Wednesday, January 5, 2011

4th Grade

In keeping with the nostalgia theme, I thought I'd write a little bit about an incident I was involved in in the 4th grade.

I believe that in California public schools it is still required to teach "California History" in the 4th grade. I actually have a couple of 4th Grade California History textbooks from the late 50's and the early 60's, and they are, to say the least, rather sanitized pictures of what went on during the several phases of California history up to then. Sanitized? Well, "cleansed" I think is the better term. Cleansed of any hint of Unpleasantness.

Part of our 4th Grade historical experience in my day was a visit to one of the Spanish Missions that were established along El Camino Real starting in San Diego in 1769. The closest mission to my school was San Gabriel, and dutifully, my 4th Grade class bussed off one day to see it.

I thought it was fascinating.

All my life, I've rather liked things old an musty and somewhat crumbling around the edges, and in the mid 1950's San Gabriel Mission, though still an active parish church and long a destination for area tourists and school children, was still in a not-quite-fully-restored state, and I liked it for that.

We toured it, heard the story of how the kindly padres ministered to the cheerful, willing Indians, how they raised cattle and grapes and lived their lives in peace and harmony, and then we went back to the school where teams of students were assigned to work on models of California Missions for display on History Day. It was all quite wonderful.

During the period that we were creating our models of missions, another boy and I were playing a fantasy game in the corner of the school yard, something we would do during most recesses. We were making up and acting out a kind of fantasy of California's past, based on what we were learning in class and what we were seeing on TV of what Used To Be -- remember the Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger? -- and one day, we were playing our game after a grader had been over the school yard in the corner where we usually went, and I noticed what looked like a large rock poking out of the ground. I went and pulled it out and saw that it was a long, cylindrical piece of granite or some such stone with tapered ends. My friend said, "Somebody made that." It looked to have been made, indeed. And the rock, whatever it was, wasn't something commonly found in the area.

Moments later, I came across another rock which I dug out of the ground and discovered it was thin and flat and that the cylindrical rock fit its width. My friend said, "That's Indian stuff."

Hm. So we took the items to class and showed them off. The teacher was amazed and wanted to know where we'd found them. We took her to the spot and showed her how I'd dug them out of the ground. She, then, called the anthropology department at Cal Poly, and they sent out some researchers who did some gridding and digging in the schoolyard over a period of weeks. The class would assemble from time to time at the dig site -- which was rather heavily featured in local newspapers for a time -- and we would hear about what was going on.

Ultimately, one of the researchers came to our class and explained that they believed the site was that of a Gabrielino Indian village, probably dating from the latter 1700's though it may have been established well before San Gabriel Mission. They had found arrowheads, bits of crockery, some unidentified wooden objects, and the outlines of two brush shelters used by the Indians. They said it was not a camp but was, so far as they could tell, a more or less permanent village under the influence and guidance of the Mission, but more or less independent. The residents had a pretty good source of food nearby in the oak forests, game was available, and crops could be grown; they had at least intermittent water from the stream (that had been concreted and turned into a drainage ditch in recent times) and in good times, it was probably a very pleasant place to live.

Artifacts were taken away, the site was graded over again, and lawn was eventually planted in the schoolyard.

I got to thinking about the kind of life these Indians must have lived, and how strange it was that outsiders -- whether Spanish or Mexicans or Americans -- could simply wipe away their village and the Indians that lived there and pretend as if they never existed, how they could casually plant orange groves over the remnants of the former village, then casually rip out the groves to replace them with houses and schools, where I, a simple 4th grader, could accidentally stumble across what little still remained of the Indian village, and scholars could come to study the site for a few weeks, only to cover it all over again and plant lawn over the remains. How transitory everything is.

It was a startling revelation to me. One that I have never forgotten.

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