We have previously discussed the removal university names, mascots, and symbols in recent years in response to student protests, including an effort to replace the GW “Colonial” mascot. I have previously expressed my concerns over the removal of long-held mascots and names in colleges from “the Cowboys” to “Shooter the Fox” to the Aztecs to the “Fighting Sioux” to “Chief Illini” to the “Prospectors” to the “Pioneers.” Now, students have succeeded in convincing the University of California Santa Cruz to remove the traditional California “mission bell” from campus. The bells are part of the the path of the historic El Camino Real, the 700-mile trail that connected the 21 California Spanish missions with hundreds of such bells. Critics insisted the “Deeply painful symbols that celebrate the destruction, domination and erasure of our people.’
In its announcement, the university declared that the bells are “viewed by many populations as a symbol of racism and dehumanization of their ancestors.” However, they are also a symbol for many of the expansion of Christianity and missions throughout North America. There is no question that this was a period of terrible crimes and abuses for Native Americans. There was abuse and cultural destruction. That is history that should be taught and recognized. However, these missions also sought to bring schools, hospitals, and, yes, the Christian faith to the Southwest. To often, it is simply easier for administrators and faculty to simply remove historical monuments or symbols. Not only does it quiet any protests, but it avoids the danger of being targeted as insensitive or even racist. It is far more difficult to add to such displays to create a more accurate or inclusive understanding of history. It is the difference between education and expungement.
The question is a familiar one when symbols and figures hold different meanings for different groups. Valentin Lopez, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band chairman called the bells “deeply painful symbols that celebrate the destruction, domination and erasure of our people. They are constant reminders of the disrespect our tribe faces to this day.” I entirely understand that view and agree that these missions caused untold harm to many Native Americans in forcing the adoption of a foreign language, culture, and faith. However, the missions also have an altruistic meaning and purpose like Mission San Rafael Arcángel which created a medical asistencia as part of Mission San Francisco de Asís. It was the first sanitarium in the region. Both meanings can be represented together in such public displays.
As I have argued previously, I am reluctant to see the removal of such historical images as opposed to placing them into a fuller context. This would seem an ideal case where adding information is better than removing it.
What do you think?