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  • Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers by Kent G. Lightfoot
  • Arthur A. Joyce
Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers. By Kent G. Lightfoot. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005.

Over the past 25 years cultural anthropology and archaeology have increasingly turned towards historical perspectives for both theoretical and methodological inspiration. Trends towards historical modes of analysis include the influence of Michel Foucault, poststructural theories of practice, the Annales School, feminist and identity theories as well as the move towards interpretive methodologies. Scholars are increasingly referencing Historical Anthropology as a distinct subfield that draws together ethnographers, archaeologists, ethnohistorians and historians. Historical archaeology, perhaps more than any other field, has the potential to draw together diverse data sets and to view history from multiple perspectives. Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers by Kent G. Lightfoot exemplifies the historical approach in anthropology by critically synthesizing documentary, oral, and archaeological data to examine late seventeenth and early eighteenth Century encounters involving Spanish and Russian colonies and the native peoples of coastal California.

Lightfoot takes a comparative approach examining both the Franciscan Missions of central and southern California as well as the less well-known Russian mercantile enterprise of Colony Ross, located only 110 km north of the Spanish Presidio of San Francisco. He relies on European historical documents to examine “intended” colonial structures designed to subjugate native peoples and uses native oral traditions to consider indigenous perceptions of colonial policies and practices. Archaeological data, particularly Lightfoot’s long-term study of the Fort Ross Historic Park, provide windows into the daily practices of native peoples before and during the colonial period. By using a practice-based approach, Lightfoot investigates how native agency is employed in interactions with European colonists and considers how Indian populations negotiated and even resisted colonial domination. He considers seven dimensions of interaction between native peoples and colonists: enculturation programs, native relocation programs, social mobility, labor practices, interethnic unions, demography, and the chronology of colonial encounters. Finally, a major goal of the study is to consider how the histories of Native American interactions with Russian merchants and Spanish missions differed and how these cultural transformations came to influence which native groups would become federally recognized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Franciscan missions, constructed between 1769 and 1823, were designed to dramatically transform coastal hunter-gatherers into a peasant class of neophyte Catholics. Thousands of Native Americans were removed from their homelands and resettled around the missions thereby destroying traditional economic systems and disassociating people from places that embodied important elements of indigenous identity. Labor requirements at the missions were extreme with neophytes working in agriculture, ranching and craft production with little compensation. The poor quality of life and epidemic diseases took a huge toll on native peoples. The Franciscans were increasingly forced to recruit from greater distances bringing together indigenous peoples in the missions who spoke different languages and in some cases were traditional enemies. Finally, indigenous social institutions were often disrupted through the incorporation of natives into low-level administrative positions who were not traditional tribal leaders. By the time that the Franciscan colonial program had run its course, lasting around 70 years, there would have been few living natives who had experienced pre-colonial life.

Yet Lightfoot’s analyses of native texts and the archaeological record show that despite highly oppressive conditions, Indians were able to mediate and sometimes actively resist the Franciscan colonial program. Most neophytes were actively engaged in the construction of multiple identities and social positions. While Native Americans were at the bottom of the colonial status hierarchy, some social mobility was possible. Women could advance through intermarriage with Hispanic colonists, while some men gained status by becoming skilled craftsmen and office holders. Yet among both natives who actively engaged the missionizing program and those that maintained some social distance, the archaeological record suggests that in the private spaces of native residences, traditional foods, technologies, ornaments, and ceremonies persisted. Despite intense repression and high mortality rates, Lightfoot shows that neophyte communities were still “active and socially viable entities” (p...

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