Student Opinion: Listen To Native Americans, Take Down Mission Bells

By Kayla Ngai

 

What do missionary bells represent in our history? “The California missions began in the late 18th century” according to History.com, “as an effort to convert Native Americans to Catholicism and expand European territory.

 

Missions were developed to erase Native American culture and force Native Americans to conform to the rule of the Europeans. KION 5/46 news explained that the missions enslaved thousands of indigenous people, treated them brutally and caused the death of 150,000 people. The bells of the mission became a symbol of native trauma.

 

In my opinion, due to our grave history associated with the missionary bells and the treatment of indigenous people, additional missionary bells should not be established and we should work for the removal of the bells already in place.

 

Gilroy, California announced that a new replica mission bell would be erected this month despite opposition. According to abc7, the Gilroy City Council approved the bell as a gift to the city in September 2020 for its 150th anniversary commemorating the El Camino Real route. Last week, many people spoke at a Gilroy City Council meeting expressing their outrage over the bell. During this meeting, it was put to a vote whether the installment of the missionary bell would be put back on the agenda and able to be revisited, but the motion was rejected four (including the mayor) to three. 

 

One of the council members that voted for revisiting the issue of the missionary bell, Zach Hilton, announced his support for the removal of missionary bells and is one of the major advocates. However, the plan for the bell is still ongoing and being manufactured as most of the council will not listen to the public outcries.

  

Indigenous communities, such as the Amah Mutsun tribal band, called for action. Valentin Lopez, the chair of the Amah Mutsun tribe, had declared that “The day after that bell goes up, we will then start our campaign to have that bell removed.”

 

In addition to the horrible history associated with mission bells, this particular bell is a replica, and holds “no historical value, and is actually being manufactured.” There should be no deliberation, the bell should not be put up. 

 

From my experience, mission bells will not be missed. I do not know anyone who would pass by a bell and admire the history it symbolizes. Especially if the bell is placed on “busy Monterey street” as stated in this by abc7 news, nobody is going to stop to look. The bell brings nothing but harm to the community. It proves that indigenous voices are being continually silenced and as Lopez states, “the City Council obviously doesn’t get it.”

 

“This is a great example of a gift that doesn’t mean the same to everybody,” Councilmember Hilton said. Missionaries along with their bells have a long history in California, but we need to recognize that there is pain that missionaries caused still being felt in communities today. They are a representation of how terribly indigenous people have been treated and a reminder of our colonial past. 

 

In elementary school, I had a field trip to Mission San Francisco and the guide mentioned that the area that everyone stood on were the graves of many indigenous people. In fact, there weren’t enough graves, so bodies were packed on top of each other. His words remain stark in my memory. 

 

There needs to be more consideration for the different cultures and histories that make up our nation. A bell was already taken down in Santa Cruz in 2019 which sets a precedent for future bells to be removed, as mentioned in this article. We, as a diverse community, should work together to understand Native Americans and their concerns towards the installation of new missionary bells, and aid in the dismantling of older bells. 

 

About The Author

Jordan Varney received a masters from UC Davis in Psychology and a B.S. in Computer Science from Harvey Mudd. Varney is editor in chief of the Vanguard at UC Davis.

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42 Comments

  1. Keith Olson

    I doubt the mission bells enslaved anyone.  What’s next, all church bells must be removed because it reminds some woke activist of a mission bell.  There’s always someone somewhere that is offended by everything.  This needs to stop.

      1. Keith Olson

        I remember a poll where 9 out of 10 Native Americans were not offended by the name “Redskins” being used by a football team much less even for the names of “Braves”, “Indians” and “Chiefs” being used by other teams.

        1. David Greenwald

          That was a 2016 Washington Post POll.

          On the other hand, a lot of the polls suffer from serious methodological problems.

          One that fixed it found very different results: “The problem of self-identification was addressed by Native American scholars. An alternative method to standard opinion polls was used by the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino. A survey was conducted of 400 individuals, with 98 individuals positively identified as Native Americans, finding that 67% agreed with the statement that “Redskins” is racial or racist. The response from non-natives was almost the opposite, with 68% responding that the name is not racist”

          Not that I think we should be basing our morality on polling, at one point over 90 percent of Americans were against interracial marriage, so I guess anti-miscegenation laws were okay.

        2. Keith Olson

          So I cherrypicked a poll and you answer with a cherrypicked poll.  This could on for awhile.

          A question for you?  Should we cancel everything associated with Comanches?  After all they were very brutal to other tribes back then.

          In order to appreciate just how powerful and warlike the Comanches were at their height, you have to consider the fact that they came very close to wiping out several other Indian tribes. The Native Americans who resisted the expansion of the United States into the Midwest weren’t a single culture. They were a diverse group of separate nations that shared many cultural ties and traditions.

          And as NPR explains, the Comanches were particularly aggressive against their fellow Native Americans—and particularly effective at killing them. They systematically pushed all the other tribes off the central plains, forcing them to find new lands to live on. In fact, as author S.C. Gwynne writes, the Comanches came very close to literally wiping out the entire Apache Nation, savagely defeating them in a series of conflicts that saw the desperate Apaches beg the Spanish for protection, and several large tribes within the Apache Nation simply disappeared as a result.

          But it wasn’t just the Apaches. The Comanches inflicted severe damage on the Pawnees, the Osages, the Blackfeet, the Kiowas, and the Tonkawas, driving them off their traditional lands and killing thousands of their people. By 1750, the Comanches had total control of the plains, and other Native American Nations respected their borders.

          As a result, the Comanches evolved into a force of violence that no one could withstand. They waged war on everyone who came into contact with them—and usually won. One reason for this success was their brutality. A Comanche raid was a terrifying affair. All male enemies would be killed, without exception—even if they surrendered. Older children would be killed as well. Young children would be taken captive, and the women would be sexually assaulted and killed. The Comanches waged Total War long before the United States.

          https://www.grunge.com/265660/comanche-the-most-powerful-native-american-tribe-in-history/#:~:text=The%20Comanche%20nearly%20destroyed%20several%20other%20tribes%20Wikimedia,close%20to%20wiping%20out%20several%20other%20Indian%20tribes.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            “A question for you? Should we cancel everything associated with Comanches? After all they were very brutal to other tribes back then.”

            I’ve never said we should *cancel* anything. Is there a statue of the Comanche leader at the state capitol? Do we celebrate Comanche day? What exactly would be canceled under your hypothetical?

        3. Keith Olson

          These for starters:

          Comanche County

          Comanche helicopter

          Jeep Comanche

          Comanche Red River Casino

          Comanche County Memorial Hospital (Now if Sutter Hospital is unacceptable then…)

          Comanche Peak Nuclear Plant

          1. David Greenwald

            You’ve missed a key point in this discussion – I don’t favor cancellation whatever that means. I favor as I stated presenting history in its proper context. I think that can address the concerns laid out here without removing history.

            In addition, you’re trying to draw a comparison between the brutal ways of a Native people to the act of genocide, which I think is wholly improper.

    1. Bill Marshall

      all church bells must be removed because it reminds some woke activist of a mission bell.

      Or better yet, there would be those, not me, who would immediately ban Catholics, appropriate all properties, remove all tax exemptions, and turn over the proceeds to others.

      The inconvenient fact is that the missionaries, while not perfect, mitigated to a significant degree what would have transpired had the padres not been part of the mix…

      Might as well remove all signs/monuments, and ban everyone, of Spanish, Russian, European (non-spanish) origin.  The three races who abused the indigenous folk the most…

  2. Todd Edelman

    Wow, imagine the reaction if there were “Arbeit Macht Frei” signs all over California. OK, that specific meme is a bit out of context here, but it would obviously not be allowed in Germany or Poland, etc.

    There’s nothing quaint about this. As this is a representation of a horrid statewide system, we should have a state law designed to deal with things like it. It’s obviously not for me to decide the details, but it would apply to the ‘Bells and also – obviously everything named after Sutter, the Swiss-German Slaver.

    I’m not clear if the ‘Bells should be replaced with something, e.g. Universal Basic Income.

    1. Keith Y Echols

      Jeeze!  you want to go through and scrub history clean?  Can’t we acknowledge our history “warts and all” with the idea of using these things that remind of us of our history as benchmarks and reminders to be better going forward?

      1. David Greenwald

        There are multiple ways of course to do that.  One problem I think I have if we see Missions up and down the state and many people see them as neutral and even benevolent and there is no real counterbalance to that.  As the article points out, Missions weren’t enacted for benevolent reasons, they were instruments of subjugation and cultural appropriation.  But the display of them now whitewashes that.

        1. Keith Y Echols

           they were instruments of subjugation and cultural appropriation. 

          So was the Tower of London (William the Conqueror built it to keep the London English inline).  Yet the English stuck their crown jewels there for display.  Good or bad; the Missions and I guess their bells are a significant part of the historical culture that spread across California.  I’d say the Catholic-Mexican culture in California considers it’s significance important.

          Why are we so sensitive and afraid to acknowledge the bad stuff in our history?  Often the good and the bad are all mixed together…in history and life.  Take the good and acknowledge and do better about the bad going forward.  It’s all so divisive these days.

          1. David Greenwald

            “Why are we so sensitive and afraid to acknowledge the bad stuff in our history?”

            I can’t answer for “we” – for me, my problem is with whitewashing to the atrocities of history through distorted lenses and representations.

        2. Keith Y Echols

          – for me, my problem is with whitewashing to the atrocities of history through distorted lenses and representations.

          Who’s “whitewashing”?  Just because it exists and you show it’s significance doesn’t mean you’re ignoring it’s history.   Do those bells and missions still state that they intend to subjugate and convert non-christian indigenous people?   Acknowledge it “warts and all”.

          The problem with all this is that it’s divisive and doesn’t really achieve anything.  It either continues an attitude of victimhood among some.  Or (and this is the bigger part) gets people to feel righteous and good about themselves for correcting something in the past that has little bearing on the present.   It’s all cultural weakness.  You want cultural strength?  Put the same energy into promoting the indigenous people’s cultures in the past and in today’s society.  One way is negative and divisive.  The other way is positive and inclusive.

          1. David Greenwald

            If you pass a Mission, you don’t get a balanced view of its legacy. It’s just there, most don’t think about and most don’t have a balanced account that you can read about even if you go to one.

            “The problem with all this is that it’s divisive and doesn’t really achieve anything.”

            And flying a Confederate Flag or having a Robert E. Lee statue isn’t?

            What’s the difference between a Spanish Mission and a Japanese Internment camp? Answer: a lot more people died at Spanish Missions.

        3. Keith Y Echols

          If you pass a Mission, you don’t get a balanced view of its legacy. It’s just there, most don’t think about and most don’t have a balanced account that you can read about even if you go to one.

          So put up a plaque that explains it.  Jesus…do we have to continuously wallow in our past failings?  Where do you draw the line?  Should we get rid of Mount Vernon?  Monticello?  These guys did things that are considered very bad by today’s standards.

           And flying a Confederate Flag or having a Robert E. Lee statue isn’t?

          I don’t know where you’re going with this?  My childhood wasn’t too far from Kentucky.  So I’m all too familiar with the Confederate flag.  Me?  I’ve always considered it a symbol of the South’s failure….that and it was fun on the General Lee car.  I wouldn’t advocate for putting up more statues of Lee.  But I’m not up in arms to have them brought down.  As long as it’s still well known that he and the south lost the war as enemies of the United States.

          What’s the difference between a Spanish Mission and a Japanese Internment camp? Answer: a lot more people died at Spanish Missions.

          What is your point?  Yeah…bad stuff happened.  Let’s do better going forward.  Does advocating for historical social justice for this stuff just make you feel good about yourself?  What does it achieve?

        4. Bill Marshall

          Missions weren’t enacted for benevolent reasons, they were instruments of subjugation and cultural appropriation. 

          That is a historically untrue, but a very Poli Sci statement.  The missions were actually a ‘mitigation’ of what would have happened otherwise… it would have been much worse.

        5. Alan Miller

          That is a historically untrue, but a very Poli Sci statement.  The missions were actually a ‘mitigation’ of what would have happened otherwise… it would have been much worse.

          I think I see what you are implying here (that if not converted they would be killed? — just guessing), and maybe that’s true-ish.  But mitigation implies intention — as if the priests were converting the natives for the purpose of them not being killed.  But in fact the missions mistreated the natives, converted them (which maybe some of you find noble – I don’t), enslaved them.  Those wanting their land displaced them and battled and slaughtered them if they didn’t move on – or used tactics like indoctrinating their children in boarding schools far away and not allowing the children to speak their language or practice their ways.  So the priests had their mission and the settlers and their backing armies had their mission — and if the natives were souls to be converted or souls to be killed, it did not matter in the quest of the settlers/conquerors.  So I only buy your premise in its most shallow form.

      2. Todd Edelman

        No, of course I don’t want to “scrub history clean”! These “neutral” etc ‘Bells and their supporters are the ones doin’ the scrubbin’!

        Anyway, I really appreciate David and Alan’s replies, and I don’t have much more to add except to – again – suggest people think about how the ‘Bells are more or less the equivalent of “Arbeit Macht Frei”, a slogan only to remain in public in the specific context of a memorial to genocide (e.g. in Terezin, near Prague…. which I visited with my mother whose grandparents were murdered by Hitler.)

        But – also again – I want to see the Council initiate an examination of all the Indigenous Slavery-related things in Davis, e.g. the Sutter  Medical Foundation, parent of Sutter Davis, etc. I know that some statue has been removed in Sac (?), I know that there’s a whole adjoining county named after this guy, and it gets more nuanced when we’re talking about things like the eponymous gold mill — or does it? Sutter owned the mill, but the gold is the fruit of the Earth, right? A name change might be critical here — while making clear what it was named previously and why it was changed.

        This is about education, not about self-victimization. So we don’t just remove the bells, we follow the lead of the aggrieved parties and perhaps implement this as part of a Statewide program to acknowledge the past, present it truthfully and work hard to address the same problems today.

  3. Alan Miller

    However, the plan for the bell is still ongoing and being manufactured as most of the council will not listen to the public outcries.

    I imagine the bell will suffer the same fate as Davis’ Ghandi statue.  Once there is a passionate opposition, the controversial symbol will not survive.

    I see no value in creating new bells, and it’s an offensive shove in the face.  Should old ones be removed?  To me this depends on what the bell really means to those whose ancestors were oppressed/enslaved by the mission of the missions.  There is value in history, even ugly history, being preserved.  If the bell truly is a symbol of oppression and native Americans overall want them removed, that should be highly considered.  If the bell removal is being used as a catalyst to spark awareness of past oppression of indigenous people, the controversy itself is serving that purpose.

    Certainly the rosy mission histories taught to us as school children in the 60′ cannot be the complete history that should be taught today with all the ugliness included.  I do not see missions today in the light I did as a child visiting San Juan Batista on a yellow bus.

    That grave-stacking story reminds me of a talk I had with a friend recently who is an anthropologist.  Just as environmental scientists often work jobs funded by oil companies and polluters, anthropologists often work jobs funded by developers.  He told a story of working a shellmound burial site in Marin County a few years ago, unearthing and documenting native America remains.  Afterward the bodies were stacked atop each other on an unmarked, park-like strip along a sidewalk in the new development that was build atop the shellmound and surrounds.  The reason the site is unmarked is so the remains could not be unearthed by grave hunters.

    The removal and reburial were overseen by tribal representatives.  But somehow the whole thing seemed super disrespectful, with the end game a new neighborhood of condos, the residents of which walked along a grass-strip-lined sidewalk, unaware of the stacks of indigenous bodies below, or that those same bodies were once located under their condos and moved.  My anthro-friend says this has happened all over and will continue to happen.  Yes, I know we moved all the white graveyards out of San Francisco to Colma so that valuable land could be redeveloped sans bodies (when will the same thing happen to Colma, I wonder?).  To me at least, it doesn’t feel the same to move the bodies of the first peoples relative to more recent arrivals, and feels super disrespectful.  How much of Davis, especially along the banks of the old Putah channel, is built on native remains?

  4. Alan Miller

    This is interesting today.  Unlike 96% of times, I agree with what DG is saying in the comments here, much more than those I oft side with.  I have seen this bleaching of history and talked at length with natives who have been succinctly screwed by the dominant culture, far beyond ‘losing the war’ or bad policies, I mean blatant cheating and outright atrocities.  I have long been supportive of teaching a balanced history in schools and not the bleached garbage I learned from the winners when I was in public schools. 

    My concern with the CRT controversy is that some of what is taught now isn’t just balanced history, but a political philosophy that more conservative folk oppose.  With no one even agreeing on the meaning of terms of what they are talking about (such as what CRT is), the parties are talking past each other. I’m concerned that progress in teaching a more balanced history could be harmed in the crossfire, especially in more conservative areas.

  5. Alan Miller

    What might really do the world some good is if we got rid of all the Taco Bells.  Or at least the bells on Taco Bells.  Or the food.

    Fun fact:  Taco Bell has nothing to do with mission bells, though the very first Taco Bell in Downey, CA did have mission-style arches.  The founder was named Bell, Glen Bell.  Previously ran a hot dog stand called Bell’s.

  6. Ron Oertel

    There are multiple ways of course to do that.  One problem I think I have if we see Missions up and down the state and many peoe see them as neutral and even benevolent and there is no real counterbalance to that.  As the article points out, Missions weren’t enacted for benevolent reasons, they were instruments of subjugation and cultural appropriation.  But the display of them now whitewashes that.

    I suspect that most people are familiar with the controversy surrounding Missions.  And yet, don’t want to see them destroyed or diminished. As I recall, they taught all about that years ago. (They might even do so in some Missions, themselves.)

    San Rafael has a complete “replica” of a Mission. Nothing left from the original.

    I appreciate the small “Mission bells” that have been placed along roads in recent years, showing the original routes which connected them.  Including what is now Highway 37, as I recall.

    In any case, this is one time that we can’t blame “white America”.  Despite being located in what is now America.

    I wonder if they’ll ever put up markers noting the sites in which Native tribes fought each-other.  (Though I assume the specifics are lost to time and lack of documentation.)

    For that matter, I also don’t want to see old South plantations torn down, or the quarters in which slaves lived. (Whatever is left from that.) Nor do I want to see Auschwitz torn down.

    I suspect that the missionaries believed they were “doing God’s work”.

    1. Ron Oertel

      And in future decades, maybe people will visit the locations where (what we call) terrorists have recently been “at work”.

      Mourning the loss of life, structures, and art that was destroyed.

      In comparison, the Missions will look like fine hotels.

      If I’m not mistaken, disease is what really took its toll.

      One wonders why the Native Americans didn’t try to kick these guys out, in California at least. Maybe they were somewhat intrigued by them?

      1. Ron Oertel

        Actually, “Native Americans” is a misnomer, isn’t it?  They weren’t Americans, at the time. They are, now. With some maintaining “dual citizenship” in their own “sovereign countries”. Or so we’re told that they’re “sovereign”.

        Unless they’re named after the continent itself (using “white people language”, I guess. And, assuming that the name of the continent preceded the countries.)

        Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if the name “America” has its roots in something else. (No, I’m not going to look it up.)

        1. Alan Miller

           

          Actually, “Native Americans” is a misnomer, isn’t it?

          Yes, but probably not as much as a misnomer as “Indians”, which not only was based on a bad assumption about how far around the world one was, but just creates confusion when distinguishing between the two distinct peoples.

          I prefer to use the word that a particular group calls themselves when I know it, but often we don’t.

        2. Keith Olson

          Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if the name “America” has its roots in something else.  (No, I’m not going to look it up.)

          I remember learning early on that America was named after explorer Amerigo Vespucci.    Who knows if they even teach this stuff anymore?  Probably not or some woke college kid would’ve already by now researched Amerigo Vespucci’s past and found some reason to cancel the name “America”.

           

           

          1. David Greenwald

            Amerigo Vespucci is what America is named after. He perpetrated his own fraud and got credited with the name of the continent rediscovered by Columbus.

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