Sunday, April 5, 2009

History: It's all about who is telling the story

I just finished writing an extra credit paper today for my Sacred Texts class. Luckily, I could earn extra credit (15 lousy points) for visiting a museum or religious site and writing a paper about it. My mom and I just took the little girls to San Juan Capistrano - what a deal! So, I dug up some historical information online and grabbed a couple of books from the library... and what do I find? Very different accounts of how the mission was built. Stories from the mission's past depend on the source, just like any other story in history I suppose.

History, what is it really? It's just stories. Tales of what happened, told by one perspective usually. This reminds of the the day we were at the zoo and we came upon some chaos at the monkey exhibit. Asking "What happened?" got you five different stories and we had to piece them together to get a complete account of what went on. That's how history works, you get different stories depending on who is telling it.

Back to the mission at San Juan Capistrano. Every sources agrees that the Spanish missionaries enlisted the help of the Native Americans to build the missions and converted them to Catholicism. I was reading a book published in 1922 by a priest, Father Zephyrin Englehardt. He describes the establishment of the mission like a big party. It was all rainbows and flowers. San Juan Capistrano had a very happy history according to Fr. Englehardt.

He says, "The Indians enthusiastically agreed to quarry the stones, haul them down to the mission [over six miles], and put them into the walls of the sacred edifice. The poor Indian women felt disconsolate and heavy at heart. They too wanted to have a share in the building of the House of God. Then one of the dark-eyed lively younger women conceived a brilliant idea which she at once communicated with the other women, who smiled happily. 'Father, will the Lord be pleased if we bring small stones from the quarry so that they may go into the crevices of the walls?' 'Indeed, He will be touched at such a proof of your affection' 'We shall all go up with our children too, all will bring stones in our aprons and little sacks. The men are not going to have all the glory'" (29). Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!

And the next book I pick up is written by Joel Hyer, published in 2001. It's called "We Are Not Savages". Does that tell you anything about how this book is going to read? Hint: Englehardt and Hyer are looking at life from opposite ends.

In this book, Hyer says, "Descendants of those who lived at the missions offered compelling evidence that cruelty was the rule. Padres used Native Americans as beasts of burden. Luisenos and others chopped down large trees on Mount Palomar to construct the missions at San Diego, San Luis Rey, and San Juan Capistrano. They carried logs on their shoulders and they couldn't sit or drop the timbers on the ground until they reached the mission. Spaniards severely whipped and punished those who rested. Families were separated and forced to work without enough food. When they disobeyed the friars, soldiers threw native children off a nearby cliff. The native peoples of Southern California have passed down these stories for at least 150 years" (28).

See that? Same story, but not anywhere near the same tale. And who do you believe? Mr. Rosey Pants and his happy story or Mr. Depressed and his extreme tales of woe. The thing is, they are both writing down what was passed along verbally through generations and generations. Perspective has a lot to do with the differences the authors have, but also, I gotta wonder how much exaggeration went on in the passing along of the stories. Really, how enthused were those slaves?

I tend to believe Hyer before I believe Englehardt. Something about that enthusiasm to carry boulders six miles over a mountain pass just didn't seem quite right to me. Those were the days when people were brutal. I guess history is the story that we think is the right one. Pick your favorite version.


Kate said...

I am wont to believe that NO ONE is enthused about hauling boulders, not just slaves. I wonder (in this and every other historical case) which combination of the "facts" is what actually happened. I tend to think that every historian has a little bit of the truth.

I tend to think that the Englehardt version was a tiny, tiny bit whitewashed and/or everyone was taking really strong drugs. ;)

Mom Taxi Julie said...

My husband always says how a book is just one person's opinion on how things are done (talking about car things).

I'm always kind of annoyed at how the kids learn of Thanksgiving and such and then later they learn that it's all a big fat lie!

Wolfpak5 said...

All you can do is read the information and in the middle is the truth somewhere. Glad you got your extra credit points.

Mom Taxi Julie said...

Hey you won my book! Send me your info in an email

Living With Cavemen said...

I can't imagine anyone being overjoyed to carry big boulders for miles upon miles. The history of the mission very much sounds like it was lost in translation. I guess you read the sources and come to your own conclusion of the truth.

It's very much like being an eyewitness. 5 people can see the same event and report 5 completely different things. Just like at the zoo with the crazed monkeys.