Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Native American tribes included in the UCLA History-Geography Project’s lesson.
For millions of Californians, growing up in the Golden State recalls memories of sugar cubes and popsicle sticks, the common building blocks of small-scale mission replicas.
But the exercise, once common for fourth-grade students as they learned about the state’s history, has faded from many schools’ curricula. So, what happened?
First, a clarification. Despite its prevalence, “completion of a missions project was never mandatory, but it has been a popular assignment for some time,” a Los Angeles Unified School District spokesperson explained in an emailed statement.
“The project was intended to speak to the strong Spanish influence in California (culture, language, architecture, etc.),” the spokesperson wrote.
OK, so it was never required, but given its once-widespread assignment, what led to the drop in popularity many have noticed now? In short, the California Department of Education acknowledged some change was necessary.
In 2016, the state’s new educational framework raised a pair of issues with the long-running tradition: first, it failed to adequately teach the students what the mission period was like for those who experienced it, and second, it was possibly offensive in that it minimized the way Native Americans were treated.
The problem with the mission period
According to the framework from the state Department of Education, while Native Americans were initially attracted to the missions with food, wealth and the “pageantry” of the Catholic Church, they were forced to stay and work for the Spanish explorers, building presidio fortresses, cattle ranches and pueblos.
“The imposition of forced labor and highly structured living arrangements degraded individuals, constrained families, circumscribed native culture, and adversely impacted scores of communities,” according to the framework.
In addition, tens of thousands of Native Americans died, as the “population plummeted from 72,000 to 18,000.”
“This high death rate was due primarily to the introduction of diseases for which the native population did not have immunity, as well as the hardships of forced labor and separation from traditional ways of life,” the framework explained.
While some of the survivors worked to “reinforce their indigenous kinship relations” while practicing Catholicism, others rebelled, “fleeing from the padres, while a few Indians openly revolted and killed missionaries,” according to the CDOE.
From sugar cubes to comprehension
The more troublesome parts of the missions’ history was being lost in the focus on their architecture, and schools should “focus on the daily experience of missions rather than on the building structures themselves,” the framework explained.
“Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many,” the document added. “Instead, students should have access to multiple sources to help them understand the lives of different groups of people who lived in and around missions, so that students can place them in a comparative context.”
Specifically, students needed to learn more about how Indigenous peoples were impacted by the missions, said Cindy Mata, associate director of the UCLA History-Geography Project, a group of “history educators who … emphasize culturally relevant curriculum and research-based practices designed to meet the needs of a diverse student body.”
“One of the things we’re really trying to get across is … how people’s lives were affected by the missions, in particular, native peoples. There’s such a high focus on the buildings and the structures themselves, but not the people who were affected by those structures,” Mata said.
These changes can be seen in the new LAUSD textbooks, which were adopted in 2019, the School District spokesperson explained.
“The new framework discourages teachers from projects, such building missions, and instead encourages teaching about the impact of Spanish colonization on Indigenous peoples … 4th grade students, and younger, are able to grasp the concept of people being treated fairly or unfairly and how factors impact people in a community,” the spokesperson said.
Reaction to a post-diorama reality
To be sure, there are some Californians out there who enjoyed the assignment.
Alta Loma resident Becky Ramirez told the Los Angeles Daily News in 2017 that she and her then-9-year-old son Sean bonded by recreating the Mission San Francisco de Asis, which is in the Bay Area.
“He really got a lot out of it,” Ramirez said. “It was something we actually enjoyed working on together. … And I feel like my son will never forget that.”
But opponents of the mission project made clear that they believed its time had passed, and they celebrated the framework change.
The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times crowed about the revision, citing the large amount of labor required by students — and, often, their parents — and the project’s “dubious educational value.”
“If ever there was an educational reform that everyone should love, this is it,” the board wrote.
But it’s more than just the painstaking work of gluing popsicle sticks that should have doomed the missions project, the editorial board argued, as schools should also emphasize the perspective of Native American communities whose ancestors worked and died building the missions and surrounding structures.
“The models might be justified if they taught students something of greater value about the missions, such as their impact on California Indians, but they don’t,” the board concluded.
The board deferred to Tuyen Tran, assistant director of the California History Social-Science Project, to explain why.
“American Indians have likened the mission projects to projects that require students to re-create plantations in the American South or concentration camps in Germany,” Tran wrote.
What comes next
While telling the full story of the Indigenous peoples’ suffering is definitely important, it’s just one part of a larger tale, said Mata of the UCLA History-Geography Project.
Her group is creating teaching materials that instructors can use to tell a fuller story of the state’s history, which includes highlighting local peoples’ lives outside of their interactions with missionaries.
“[One] lesson is about the experience of Tongva/Gabrielino natives before and during and after the mission period,” Mata explained. “We thought it was really important to highlight all three periods, because we talk about Native folks when it comes to things that were done to them and not as much time focusing on how they were sovereign nations and sovereign people before colonization.”
While the mission project has been a recent focus, Mata sees other topics that may be ready for a reexamination, as “any time folks were coming to California, they were encroaching on Native lands and Native people.” That includes periods like the Gold Rush, when Indigenous peoples were impacted, as were many Chinese immigrants and others.
“We’re trying to make history relatable, and I understand that, but how are we also balancing us being intentional and inclusive of multiple people that were affected in those time periods that we highlight?” she asked.
Mata, who helps train the next crop of history teachers, said for the mission period and other eras, instructors need to “humanize the history” and help students understand what life was like in the past for all people, whether those students trace their ancestry to explorers and missionaries, immigrants or the Native Americans who were in California first.
“What we try to highlight is the best use of our time, humanizing people from the past and reminding teachers that Native folks are still here and that they’re very much members of our community now,” Mata said.