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Curator's aim: "Tell all sides" of mission's story

The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Andrew Galvan stands on the steps of the old adobe building and sees a relic of a colonial crusade that wreaked havoc on his ancestors.

He walks through the heavy wooden doors of Mission Dolores and, as a faithful Catholic, thrills to the realization that he's in the room where his Bay Miwok great-great-great-grandfather was baptized a Christian.

It is, Galvan concedes, "a very odd juxtaposition to find oneself in," but he has hopes his double-edged past is just what's needed to cut through the misconceptions shrouding California's big, brash and often brutal history.

"What I am looking for is to tell all sides," says Galvan, the first American Indian curator of Mission Dolores.

Formally known as Mission San Francisco de Asis, Mission Dolores was founded in 1776 by Franciscan padres — but built by Indians. It is one of 21 Spanish missions strung along California.

American Indians were conscripted to work at the missions, and the encounter proved fatal for many. Thousands died of Western diseases such as measles and flu against which they had no immunity. Others languished and occasionally rebelled against the regimented mission lifestyle, with its strange diet and sometimes harsh discipline.

After the mission system was disbanded in the early 19th century by Mexican officials newly independent from Spain, conditions grew worse for the Indians. They were cheated out of land; banished to the far corners of the state. Ultimately, Indians were hunted to near-extinction by new settlers drawn by the Gold Rush that began in 1848, the same year California was ceded to the United States following the Mexican-American War.

Numbers plummeted

Historians disagree on the numbers, but some estimates put the pre-European Indian population in California at 300,000 — other estimates are more than three times that. By the 1900 census, only 16,500 Indians were recorded in the state.

For years, the true history of American Indians in California and elsewhere was ignored or glossed over. But it has been more widely acknowledged in the past decade, in no small part due to the efforts of American Indian scholars and activists.

The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., a year ago last fall marked a milestone, the product of years of collaborative planning between the Smithsonian Institution and a number of tribes.

"This was seen as an opportunity to have a museum that is very much from the native perspective," said the Indian museum's spokesman, Thomas Sweeney, shortly after, who like many of the staff is American Indian.

The same broadening of perspective has occurred in California, where "most of the missions now try to incorporate a little bit more balanced picture," according to Jeffery Burns, director of the Academy of American Franciscan History, based in Berkeley, Calif.

Still, Galvan's appointment in 2004 stirred excitement.

"He provides an extraordinary balance of the different factors in one person that makes it really interesting to see what he'll do there," Burns says. "There's been a feeling this should have happened a long time ago."

Galvan worked closely with his predecessor at Mission Dolores and hasn't anticipated any major upheavals in the way the facility is run. But there's no doubt he brings a unique sensibility to the job.

Looking around the softly lighted mission chapel, Galvan makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the pleasingly symmetric rows of pews and the stunning carved wooden screen behind the altar, known as a reredos, that depicts gold-trimmed saints and a simpler representation of Christ on the cross.

"Anywhere here do you see a sense of Indians?" he asks rhetorically.

It's not until you get to the cemetery outside — the setting of a key scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" — that you get a hint of the thousands of Indians buried beneath Mission Dolores. A tule house, the traditional home of San Francisco Bay area Indians, stands in one corner of the graveyard, and a statute of Kateri Tekawitha, an East Coast Indian who was an early convert to the Catholic faith, is dedicated in "prayerful memory of our faithful Indians."

Indian memorial

Galvan, a historian who is also a partner in the San Francisco Bay archaeology firm Archaeor, is interested in promoting the preservation and study of some American Indian murals hidden behind the mission reredos.

He set up a committee to evaluate the many requests coming in from people seeking permission to get a look at the murals, which were more or less forgotten after they were covered up by the reredos early in the mission's history but recently rediscovered and partly photographed.

"It's amazing how high-profile Mission Dolores is; people really want to be involved," Galvan says.

The power of all things Mission Dolores was felt several years ago when an uproar broke out over a plan to put statues of Juan Bautista de Anza and King Carlos III of Spain on a street median in front of the mission. Anza, the soldier-explorer who picked the site of Mission Dolores, and Carlos III, who ordered that California be colonized, were viewed as symbols of imperialism and genocide by critics, and the plan was abandoned.

The issue of how to remember conquistadors and the conquered is familiar to Galvan. He has for years opposed erecting a statue of 19th-century ranchero Jose de Jesus Vallejo at the Mission San Jose in Fremont, saying that would be inappropriate because Vallejo had Ohlone Indians flogged, starved and executed.

He doesn't oppose the Anza and Carlos III statues, although he would suggest raising money to put up a third statue commemorating Indians.

"There's nothing wrong with telling the truth and the truth is the king of Spain at one point had some influence on that neighborhood. Anza certainly had an influence on that neighborhood. So why not also acknowledge the influence of the native peoples."

Now that Mission Dolores has its first American Indian curator, Galvan is getting more Indians involved.

Larry Myers, executive secretary of the California Native American Heritage Commission, is looking forward to the future.

"Maybe the story will be told a little more upfront. Not that it's not being accurately told, but it depends on how things are told. Sometimes, it's all in the words," Myers says.

"The effect is not to make someone feel 'poor Indians,' or inflame racism. The thing is to really let people understand exactly what happened."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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