By Tony Platt, cross-posted from his blog, GoodToGo
Recognized for its dome-shaped
bell tower and star-shaped window, and as the burial place of Father
Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system, the Carmel
Mission draws some 150,000 tourists annually. In vivid colors
reminiscent of a vintage poster, the new stamp depicts the façade of the
church and a courtyard ringed by verdant flowers. It commemorates a
place, not the thousands of native people who lived and died there.
Before the ceremony, I am invited to join Louise J. Miranda Ramirez,
tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation, as she
conducts a blessing over the “graves of the ancestors” in the cemetery
behind the basilica. This small plot of land includes headstones for the
Spanish priests buried here and a series of gravesites, ringed by
abalone shells, “in memory of the Christian Indians” stacked in pits
between 1771 and 1833. The Indians are anonymous, the priests named. A
few yards away, Father Serra is interred in a large crypt.
graves for the Indians are just decorative and symbolic,” says Ramirez,
as she burns a sage stick and sprinkles tobacco over the ground.
“Thousands of Indians are buried in the mission’s grounds. Everywhere we
walk there are bodies beneath us.” As we follow her around the small
cemetery, she studies the ground carefully, stooping every few minutes
to pick up items at her feet. “Look,” she says, “these are human bones
dug up by gophers. I’ve asked them to bring in soil and cover the graves
with some protection, but they don’t do anything.” It’s hard for me to
look at the pieces of bone. Ramirez is almost matter-of-fact. “I do this
every time I come here, every time.”
We return to the
courtyard for the stamp’s dedication. Louise Miranda Ramirez takes her
place on the stage next to the other speakers. Each is given five
minutes for their talk. The scripted ceremony goes according to plan
until it’s her turn to speak.
Bishop Richard Garcia blesses
the new stamp and observes that the mission’s land is also “sacred to
native peoples,” but unlike Bishop Francis Quinn during a mass in San
Raphael in 2007, he does not apologize for “imposing a European
Catholicism upon the natives.”
A representative for the U.S.
Postal Service talks about “similarities between the missions of early
California and our colonial Post Offices, especially how they both
served to connect and bind people together.” He’s impressed by the
“efficiency” of the missions, how they delivered information on time.
But he doesn’t discuss how the missions destroyed the very effective
communication systems of native peoples and attempted to erase languages
thousands of years old.
An aide to Congressman Sam Farr
describes her boss’ love of stamp collecting. She recalls her children’s
4th grade mission project and encourages everybody to “buy this
historical stamp.” Not a word about the slave labor that built the
mission or the lives and cultures stamped out by the mission system.
The U. S. Postal Service consulted a California State professor, Ruben
Mendoza, to make sure that the commemorative stamp is faithful to Carmel
Mission’s provenance. He speaks today about the influence of European
architecture and how Monterey was the “epicenter of the Christianization
of California.” But the Postal Service did not consult Heyday publisher
Malcolm Margolin, who also would have pointed out that, while the
mission’s architecture has been faithfully restored, “the human details
are invariably omitted: the sight of men and women in irons, the sound
of the whip, the misery of the Indians.”
The president of the
Carmel Mission Foundation gives a fund-raising pitch, asking for help
in raising five million dollars to make the basilica earthquake-safe.
But he doesn’t mention the pittance it would cost to decently re-bury
the exposed human remains and cover the ground of the cemetery with a
layer of protective soil.
Then, it’s Louise Miranda
Ramirez’s turn to talk about “200+ Years in Five Minutes.” She’s here to
represent the more than six hundred tribal members of Esselen and
Carmeleno descent, to speak for “the thousands of Ancestors buried under
our feet in a mass grave.” The kids in the audience stop fidgeting and
pay attention. “I am here for our Ancestors that are disturbed by the
laying of new sewer pipes on their graves. I am the voice for the
Ancestors disturbed by the rodents digging up their remains.” Some
adults in the audience shift uneasily in their seats. “I am here for the
few thousand Ancestors who did survive so that we could be here today. I
am here for our children, our history.”
Ramirez ends her talk with a chant: “We are here, we exist/We are here,
we exist/ We will always exist here.” She also says a few subversive
words in her native Esselen. Only a few people in the audience
understand that she is asking “the Creator and Priest to return our
homeland to our people.”
At the end of the speeches, a large
replica of the new stamp is unveiled on the stage. The Master of
Ceremonies asks all the speakers to gather around the stamp for a
publicity photo. Louise Miranda Ramirez steps out of the picture in
Tony Platt has taught American history, public policy, and
social sciences for 40 years at University of Chicago (1966-1968), Berkeley
(1968-1977), and California State University, Sacramento (1977-2007). He has written several books, including "The Child Savers: The
Invention of Delinquency" (1969) and "Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler's
Nuremberg Laws, From Patton's Trophy to Public Memorial" (2006). His
recent work focused on issues relating to public history, memory, and
the tragic past.