Lands of Our Ancestors: a Novel Approach to Educating

Mark R. Day /Dessa Drake teaches elementary school children about missions and Native Americans in California.

Fourth graders learn about life at the Spanish missions in California

“Roll it faster,” 12-year-old Kilik shouts as he plays a hoop game with his cousin Tuhuy. Tuhuy shoots an arrow through the hoop, and the boys shout with glee at the feat.

These youths are fictitious Chumash children in Southern California’s Santa Ynez Valley. The game is preparing them for the agility they will need when they go on their first deer hunt.

It is the opening scene of Lands of Our Ancestors, a novel that Gary Robinson (Cherokee) has written for fourth graders, showing the effects of Spanish colonization on Native Peoples of California.

Today, California students are required by state education standards to study the 21 missions that were established by Spanish friars and soldiers between 1769 and 1821.

Dessa Drake, a fourth grade teacher at Vineyard Elementary School in Templeton, California, says she uses Robinson’s novel alongside alternative curricula instead of older school texts that tend to romanticize the missions.

“We start out with what the students are familiar with in regards to the missions,” Drake said, “the postcards, the brands like ‘Mission Tortillas,’ the fruit crates with mission logos. Then we study the different perspectives of the missions—from what the friars and soldiers recorded in journals, and transcripts of the Natives sharing their experiences.”

‘Lands of Our Ancestors,’ a novel by Gary Robinson (Cherokee), is helping broaden Native education in California.

Drake culminates the unit by having the students discuss these different perspectives, including their own.

“Students’ answers are always enlightening,” she said. “It’s easy for fourth graders to understand and empathize with the Native perspective, once it’s been explained to them. They understand very well what is right and wrong. It’s more difficult for them to understand the priests’ perspective, unless they are Christian, in which case some students will argue the virtue of bringing Christianity to the Native people.”

Lands of Our Ancestors is a helpful tool, she said, because it sums up the whole story of the missions from a Native viewpoint.

Storytelling

Drake reads aloud from the novel to her students, selecting passages that move the story along, such as the arrival of strange foreigners who lure Kilik, Tuhuy and their families into a mission compound and show them advanced technology such as “fire sticks,” (muskets), farm animals and building techniques.

Before they realize it, the boys have been instructed in a foreign religion, made to wear scratchy woolen clothing, hurriedly instructed, baptized and placed on work details. They make adobe bricks, tan hides and learn blacksmithing to make nails, hinges and plows.

Tilik and Tuhuy, separated from their parents and siblings, long to return to their village and their old ways of hunting, fishing and gathering food.

“But leaving is not an option, and the missionaries punish anyone who escapes with beatings,” Drake explains to the children, who listen attentively.

As the brutality and abuses of mission life worsen, Kilik’s and Tuhuy’s fathers, Solomol and Satapay, gather with other Elders to plan an escape strategy. But the plot is discovered. The soldiers place them in stocks and give them each 30 lashes.

Meanwhile, the boys grow more depressed. They have witnessed sickness and death among the other neophytes (baptized Indians) who never became accustomed to the change in diet and lifestyles. But the friars and soldiers keep rounding up more Native people to take their place.

Finally, the Chumash Elders get word that Indians from other areas plan to attack their mission. This time, the boys have the support of Father Espiritu, a kindly friar who hides the frightened children in the mission chapel.

The attack is bloody and many Chumash warriors die from the Spanish musket fire. Solomol and Satapay make their way to the chapel, urging Kilik and Kuhuy to escape with the other children to a distant village.

Kilik remembers the trails his father taught him, so he guides the children through the valley until they take refuge in the deserted village.

Afterward they hike up to the Chumash Shrine Mountain, where they discover prayer poles, and each child says a prayer. The children witness a marvelous sight that serves as an omen.

“It’s a double rainbow,” KIlik declares. “Everything is going to be more than just all right, as long as we remember who we are and where we came from.”

New Perspectives and Resistance

Drake recommends a study unit for fourth graders called New Perspectives on the California Missions, produced by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The 81-page booklet gives historical background for teachers, based on more recent research by such historians as Steven Hackel (University of California, Riverside) and James Sandos (University of Redlands). This includes information about the romanticizing of the missions, and the myths still taught in many fourth-grade classrooms.

The teaching guide, with an accompanying DVD, shows how the missions sapped the life out of the Native peoples and destroyed their food supply by introducing Spanish livestock and agriculture. Deaths outstripped births, since European diseases and forced labor claimed the lives of thousands of Native people. More than a third of all babies born in the missions did not survive their first year, and 43 percent did not reach their fifth birthday.

New Perspectives is divided into four teaching lessons: the romanticizing of the missions, the first contacts between Native people and the Spaniards, daily life at the missions, and how the present-day Native descendants view the missions.

Each lesson is accompanied by discussion suggestions, reading assignments, art projects and role-playing scenarios.

“This is one of the few curriculums I’ve seen that includes primary sources,” said Dessa Drake. “So much of the old material is presented from the conquerors’ perspective. “You can’t argue with primary sources—you have the words right there, from history.”

A Time of Resistance is another text that Drake finds helpful.

“There are great stories here you won’t find elsewhere, like the story of Toypurina,” she said, referring to Tongva /Gabrieleña, who led a resistance at Mission San Gabriel. “There was resistance. The Indians did not accept what was happening to them. I use only bits and pieces from this text, because there are some things that are not appropriate to discuss with fourth graders.”

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