Father Ray Tintle, O.F.M., and Shirley Macagni, an elder from the Salinan tribe, stand in front of their beloved Mission San Miguel in July of 2007.
PHOTO BY TOM MEINHOLD
ON A WARM JULY DAY in
1797, in the tawny hills
of central California, a
call to worship rang out
from a bell suspended in
an oak tree. The bell was announcing
the first Mass at the new mission named
for the Archangel St. Michael. The
native people living in the area—the
Salinan tribe—were expecting the
arrival of the Franciscan missionaries.
On that first day, they presented 15
children for Baptism.
Over 200 years later, in May of 2006,
descendents of those original Indian
catechumens were present to honor
Mission San Miguel Arcangel in an official
ceremony designating the structure
an endangered national treasure.
Although it has lasted through a
checkered history as a church, saloon,
dance hall and storehouse, the old
adobe building was ravaged by a 2003
earthquake that damaged its structure
and fractured its walls.
Recognizing its fragility and value,
the National Trust for Historic Preservation
named San Miguel one of the country’s
11 most endangered historic places.
At the ceremony, Salinan Council member
Barbara Tavena blessed the Salinans
and the Trust’s commemorative plaque
with the sweet-smelling smoke of sage,
intended to drive away bad spirits and
invite spirits of healing and blessing.
Tribal Elder Shirley Macagni spoke for
her people: “We stand here today in the
very heart of our ancestral lands, in
front of the mission my ancestors built
by hand. The Salinan Indians were the
ones who mixed the adobe, dried the
bricks and carried them to be placed in
this historic structure.
“The history of my people is an
indelible and integral part of this whole
complex,” Macagni continued. “It has
been painful to witness the crumbling
walls and massive cracking threatening
to level what has stood for so long.”
A Love of Roots
Backing up these words with actions,
the Salinans returned in August of 2006
to make new adobe bricks for the ailing
mission, which has closed its doors to
the public until it can raise funds for
retrofitting and repair. When the
Friends of Mission San Miguel invited
the community to help make replacement
adobe bricks, the Salinans signed
up, excited to have their bricks join
those of their ancestors.
Elder Macagni and about 20 other
members of her tribe showed up on
the first day of the weeklong project,
ready to wet down frames and pour
mud. According to John Fowler, head
of Friends of Mission San Miguel, the
Salinans’ enthusiasm got the project
off to a good start.
“The Salinans blew right through
it,” he says. “They set the tone for the
rest of the week.”
The efforts of the Salinans, together
with 200 other volunteers, produced
3,000 new bricks, using soil taken right
from the mission grounds. The tribe’s
newsletter reported a “spiritual connection
with those who were here
before us. We just hope our bricks last
as long as theirs have.”
In addition to the bricks that make
up the physical structure of the building,
the Salinans of yore contributed to
the aesthetics of the interior by executing
glowing murals under the direction
of Spanish artist Esteban Munras.
The murals and decorative art are the
only surviving examples of Spanish
colonial artwork at any of California’s
“The love of roots and history is
what drives us to want to preserve the
missions,” Macagni says, noting that at
least 95 percent of the Salinan tribe
still lives in the territory they inhabited
when the Spanish arrived in California.
Their ancestral land is on California’s
central coast between the Santa
Maria River in the south and the Pinnacles
Mountains in the north. That
would be roughly between San Luis
Obispo and Monterey.
Elder Macagni traces her lineage
paternally to the Salinan converts, or
neophytes, of Mission San Miguel;
maternally to those of Mission San
Antonio, 40 miles to the west.
In a telephone interview, she noted
that her great desire to see San Miguel
restored has a personal meaning as well
as a public one. “It’s not just tribal, it’s
family with me,” she says.
Macagni traced her genealogy
through the mission’s baptismal registry,
working backward from the record
of her grandmother’s Baptism all the
way to 1771, the year San Antonio was
The baptismal records have gained
new importance for the Salinans
because they are working to establish
themselves as a viable tribe with the
Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)—a status
that would make them a nation and
allow more legal and financial freedom
to care for their elderly and assist in the
education of their youth.
The BIA requires written documentation
of bloodlines, and these are only
available from the registry of Baptisms
and marriages kept at the missions. “If
it weren’t for the Church,” Macagni
says, “we wouldn’t know who we are or
where we came from. The mission system
kept the records.”
Using mission documentation or
scattered records from outlying
rancherias, the tribe has been able to
establish a base roll of 400 adults and
300 children and youth.
A Franciscan Foundation
Unlike other settlers of the American
West, Father Junipero Serra, O.F.M.,
had a plan to give the mission lands to
the Indians after they had been sufficiently
trained in the skills of agriculture,
construction and self-government
to run the missions independently. The
relationship between the Salinans and
the two missions that served them—San Antonio and San Miguel—appears
to have been especially amicable.
The Franciscans learned and recorded
the native people’s language, taught
them how to play stringed musical
instruments and trained them in the
making of tile and adobe brick. Mission
San Miguel had a particular reputation
for its fine roofing tile, a material which
proved much more fire-resistant than
In recent years, some have contended
that the native people were badly
treated by the Spanish colonizers.
Macagni disagrees with those who
would use the alleged abuse of her people as an excuse to frustrate the repair
of the missions. She feels the mission
priests were not to blame.
“I understand some of the thoughts
people have, but I just can’t support
them,” Macagni says. “It wasn’t for
enslavement that the missionaries
In her view, the mistreatment of the
Indians occurred under the Mexican
government, which ousted the missionaries
and left the mission converts
stranded. During the 20 or 30 years
when Mission San Antonio was abandoned,
Macagni’s forebears “did everything
they could” to protect it from
“That is why we’ve been trying desperately
to hang on to it,” Macagni
says. “We love our land and we love our
Keeping With Tradition
The Salinan tribe has its own ceremonies:
gathering yearly at Mission
San Antonio for discussion and renewal
of old friendships; celebrating summer
and winter solstice on Morro Rock, a
volcanic peak that stands like a giant
just off the coast.
For a long time, Macagni says they
kept to themselves and, until recently,
they have not been much in the public
eye. When the caretaker of San Antonio’s
musical instruments and artifacts
invited them to share their culture more
widely, however, the tribe responded.
The caretaker, John Warren, is also a
musicologist who leads a small troupe
of dedicated musicians in recreating
the melodies of early California. Named “The New World Baroque Orchestra,”
these musicians play dance and liturgical
music of the mission days.
Warren felt the culture and songs of
the Salinan people were integral to California’s
story, and his concerts began
to feature members of the tribe playing
drums and chanting songs in honor of
the animals that sustained them.
At the first such concert, held at Mission
San Antonio, 35 members of the
tribe showed up, outnumbering the
orchestra. Amid great emotion at being
remembered and recognized, the Salinans
were introduced by Warren as “the
people who built this building. The history
of this place is their story, too.”
Warren has rendered the Our Father
in the Salinan language, using the
rough dictionary written by the pastor of San Antonio in the early 1800s for
vocabulary, together with an ethnographer’s
cylinder recording of native
speakers made in the early 1900s. In a
paradoxical inversion, he is teaching
this prayer to the Salinan children,
whose parents are delighted that the
lost prayer is being restored to them.
Other collaborative concerts with
the Salinans have been the Day of the
Dead, held at Mission San Antonio
around the feast of All Souls, and a ceremonial
bell blessing at Mission San
Luis Obispo. At each concert, some
aspect of the Salinan culture is shared.
The Day of the Dead includes a dramatic
procession to the graveyard, led
by a figure dressed entirely in black.
The black color is to symbolize invisibility,
or the Spirit. The figure carries an
abalone shell with smoking sage and
tobacco, used to purify and to bless.
When the procession arrives at the
graveyard, every person present adds a
bit of sage to the charcoal fire so that all
contribute to the blessing. A litany of
the saints is sung, invoking the prayers
of well-known saints such as John the
Baptist and St. Francis, as well as those
of all the holy souls of the Salinan tribe,
the native peoples of California and
the native peoples of the entire American
'When the Windsong Makers Sing'
The Festival of the Bells is celebrated in
August. As with other concerts, the
New World Baroque Orchestra wears
costumes of a Spanish flavor—red
sashes for the men, red roses for the
women—while the Salinan participants
wear regalia of deerhide ornamented
with shells, beads and feathers.
The 2006 concert featured a mixture
of old Spanish melodies, a Mass from
1795 written by missionary Father Juan
Bautista Sancho, the songs of the Bear,
the Owl and the Deer, and the pealing
of the Mission’s five bronze bells by
This integration of cultures and times
was capped off with a blessing of the
bells, given by the Salinan people in
their own language. Having no word for “bell,” they used the phrase “windsong
When the windsong makers sing,
They awaken the spirits of the long-ago
The music of the windsong makers
Reminds our long-ago people that we,
Continually come to the building that
[In order] to preserve their work.
We ask Creator to bless this place.
Let the windsong makers sing on always
For their music touches our souls.
Whether making bricks for San
Miguel, praying for the dead at San
Antonio or blessing the bells of San
Luis Obispo, the Salinan tribe is walking
the path of peace, embracing their
history and sharing their culture.
In her closing remarks to the
National Trust for Historic Preservation,
Macagni said of Mission San
Miguel, “We must do all we can to save
this historic site from being lost, not
only for my people, which the site is so
important to, but for all of us.
“This mission was built that we
might come together, share what we
have and provide shelter for the weary
traveler. Until the earthquake, it was
still doing this 200 years later. I would
say my ancestors did a pretty good job,
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Wendy-Marie Teichert is a freelance writer and
parishioner at Mission San Luis Obispo in California.
Her work has appeared in Catholic Digest and
National Catholic Register, as well as this publication.