Scripps College is gorgeous, we know this. Touring Scripps for the first time as a Southern California local, I recalled the blindingly-white Mission Revival-style luxury hotels littered through Santa Barbara, a similarly orange-roofed animal hospital in Ojai and the pink pearly peppercorn trees in my hometown. Every aspect of the campus is a feat of aesthetic pleasure and quintessentially Californian.
Growing up in Southern California, my fourth-grade social studies unit on the California missions lined up pretty keenly with the beauty and ubiquity of Mission Revival style. We were told that the missions were benevolent Christianizing institutions that Indigenous people came to and remained at willingly. Some of my classmates took field trips to remodeled missions in San Fernando and Santa Barbara, making sure to exit through the gift shop at the end. Others were tasked with creating their own mission out of popsicle sticks and non-toxic glue.
This narrative of colonial benevolence is known as Mission Mythology: a revisionist history of the mission project which is reproduced in fourth-grade classes, historic mission gift shops, and, among other things, Mission Revival architecture. Now, eight years later, I attend Scripps, an institution applauded for its Mission Revival architecture.
Queer Indigenous author Deborah A. Mirandah describes the Mission style derived from this colonial era as a “visual mythology” accompanied by a “cultural storytelling” which “drains the missions of their brutal and bloody pasts for popular consumption.” In essence, the image of missions is not associated with colonial violence; rather, it’s a setting for weddings, prom photos, and, as explored by former TSL columnist Frances Sutton PO ’22, the protection of white womanhood.
The Claremont Colleges currently occupy an area known as Tovaangar, a stretch of land which has been held in stewardship by the Gabrielino-Tongva for 2,500 years. Reaching from the coast to San Fernando, the San Gabriel Wilderness and Mission Viejo, Tovaangar contained tens of villages, the closest of which to campus was Pemookanga, in what is now Walnut, California. First colonized during the Portola Expedition in 1769, the Gabrielino-Tongva were enslaved and forced to construct the San Fernando and San Gabriel Missions, both of which are under 50 minutes away from campus.
The Gabrielino-Tongva’s resilient history in the Los Angeles Basin is reflected in a recent art installation titled TongvaLand. The project exhibited seven billboards across Los Angeles from August to September 2021, featuring artwork by Chemehuevi photographer Cara Romero and Tongva artists. Romero approached TongvaLand wanting “to convey that LA is a Native space; that the Tongva People are here, and that it is our responsibility – whether we ourselves are Native or not – to educate ourselves about whose land we are on.” Further, the project serves as a means of raising “critical public awareness to the fact that the First Peoples of the city with the second-largest Native American population in the US do not have Federal Recognition.” Mission Revival architecture and the cultural storytelling it accompanies attempt to gut Southern California of its true history, masking genocide behind pristine stucco walls. Yet, TongvaLand places Indigenous narratives back in focus.
The Gabrielino-Tongva have been recognized by the state of California since 1994; however, their lack of federal recognition excludes the tribe from a variety of federal aid, including, but not limited to, pandemic-related relief funds. Though the tribe has actively sought federal recognition for years, they remain “one of two state-recognized tribes and the best-documented tribe in the State without federal recognition.” Indigenous populations are among those hit hardest by COVID-19 and the lack of federal recognition only exacerbates this issue.
Just as these fantasy heritages and imaginary histories were reproduced in my fourth-grade social studies class, they are reproduced every time the Scripps campus is praised, toured and posted on social media without historic context. With the acceptance of this fantasy comes complicity in the maintenance of false cultural narratives which have served as the basis for the erasure of Indigenous communities who have cared for the Los Angeles basin for several thousand years.
I implore Claremont students to not only refuse to be fooled by Southern Californian fantasy mission mythology but to also take on an active role as a steward of the history discussed in this article. The Claremont Colleges owe our Indigenous students, friends and neighbors a helping hand in the fight to recognize TongvaLand.
For more information regarding the Gabrielino-Tongva, please visit gabrielinotribe.org/history.
Cassidy Bensko SC ‘25 is TSL’s Southern California Columnist from Santa Clarita, CA. They’re a certified tree hugger, goldfish enthusiast, and lover of comedy.