MACALESTER HISTORY DEPARTMENT
Conversion, Resistance, and a Californian Middle Ground
Application for Admission to the History Honors,
Native American agency is not reflected in widespread California mission scholarship. Academia enshrines two traditional narratives. One, which is part of the California state grade school curriculum, depicts the missions as pinpricks of light against heathen darkness. In this institutionalized story, represented most heavily in elementary school textbooks, the Franciscans shepherded the Native Americans into the missions, where they proceeded to protect them from their natural propensity for war and instill civilization in their souls.1 The alternative mainstream perspective paints a different picture. This counter-narrative describes the missions as prison camps and the Native Americans as exploited slaves.2 Although these histories seem diametrically opposed, they share one important element: Both of these mission histories reify an overarching American theme of the vanishing Indian. This process of essentialization denies indigenous communities’ ability to adapt and evolve, that is, to be subjects within the course of history rather than external or victimized populations. Both Walter Mignolo and Richard White examine this essentialist rhetoric, Mignolo with his repudiation of what he calls “the denial of coevalness,” and White with his discussion of “the middle ground.” Mignolo’s work, The Darker Side of Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization, dubs the traditional reduccionist framework as the “denial of coevalness”—that is, the belief that Native American progress began with the arrival of European civilization. Mignolo then confronts “the denial of coevalness” with “the denial of the denial of coevalness,” a new academic movement in which the traditional rhetoric is repudiated with the introduction of indigenous voices and historical perceptions in the mainstream academic...