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July 15, 2008


A frame for Mission Dolores


I’ve been reading George Lakoff’s new book, The Political Mind. Lakoff set progressive politicians aback several years ago when he told published Don’t Think of an Elephant. He suggested then that the right had learned a lesson that the left had yet to learn: how to dominate political discussions by the way it frames its arguments. The term “tax relief,” for example, immediately characterizes taxation not as a necessary part of running a democracy but as an affliction that we need relief from. Once the phrase is introduced into a conversation, it is hard to argue against tax cuts.

In The Political Mind, he makes the same point. But he carries the discussion farther, embedding it in explorations that have been made in his own field of cognitive linguistics. Forget about the Old Enlightenment view of rationality, he says. Forget about the idea that

If the people are made aware of the facts and figures, they should naturally reason to the right conclusion.

A “rational person,” someone who makes conscious decisions based on logical and unemotional thought processes, doesn’t exist. On the contrary,

Emotion is both central and legitimate in political persuasion….

But if you stop at conscious reason and emotion, you miss the main event. Most reason is unconscious. It doesn’t look anything like Enlightenment reason.

And virtually all of it matters for politics.

In making political points, we use language. Words. That’s where framing comes in.

Words have meaning, of course. But meaning is neither static nor universal. You and I define words according to our own personal contexts — frames. A mother is a female person who feeds you and kisses you good night. Or a mother is a selfish drunk who abandons you in times of crisis.

Our minds connect these rich, lived definitions into even richer metaphors. A caring mother protects her children; the motherland protects its family of citizens. We turn these metaphors into narratives, populated with heroes and villains. We tell other people these stories and they understand, because they have had similar experiences.

Even more important, they understand because a basic human trait is empathy. If we appreciated this,

We would understand that our brains evolved for empathy, for cooperation, for connection to each other and to the earth. We cannot exist alone.

We would embrace the fact that empathy is at the heart of American democracy.

What happened to competition, to the survival of the fittest? Metaphors, Lakoff says. Faulty metaphors.

I was thinking about this recently when I paid a visit to Mission Dolores. When did you go there last? If it was a while ago, you might discover that it has changed. The old, white building is still there, with its brightly painted place of worship. The old cemetery is still there, with tombstones commemorating Franciscans like Father Francisco Palou and San Franciscans like the executed gambler Charles Cora. But something is different. The mission has been reframed. The cast of characters — Spanish priests, Mexican soldiers, and Indian workers — hasn’t changed. But the meaning of their actions has, giving new importance to the Indians. A plaque, dedicated in June 2001, says,

Mission Dolores… Founded in 1776 by Fray Francisco Palou, OFM and built by people of the Ohlone Nation in the Village of Chutchui 1788-1791. To them we pay honor as the founders and first builders of this community and church.

This is not the first time that a reframing has taken place. Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, historian Herbert Bolton constructed a frame that portrayed the missions as civilizing agents, with the missionaries teaching backward pupils much-needed lessons:

The civilizing function of the typical Spanish mission, where the missionaries had charge of the temporalities as well as of the spiritualities, was evident from the very nature of the mission plant. While the church was ever the centre of the establishment, and the particular object of the minister’s pride and care, it was by no means the larger part. Each fully developed mission was a great industrial school…. The women were taught to cook, sew, spin, and weave; the men to fell the forest, build, run the forge, tan leather, make ditches, tend cattle, and shear sheep.

Bolton’s description was reframed a number of years ago, as people realized that the Indians who inhabited California’s missions had paid a high price for their education. These people, once regarded as needy students, became victims of horrible crimes against humanity:

Locked within the missions is a terrible truth — that they were little more than concentration camps where California’s Indians were beaten, whipped, maimed, burned, tortured and virtually exterminated by the friars.

After that, it took a while for scholars to realize that people who are known only as victims are chained to a subservient identity. A master-victim society is defined solely by power relationships, and neither masters nor victims in it can be regarded as human beings. Scholars may also have begun to wonder what was really going on, in a place occupied by more than a thousand Indians and little more than a hundred Spaniard and Mexicans, a place that was obviously a thriving community. A few years ago the mission was reframed yet again:

We must not forget that it was the Indians of the California Missions who created these immense agricultural, ranching, and manufacturing enterprises. Within one generation the Ohlone, Miwok, Patwin, Wappo, and Yokuts peoples of the Bay Area had built several churches and dozens of buildings including housing, workshops, storerooms, granaries, mills, bathhouse, and aqueducts. The material progress of those first thirty-five years is astonishing. The Indian population of the mission went from nothing to over 1,000 persons. By 1810 the Indians had almost one thousand horses, over twenty thousand sheep and cattle, and were growing over 8,500 bushels of wheat, barley, corn, beans, peas every year.

The present curator of Mission Dolores, Andrew Galvan, is a descendant of these energetic people. And some of the changes at the mission have taken place under his watch. But Galvan’s appointment is actually a result of the reframing: the description above, was written by his predecessor, Brother Guire Cleary.

A good frame is flexible, expanding to include new elements as they appear. In the case of Mission Dolores, it’s impossible to ignore or erase the harsh treatment that the missionaries levied on the Indian residents. But it is possible to give new meaning to the mission experience, one that emphasizes the humanity of all the participants. Brother Guire concludes his account:

My personal view is that the missions operated with the best of intentions and with nearly the worst of results. To this day the California Missions represent pride and pain, memory and faith for the First Peoples who built and lived in these twenty-one missions of Alta California.

Pride and pain. The height and depth of human lives. Lives filled with emotions that inspire empathy in other human beings. The basis, says George Lakoff, for progressive politics.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Friday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008

3 Responses to “A Frame for Mission Dolores”

  1. Guire Cleary Says:

    My complements on a perceptive view of the California Missions. I was curator of Mission Dolores from 2000-2004. I completely concurr that a reframing has occurred. The plaque, which I composed, speaks to this reframing. Originally the monument was going to be framed by a Franciscan cord, but I was talked out of this by Ohlone descendant Linda Yamane who told me that the Franciscan cord reminded her of the beatings her ancestors experienced at the hands of the Franciscans. I was a Franciscan borther at the time and was deeply moved by her observations.

    There was another reframing of the California Missions that I had placed in the museum at Mission Dolores. Unfortunately, the successor I recruited, Andrew Galvan, decided to remove it. It was a panal asking the question: Was Mission Dolores a Spanish Village or an Indian village? Less than 1% of the mission community was Spanish or Mexican and the majority of the work accomplished at the missions was by Indian labor. According to a doctoral dissertation by Marie Duggan, Ph.D., the majority of the industrial and agricultural output of the missions during the Spanish period was eith consumed by or for the use of the Indian population. Should they be called Spanish missions if the Spanish component was limited to a handful of administrators? Having largely stripped native peoples of free choice, sovereignty, language,culture and even existence, are we to further strip away any dignity of accomplishment by failing to ackowledge their achievements?
    If I could go back to the year 2000 I would have even more strongly addressed issue of “pride and pain.” We do what we can and hope the future judges our limitations with greater truth and a degree of compassion for our failures.

  2. As can be seen by the lack of active response to this reframing, I would suggest that much has yet to be done to start some kind of process to address the wrongs that are hinted at.

    If you dare stomach a bit of history, I suggest that you go to the link posted and get a broader sense of what happened.


    In such a place, it should be considered a great travesty that the Ohlone people, who are the rightful owners of the bay area, have yet to obtain tribal status because of many things, but primarily because the lands they were promised during the great Mexican give away of California starting in 1833 never materialized. Would it be a surprise to find out that a great epidemic spread through the tribal people of the state soon after the new plans became known, and continued for nearly 5 years, just as 3rd generation Spaniards carved up the state?

    There is no greater injustice than a culture that has committed genocide and persists in covering it up.

  3. Ooops…

    Minor correction the above link was to a copy of the article on my desktop so it better not work…

    Here’s the correct link..