Stanford course moves beyond the missions in Native American studies

Muwekma: Landscape Archaeology and the Narratives of California Natives allows Stanford students to move beyond the myth of the “perpetually vanishing native” and to understand Native American history and culture from an indigenous perspective.

Anthropologist Mike Wilcox tells his students that if you try to understand a people or culture by studying cemeteries, then all you will find is death.

Anthropologist Mike Wilcox teaches an undergraduate course on Native American history that begins with the assumption that Native peoples’ presence is active and real. (Image credit: Kate Chesley)

Similarly, if students seeking to understand California’s Native American history do nothing more than study the missions created by the Spanish beginning in the late 1700s, then all they will find is the myth of the “perpetually vanishing native,” victimized by acculturation, military conquest and disease. Yet, how can it be that California today has the largest population of indigenous people in the country?

“There really isn’t a clear narrative that explains why California Natives, including the Muwekma Ohlone most associated with this area, are still here,” he said. “Stanford students really want to know and understand the indigenous history of this area, no matter where they come from. So this class begins with the assumption that Native peoples’ presence is active and real. We just need a scholarship that explains that.”

Providing that explanation is one of the objectives of Wilcox’s undergraduate course Muwekma: Landscape Archaeology and the Narratives of California Natives. In the process of questioning how indigenous peoples’ histories have been contextualized in the past, students find that much of what they have learned about U.S. and California history is, at best, misleading.

Popsicle stick missions

For instance, creating sugar cube or popsicle stick replicas of a mission – as nearly all California students do in elementary school – belies the fact that the missions were places where Native Americans suffered at the hands of the Catholic Spanish missionaries who sought to convert them. Among those missionaries was Junipero Serra, whose memory was evoked until recently on the Stanford campus through several street and building names.

As part of their studies, students explore sites in the Bay Area with importance to the Muwekma Ohlone. (Image credit: Courtesy Mike Wilcox)

“Too much of what students learn about California Indians is focused on missions, disease and disappearance,” said Wilcox, who is of Yuman descent. “I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and not once did I read about the Yuma, how the colonization of California really happened or that there were several indigenous rebellions in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

In particular, Wilcox said his students are often shocked to learn that Father Serra, who is credited with creating the mission system, saw Native Americans as less than human and as incapable of self-governance. His use of violent, forced conversions made him an extremist even in the eyes of his Spanish-era contemporaries.

“Serra symbolizes much that went wrong with missionary activities in California,” Wilcox said. “He needs to be evaluated as both a symbol and an administrator of Catholicism. If we follow the kind of detached neutrality that some historians view him with – the idea that he was a product of his times or that indigenous peoples only understood violence – we are missing the fact that he held extremist beliefs, that he routinely used violence as a tool of social control and that he was disinterested in learning anything about indigenous peoples.”

It’s not an easy lesson to teach or to learn. Yet junior political science and Native American studies major Caelin Marum said the class discussion succeeded in “communicating the depth of change and horror that the missionization process entailed.”

Marum, co-chair of the Stanford American Indian Organization, was among the speakers at the ceremony celebrating the renaming of Jane Stanford Way and recognizing the Native American students who started the renaming process.

“To me, the utter brutality and senselessness of the violence that happened here is something that should always be remembered in their proper context, which are not places of reverence like building and road names,” she said.

Wilcox said his students, many of whom, like Marum, are Native American, appreciate the university’s recent decision to rename landmarks that once honored Father Serra. But they want to move beyond the history of the missions to learn more about contemporary Native American experience from an indigenous perspective.

Collaborative research

As a result, Wilcox arranges for students to work with members of the Muwekma Ohlone. Tribe Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh and Vice Chairwoman Monica Arellano spoke to the class, providing direction and support on research projects, some of which will be added to the tribe’s website. Collaboration with the tribe is at the heart of the course, and students pursue research on such subjects as the California state curriculum as it pertains to indigenous history, the state-supported Native American genocide pursued in California in the 1800s and the many rebellions throughout the Bay Area.

The students appreciate the interaction with the Muwekma Ohlone, according to Marum, who is from Montana and a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes – the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation – and the Woodland Cree First Nation.

Undergraduate Caelin Marum, co-chair of the Stanford American Indian Organization, is among the students who appreciate the interaction with the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. (Image credit: Kate Chesley)

“There are elements of history and academy that contextualize our conversations, but there are also profound levels of interaction that make that context all the more rich,” she said. “By that, I mean that we actually speak with indigenous community leaders, and the experience of indigenous students is leveraged as a primary source – something that is surprisingly rare. Additionally, because place is so important to contemporary indigenous peoples, we have opportunities to see and learn about the usage and interaction with that land that occurred pre-contact.”

Interest in this and other Native American studies courses has grown, which Wilcox attributes to an eagerness among Stanford students to test their assumptions and to study primary documents as a way of coming to their own conclusions.

“This is not a passive generation,” he said. “They want to understand how history and archaeology work as disciplines and are skeptical about what they have been taught. The indigenous students explain things to their classmates in a way that I cannot, and they learn from each other as much as they learn from me. Students want to work with tribal communities in the Bay Area.”

Among their class projects is renovation of a sweat lodge built by indigenous students as a place to celebrate community, but closed in recent years because of fire and drought concerns. Class members are also creating a native plants garden that will serve as a teaching and gathering space.

“We are trying to create a space that acknowledges the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe as stewards of this landscape,” he said. “Stanford has historically had a very close and supportive relationship with Muwekma. We want to celebrate that relationship with a physical space – a place of welcoming and friendship.”

Archeological sites

Students also have explored archeological sites in the area that illustrate the lives of pre-colonial and colonial-era Native Americans. One area near Portola Valley that Wilcox has excavated suggests that many Native Americans escaped the mission system by fleeing into the foothills, where they left behind tool fragments, seashells and bones from butchered animals. The class also visited late Holocene sites at Año Nuevo in Pescadero to learn from park archaeologist Mark Hylkema about how shifts in material culture are an index of climate change.

Students explore a cave once occupied by Pomponio, a Native American leader who led Bay Area rebellions. (Image credit: Courtesy Mike Wilcox)

“This part of California was perhaps one of the most densely populated and linguistically diverse areas in North America,” Wilcox said. “The landscape of the bay is incredibly productive and the microclimates, the creeks and rivers systems, the wetlands around the bay and the connections to the coast supported a very rich and deep history. The bay itself was formed and reformed, and during climatic variations over the last 10,000 years, Native Americans actually witnessed the California coastline move further in. Their origin stories reference the creation of the bay and the rise of sea level.”

At the end of 10 weeks, Wilcox hopes his students will have learned to use archaeology and anthropology as tools for historical research. He also hopes his students become lifelong learners who experiment with different kinds of learnings as a way to scrutinize and reconsider assumptions.

“Learning for me has always been about empowerment,” he said. “As one of the handful of Native American archaeologists in North America, I have a perspective and questions that other researchers might not have. Our students are designing their own questions, and it’s my job just to give them the tools and point in the right directions.”