Mission Dolores Part II (of four)

At Mission Delores, San Francisco:
Religious Romance & Genocide

II – The Museum, Fact & Facsimile  

An older German couple, standing in front of me, reviews the Register, a record of all the Indians baptized at Mission Dolores. Many of these were likely forced conversions, from natives rounded up by soldiers and put to work, creating bricks, gardening, tending animals, washing laundry, and caring for their own sick; the vast majority died at the mission, and lie buried in unmarked graves, by some estimates five-thousand.

            “Was das ist?”

            “Ziemlich interessant.”

            “Viele Leute waren hier.”

            “Indians. See how many?”

Adjusting her silver reading glasses, the woman squints. The man steps aside, nods at me, and then combs his milk-white hair with his fingers. To the woman’s left, I wait, browsing notes in my yellow legal pad to feign disinterest in the way she taps the Register with a nervous rhythm. She also sucks her lips, distorting the porcelain symmetry of her face as she reads. What is she thinking? With her supple skin, crisscrossed by lines only around her neck, she seems too young to have survived the Reich, the war, and Holocaust.

I hear the chime of her turquoise and silver bracelets each time she turns the pages. What history does she know about the missions? The version sanctioned by the Church? The brand manufactured by the tourist press, promoting an aura of mystery and romance? Or does she compare, at least unconsciously, the missions to the Nazi camps? Even as I watch her fingertips brush the Register, as if sweeping it clean, I realize that I cannot ask her these questions.

My shoe nudges my backpack, ready to push it forward. I refuse to strap it to my shoulders again. They ache. Already I’ve studied the contents of display cases within this room, an enclosure behind the church, labeled a museum. Moving from one glass booth to another, I saw the mission key, big and thick as a stage prop to unlock a medieval dungeon. I studied three chasubles-from the Latin casulae, “little houses”-embroidered, sleeveless robes worn by priests celebrating the Mass. The central chasuble, the color of budding leaves, was used for daily worship; the two golden robes, flanking the green, were reserved for Christmas and Easter, when padres staged elaborate pageants. I also gazed at the monstrance, a golden vessel shaped like a sunburst, secured to a stem and a tiered base. Centered in its rays was a round glass enclosure, the luna.  At Mass, the luna would hold the Eucharist, that wafer made flesh by the magic of transubstantiation.

At one display, I had lost track of time, standing before a statue locked in an isolated case and labeled “Our Lady of Sorrows.” This version of the Virgin came with memorable eyebrows, slanted like sharp slopes.  Deep-set eyes stared upward, as if pleading for relief, infusing her with a spirit of grief. Her black crepe dress and lace mantle cascaded in folds, one delicate inky web overlapping another. She clutched a rosary in large hands, roughly rendered: fingers, knuckles, flesh-swollen, almost inhuman, expressing torture. I took out my camera and shot her.

Still waiting behind the elderly Germans who are now photographing the Registry, I rotate my shoulders to relax. Four friends or family to the couple come in from the door that leads to the mission cemetery. Huddled in pale sunlight, they unfold city maps. The youngest fraulein, dressed in denim, calls out, “Oh, please!” Her accented English is lilting.  “There is so much to see in San Francisco. This mission is boring!” She sings the “o” like three notes in a major chord. I laugh, and the older woman glances at me, shaking her head. “Our grandchildren have no patience,” she says.

Before the family drifts from the room, I center myself before the Registry, and realize that the document is not the original, but a poor facsimile, pages sheathed in plastic, securing them against the oils and acids of human touch. The information offered to tourists is a calligrapher’s rendition of Indian to Christian names and the dates of baptisms and deaths, organized by tribes. I turn pages, my fingers sticking to the tacky plastic, until I see the heading “Miwok” and stop to examine the lists, the human taxonomy of San Dolores. The padres assigned each Indian a baptismal number, keeping accounts:

Bay Miwok – Lafayette Area

West-Central Contra Costa County

#1516 Cacnumtolé  Celacio 1770- 1816

#1531 Cacnuncia   Emigdio 1770-1821

#1553 Cacmicche   Eufrosinio 1764-1806

Beginning these names is the root “Cacnu.” This word or a slight variant meant “falcon” among the Ohlone and Bay Miwok peoples. Perhaps the word was in common use for a millennium, before the Spanish arrived.

Only months ago, I first read Miwok myths about the falcon-hero Kaknú who defeated a stone giant. The giant kidnapped people to a cavern deep underground, where he bound them until he and his servants devoured them. Shrinking to a dove’s size, Kaknú squeezed down a tunnel to the lair, where he shot an arrow into the giant’s single soft spot-his navel. The giant’s body burst, exploding through the ground and cobbling the land with rocks.

Did the destroyed giant’s body seed the missions? Their revered founder, Junípero Serra, likened the Catholic colonies strung along the coastline to a rosary. How many times did I, after Confession, move my fingers from one quartz bead to another, praying for forgiveness and the cleansing of my soul?  Magical beads surely could germinate churches, workrooms, living quarters, and prisons. They also could grow the mission’s four-foot thick adobe walls, surrounding the grounds and ensuring both safety and containment.

An Indian dare not leave the grounds without permission. Running my finger down a list of names, I remember Pomponio who escaped Mission Dolores by cutting off his heels to slip free from prison irons. Skimming the pages of the Registry, I search for his name, but it seems buried among the entries-or omitted.            

In two years, 1795 and 1796, approximately 480 Indians fled Mission Dolores. The punishment inflicted on captured fugitives was recorded by a witness, Russian otter hunter Vassilli Petrovitch Tarakanoff: “They were all bound with rawhide ropes and some were bleeding from wounds and some children were tied to their mothers. The next day we saw some terrible things. Some of the run-away men were tied on sticks and beaten with straps. One chief was taken out to the open field and a young calf which had just died was skinned and the chief was sewed into the skin while it was yet warm. He was kept tied to a stake all day, but he died soon and they kept his corpse tied up.”

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