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Restoring California's Mission San Miguel
By Wendy-Marie Teichert
By restoring this Franciscan mission that their ancestors built over 200 years ago, Salinan tribe members are recovering their history.


A Love of Roots
A Franciscan Foundation
Keeping With Tradition
'When the Windsong Makers Sing'

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.

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 missions.

“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 founded.

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 straw.

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 came.”

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 vandalism.

“That is why we’ve been trying desperately to hang on to it,” Macagni says. “We love our land and we love our heritage.”

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 continent.

'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 local bell-ringers.

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 makers.”

When the windsong makers sing,
They awaken the spirits of the long-ago people.
The music of the windsong makers
Reminds our long-ago people that we, their children,
Continually come to the building that they made
[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, wouldn’t you?”

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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.


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