Saying Our Share: Surviving the Missions

Grantee:  Heyday Books, News from Native California
Location: Berkeley, California
Award:  Sponsorship
Discipline:  Art + Social Justice Project
Web Site:

Through performance, literature and art, “Saying Our Share: Surviving the Missions”, outlines the tragedy that befell a pre-contact California indigenous population of close to one million people and, over 70 years post contact, reduced it to an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 survivors. This project attempts to educate in a way that engages the public and advances the historical record.

Illuminating a side of California history long in the shadows, “Saying Our Share” informs the reader, the audience and the public that for thousands of years, pre-contact indigenous populations flourished while practicing tribal religions, cultures, languages, arts and ways of being that worked in concert with nature and the environment. Through this project, and presenting a Native view, the descendants of these survivors hope to amend an incorrectly embedded public perception of the post-contact era. The works in this project emphasize the indisputable – that the indigenous peoples of the Americas neither needed nor sought rescue by the Spanish or Jesuit missionaries – and, against all odds, survive artistically and culturally.

The project challenges the glorification of the California Mission System, and through moving artistic performances and a special issue of News of Native California curated by James Luna (published by Heyday Books), the works of contemporary Native artists with regard to this tribal history are presented visually and dramatically. These artists offer a rare opportunity to understand how the traumas inflicted by the Spanish missions – spiritual, economic, cultural, and social – continue to affect Native peoples’ lives and communities to this day. The works also present hope for the future of indigenous Californians who are reclaiming their arts and cultures in both contemporary and traditional ways.

At the “Saying Our Share” Symposium, curricula were also developed to share with the leadership of the California public school system. From a Native perspective, historically correct curricula are necessary to counteract the false primary source experience that most elementary school children undergo when completing their fourth grade Mission projects. In concert with the available source material, young students are presented with a highly sanitized and romanticized version of California Mission history.

The mission sites have historically been focused on glorifying Western European values – including evangelism and conquest. This serves to further undermine respect for the values and perceived worth of indigenous experiences and cultures, both historically and present day. The California State Board of Education attempts to present a balanced overview, but approved project content of the Early California Missions cannot overcome the reality that mission sites are geared for tourism, compounding the need for the improved curricula.

Highlights of this project included “Identify Theft”, a brilliant combination of performance art and activism, which was presented by James Luna and Guillermo Gómez-Peña at Litquake in 2014. The performance piece was inspired in part by the 300th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s founding of the missions in California.