California Indians Before Colonization California has always been one of the most culturally diverse areas of the world. Early European explorers described California as an earthly paradise where native inhabitants simply “survived” off of what nature provided. But California Indians never left their sustenance to fate. Throughout the state, Native Californians carefully managed their environments. They ensured an abundance of food, and provided the raw materials for instruments of utility and art.
Despite European views to the contrary, California Indians developed complex cultures and traditions 1000 years before the arrival of the Spanish missionaries.
Missions: A Time of Little Choice Spain did not attempt to occupy California until the late 1700s. The primary strategy of Spanish colonization was to convert Native Peoples into loyal Spanish citizens. Missionization, the act of converting Native Americans through cultural and religious instruction, was central to the Spanish colonial strategy.
The missions were closed Native American communities. The missions were built close to existing Native American communities. Native Americans came to these communities for a variety of reasons. Spanish diseases and rapid environmental degradation, caused by invasive species brought by the Spanish, dramatically changed the environment and traditional societal structures. As Native food sources became less reliable and as disease ravaged California Indian communities, the missions presented an option in a time of great upheaval.
The missions created new types of communities, which were uneasy. In the missions, Native Americans received religious instruction and were expected to perform labor, such as building and farming for the maintenance of the community. The Mission System was highly coercive and once Indian people entered the community, they were expected to live in ways that the padres and military officials deemed acceptable. Missionaries discouraged aspects of Native religion and culture.
Whatever the modern view of the missions, one thing is clear: California Indians built each mission and it was California Indians who lived, worked, and died in them. In these times of great hardships, California Indians made the best lives they could. They got married and had children, they passed down traditions and cultural knowledge.
California Indian Cultural Continuity Although missionization forever altered California Indian cultures, it could not erase them. California Indian people are central to contemporary life. They own businesses, work as public servants, and hold political offices throughout the state. But many also continue aspects of their pre-colonization cultural traditions.
Source: California Indians, Before, During, and After the Mission Era
California Missions Foundation