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Walk for the Ancestors Gathering at San Luis Rey Mission


The Walk for the Ancestors came to our region on November 3 with a gathering at the San Luis Rey mission in present-day Oceanside hosted by Mel Vernon of the Luiseño community (the Ataaxam People). The Walk for the Ancestors is a pilgrimage to the twenty-one California missions to bring attention to their central role in genocide of California Indigenous peoples and to oppose the canonization of the mission founder, Junipero Serra.

The gathering began with a circle in front of the mission in which stories from the past were shared (which I missed because of rain-induced traffic), continued with an indoor drum circle when the rain intensified, and concluded with a dinner and further stories at the adjacent San Luis Rey Bakery and Restaurant.

Caroline Ward Holland and son Kagen Holland began their journey on September 8 at the twenty-first and last mission established in Alta California, Mission San Francisco Solano, and will complete the walk on Saturday, November 7 at 400pm at the first, Mission San Diego. Quoted on the web site of the pilgrimage,, Caroline described its purpose: “We want to follow in the footsteps of the Ancestors. Wherever their villages were, that’s what they were forced to do: walk to the Missions. We want our Ancestors to know that we understand their suffering. And we’re going to voice it, so people will know that it wasn’t a posh life with the Catholics feeding you, and protecting you. No, it was a horrible existence for them.”

At the gathering, Caroline told the story of how her grandmother foretold the journey when she said: “Don't bring me flowers when I'm dead. Buy yourself a pair of shoes. You're going to need them.” Caroline shared how the Ancestors had left signs for future generations to find in the now-decaying adobe walls, including beautiful shells and obsidian. In their journeys so far to twenty of the missions, Caroline and Kagen have not seen any of them display the whips and shackles they used on the Native people, nor do of the mission displays or propaganda discuss the genocide, slavery or rape that were the central features of Indigenous experience of the missions. Caroline referenced the doctrine of discovery (a papal declaration that gave christians rights over land occupied by non-christians, which has become a key argument through which united states appropriation of native land has been justified), which assumes that Indigenous peoples are less than human and continues as a philosophical and legal instrument to this day.

Walk coordinator Cat shared a story of Native resistance to missionization from the gathering at Mission San Luis Obispo. Originally, the missions were constructed with thatched roofs. Indigenous peoples sent flaming arrows onto the roofs of the San Luis Obispo mission complex and burned it down. The mission was reconstructed, but again flaming arrows were shot onto the roofs, and again the complex was destroyed. To counter this form of resistance, the padres figured out how to manufacture the fire resistant tiles that formed the roofs of prominent buildings in Spain, and reconstructed the mission buildings with tile roofs. That defense spread to the other missions as well. And so the famous terracotta tile roofing that forms a key component of the classic mission architecture was actually a consequence of Indigenous resistance.

Prior to the missions, California Natives mostly lived in small groups of up to 500 people. Some estimates put the number of village sites in California at about 50,000, although perhaps less than 1000 of those were occupied when the Spanish arrived. During the mission period, over 150,000 Natives were documented to have died. As at other missions, thousands of the local Native peoples who perished in the genocide were buried in the cemetery at San Luis Rey in unmarked graves.

I was honored to be present at the gathering and on the land of the Luiseño community, to meet Caroline and Kagen, and to hear the stories of their journey and of the land.

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