chain of sharp iron links when “sinful thoughts” entered his mind. His time with the Inquisition deepened his intolerance of “Indian superstitions,” fueling a propensity for violence; he administered beatings, whippings and torture to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous men and women who refused to work or accept Christian teachings.

At the age of 54, Serra left Mexico to oversee the building of what would later be California’s 21 Catholic outposts. With the help of Spanish soldiers, he enslaved Indigenous people in order to aid in construction. “The treatment shown to Indians is the most cruel I have ever read in history,” wrote Padre Antonio de la Concepción Horra, an eyewitness to Serra’s actions. “For the slightest things they receive heavy floggings, are shackled and put in stocks and treated with so much cruelty that they are kept whole days without a drink of water.”

Textbooks paint a rosy picture of the time by depicting Indigenous people as “grateful Indians” receiving the Christian message. In 2015, Serra was canonized by Pope Francis despite an outcry from Indigenous scholars and activists.

But even as Max Rafferty worked to instill patriotic pride in California students, others made it their life’s work to teach a more accurate history.

Rupert Costo, born in 1906, was a Cahuilla Indian educator, writer and activist who grew up on the Cahuilla Reservation near Coachella Valley and in Anza in the Imperial Valley. In 1851, his uncle was one of the signers of treaties that promised California Indians a land base in exchange for land given to settlers. (The treaties were never ratified.) Costo himself played football in his college days at Whittier.

Two years after Rafferty took charge of the public education system, Costo and his wife, Jeannette, formed the American Indian Historical Society, or “the Society” for short. They also began the Indian Historian Press, which published Jack Norton’s Genocide in Northwestern California as well as the Native newspaper Wassaja. The occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 is often framed as the first time an intertribal effort sparked social change, but Rose Soza War Soldier, professor of ethnic studies at Northern Arizona University and a member of the Soboba band of Luiseño Indians in Southern California, contends that The Society rightly deserves credit: It coordinated Indian educators and activists across California to force public officials like Rafferty to listen to Native people. The Society reflected “a broad diversity of Indians living in California,” wrote Soza War Soldier. “Individuals from the Blackfoot, Maidu, Navajo, Ohlone, Paiute, Pueblo, Inupiat, Yakima, and Yurok tribes also contributed during the formative early years of the organization.”

“There is not one Indian child who has not come home in shame and tears after one of those sessions in which he is taught that his people were dirty, animal-like, something less than a human being.”

“There is not one Indian in the whole of this country who does not cringe in anguish and frustration because of these textbooks,” Costo said during his 1968 testimony in San Francisco to the Special Subcommittee on Indian Education. Costo made these remarks after his involvement with the California Curriculum Commission. “There is not one Indian child who has not come home in shame and tears after one of those sessions in which he is taught that his people were dirty, animal-like, something less than a human being.”

Despite Rafferty’s deeply conservative views, the 1960s put pressure on him, especially when it came to history textbooks. As Soza War Soldier wrote, “He appeared indecisive with the process of integrating history textbooks, wavering between wanting fact based history and a desire for a mythical history promoting absolute patriotism.” In his weekly column in the Los Angeles Times, Rafferty described illustrations of African Americans and Mexican Americans as a cause for concern due to depictions of “barefooted, bandana wearing plantation hands or as Olympic athletes” wearing “sandals and serapes,” concluding that such “racial oversimplifications do considerable harm.”

For their part, the Costos had long bemoaned the lack of accurate representation in California textbooks. In 1965, the couple contacted Rafferty and asked to be advisers to the California Curriculum Commission, one of three bodies that oversee education in the state. Rafferty agreed.

Becoming advisory members on the curriculum commission was a big deal: It meant the Costos could exert influence over the state’s multimillion-dollar textbook industry. Contracts with publishers meant mandatory, statewide sales of books to schools, and the American Indian Historical Society used that power to push textbook writers to correct misinformation and stereotypes by rejecting books and contracts.

Helen Bauer’s 1954 text, California Gold Days, was roundly rejected due to its framing of gold miners as heroes and Indians as ruthless savages crouched behind bushes waiting to attack guileless pioneers. “The romantic aura now adhering to the gold miner should be closely examined by scholars and teachers,” wrote the Costos. “Above all, this romance attaching to the gold miners ought to be shredded away by the truth.”

The Society successfully removed an image of two Narragansett Indians scalping a swooning white woman from one textbook on American colonial history. In the book Land of the Free, the sentence “For an even longer time, Indians were treated as though they were children and were not allowed to vote,” was changed to “For an even longer time, Indians were unjustly treated as ‘incompetents.’ They were not allowed to vote.” Small changes, yes, but important ground the Costos fought for, word by word, year by year.

They even devised a role-playing game for fourth graders called “It Happened in California, You Are There.” In the game, students pretended to be California Indians who were captured, forced to live with missionaries and given four choices: Run away, because the guards were not always watching; organize a revolt; accept what has happened to you and do the best you can; or poison the missionary. Students were reminded that they were not armed and that the Spaniards had guns, then encouraged to discuss their choices among themselves. The game was never implemented in classrooms, however.

A fourth-grade history book called The Story of California ended the Society’s relationship with Rafferty and the California Curriculum Commission. Costo called the book’s portrayal of Indians “biased” and said the pictures were “degrading.” Nonetheless, 300,000 copies were ordered, prompting the Costos to resign.

But they continued fighting. After they ended their involvement with the California Curriculum Commission, they founded the Institute for Teachers, an alternative school for educators. The idea was to work outside the system and train teachers, rather than put pressure on the California Curriculum Commission. “When you teach our youth that Columbus discovered America in 1492, you are teaching the history of a European development which took place in this land,” said Costo. “You are not teaching the history of America.”

In 1968, Max Rafferty lost a bid for a state Senate seat. Two years later, he lost his job as superintendent of public instruction to Wilson Riles — the first African American to be elected to a statewide office in California. Rafferty was killed in a car accident in Alabama in 1982. Today, the University of California, Riverside has a professorial chair named after Costo. 

Monique Limón, who today represents District 37 in the California State Assembly, remembers her time on the Ventura County school board.

She’d seen a language dictionary created by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash that was given to local libraries. She realized schools weren’t doing enough to promote the history that was in their backyard. “One of the important things that California has is a rich Native American history,” said Limón.

When she got to the Legislature, she started having more conversations about Native American studies with her colleagues and people in the California Department of Education. She wanted to make changes, and she wanted to do it in collaboration with tribes.

“It’s also one that differs from region to region,” she said. “So having an approach or models where you see local communities work with their local school is really beneficial to enriching that curriculum.”

What do you do when you’re an assembly member with a passion for learning and education? You sponsor a bill. That’s how California Assembly Bill 738 came to be.

The bill requires the state’s Instructional Quality Commission to “develop, and the state board to adopt, modify, or revise, a model curriculum in Native American studies.” Hoping to ensure quality courses in Native American studies, lawmakers also voted for the curriculum to be developed “with participation from federally recognized Native American tribes located in California, California Native American tribes, faculty of Native American studies programs at universities and colleges with Native American studies programs, and a group of representatives of local educational agencies, a majority of whom are kindergarten to grade 12, inclusive, teachers who have relevant experiences or education backgrounds in the study and teaching of Native American studies.”

If you don’t understand Legislature-speak, that means AB 738 wants to ensure that students today aren’t learning what students in the Rafferty era learned with regard to California Indians.

The bill passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in 2017. But there’s one problem: The work to make it a reality in the classroom won’t really begin for another three years.

Limón said the Department of Education must first develop the curriculum, then present it to the state’s more than 1,000 school districts to figure out how to implement it in the classroom. That’s a slow process that can take years.

A model of the Mission San Diego de Acalá, produced by a fourth-grade social studies class studying the mission curriculum. (David Lofink cc via Flickr)

Scott Roark, the communications officer for the California Department of Education, says the State Board of Education will not take action on any kind of guidelines until March 2022, though “focus groups are being implemented right now to review the framework.” It’s unclear whether those focus groups will include Native American educators or tribal members.

“Future development of the model curriculum will include (1) participation of faculty of Native American studies programs from institutions of higher education and (2) representatives of Local Educational Agencies (LEAs), a majority of whom are K–12 teachers, with experience in the study or teaching of Native American studies,” Roark wrote in an email.

But even if everybody was in full agreement about what changes need to be made, the state has not provided funding to make it happen.  

Two of the administrators in charge of implementing this new framework acknowledge that there has been little emphasis until now put on history. Tom Adams, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, said he and others in the Department of Education have good intentions.

“What we also want people to know is that the California Native American population was there prior to the mission, and they have their own history in of itself and it shouldn’t be just centered around the mission,” said Adams.

Stephanie Gregson, director of the Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division of the Department of Education, says the department has obtained input from listening sessions with tribes throughout the state. She is quick to note that they’re trying to introduce more critical thinking, asking questions like, “Why were the Spanish here?” and “Who was here before?” and “Why were the missions built?”

“What we also want people to know is that the California Native American population was there prior to the mission, and they have their own history in of itself and it shouldn’t be just centered around the mission.”

But officials who work with teachers on how to actually teach a new curriculum say it’s difficult because there is no oversight. The state can pass legislation laying out a new framework that instructs school districts to teach more accurate history and encourages students to ask more critical questions, but lawmakers don’t know if the teachers are actually implementing it.

Mae Chaplin, an assistant professor in the teaching credentials department at Sacramento State, says that teachers often have a fear of history because they feel they lack the content knowledge they need in order to teach it well.

“They simply don’t know much about California Indian history unless they happen to take a course in college,” Chaplin says.

According to a recent report by First Nations Development Institute, “It is no surprise that non-Natives are primarily creating the narrative about Native Americans. And the story they adopt is overwhelmingly one of deficit and disparity.” The report continues by saying the “biased and revisionist history” taught in school leads to the invisibility of Native people. Between 2011 and 2012, nearly 87 percent of state history failed to cover Native American history after 1900. And 27 states did not specifically mention Native people in their curriculum at all.

Just like students in Max Rafferty’s day, children exposed to inaccurate curricula now will one day be running for public office — whether for the Board of Education or president of the United States.

Gregg Castro takes a break to show some of the curriculum materials endorsed by the California Indian History Curriculum Coalition. (Photo by Scott Braley)

Gregg Castro and Rose Borunda, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, and other educators and activists formed the California Indian History Curriculum Coalition in 2014. Much like Rupert and Jeanette Henry Costo, who founded the American Indian Historical Society, Castro and his peers are tired of seeing California’s history books ignore Indigenous people and gloss over the Golden State’s ongoing relationship — and violent history — with the land’s first people. And much like his forebears, Castro is taking a grassroots approach to create regionally and culturally specific curricula.

Borunda says that she and others in the coalition are part of a national movement to put more emphasis on a more accurate history of Native Americans for both elementary and high school students. She points to the state of Washington as a model for how to teach Native history. The curriculum called “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State” has been endorsed by the 29 tribal nations in the state. It asks thought-provoking questions, such as, “What is the legal status of tribes who negotiated or who did not negotiate settlement for compensation for the loss of their sovereign homelands?” and “What were the political, economic, and cultural forces consequential to the treaties that led to the movement of tribes from long established homelands to reservations?”

“The focus is connecting students to the geography of this place, making them feel more connected to land and water,” says Sara Marie Ortiz, a citizen of New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo, who worked closely with the Muckleshoot Tribe and with students in the Highline Public School District, just south of Seattle. Muckleshoot is a close partner in creating “Since Time Immemorial” with the school system.

“The focus is connecting students to the geography of this place, making them feel more connected to land and water.”

“Since Time Immemorial” does exactly what California’s AB 738 was designed to do.

“Relationship-building is everything,” Ortiz explained. “It has to live in your heart and mind as a teacher.” She says that educators in her district are always asking speakers to visit the classroom and that the principals have been very supportive.

“My perspective is (educators) want to tell the mission story better, for one, and the period of colonization better, but also kind of take that story further into the 20th and 21st century,” says Khal Schneider, a Graton Rancheria tribal citizen, professor and member of the coalition. “I think there’s been an interest in recent years and a lot of attention paid to what happens to California once it becomes an American state.” Before, he says, California Indians’ only role in history education was that of dutiful servants of the mission system — and that’s where their story ended.

Castro and others say they’re happy the California Department of Education wants to teach accurate Indigenous history, but he’s not so sure teachers, districts and those in charge are ready to give kids in public schools the full story of what happened in the missions, or to discuss their lingering emotional and political impacts on California Indians. In his opinion, children can handle difficult truths; it’s the parents who have a problem. He’s heard from parents who said they knew the true history of the missions, but still wanted their child to learn the old way — by reading inaccurate textbooks and doing school projects, things like building models of missions from popsicle sticks. It’s willful ignorance, he says. “That’s what makes it harder than dealing with the out-and-out racism.”

While the state’s origin story should be a part of children’s education, Castro says that shouldn’t be the end of it. One section of the curriculum, which was created by the Winnemem Wintu, teaches the importance of salmon runs and the meaning of place. Another piece from the Kumeyaay examines the cultural and environmental stewardship projects the tribe is working on, while the Ohlone and Yokut have developed a pre-contact map of California tribes for students.

From the gold rush to state-sponsored genocide, from unratified treaties to the economic and political influence of tribal nations today, the coalition is determined to educate the next generation of Californians. This summer, educators and activists will converge to discuss lesson plans and fine-tune curricula. Castro says he’s invited the California Department of Education. As of publication, he hasn’t received a response.

Castro’s father passed away several years ago, but he still remembers the chilly air and the smell of smoke as the sun set on the Santa Lucias after those childhood hunting trips. Today, he leads school tours out at Mission San Antonio, and the dry grass cracks and rustles under his feet when he guides students to the wall where some of his ancestors are buried.

Catholicism has always been part of his life, he says, despite the history. His mom taught Sunday school and his grandfather hosted catechism classes, though he never became Catholic. In Castro’s eyes, his mom accepted the church because she saw the similarities between Salinan values and Christian teachings: generosity, kindness, taking care of others. His dad had those values too, Castro says, but unlike his mother, his father never forgave the church.

Castro and I share some of the same history. My relatives lived in these valleys, too; they hunted and traveled to the Pacific Ocean. An adobe house, now called “The Indian’s Adobe,” a protected historical site, is nestled among the hills of Las Padres National Forest, its gardens hidden away from hunters and nature enthusiasts who want to explore a place where “Indians lived.” Perfecta Encinales, one of my ancestors, lived in this house. More than 10 years ago, under the close supervision of park rangers, I visited the home. Pete Zavalla, one of the few Native American employees at Los Padres, showed me the deer grass and tule reeds growing near the house — reeds my family used for making baskets generations before. It was hot and windy as we walked along a small trail near an apple orchard. When we returned to the adobe house, a cool breeze drifted by. Zavalla remarked that this would have been the same breeze that Encinales felt more than a century ago. 

About the Author

Allison Herrera is Xolon Salinan from the Central Coast of California and reports for PRI’s The World. Follow her on Twitter @alisonaher