Cowboys and Indians

I visited the new Renzo Piano Resnick Pavilion at LACMA recently to see California Design, 1930-1965: "Living in a Modern Way", purportedly the first major study of California midcentury modern design.

The centerpiece is a replica of the steel framed Eames house (originally built in 1949 off of Chautauqua in Santa Monica Canyon) and furnished with Ray and Charles' eclectic, multi-cultural bric-a-brac. Like Gala and Salvador Dali's rambling home frozen in time at Port Lligat, Catalonia (Suquet) the Eames House re-creation is burdened with a static display of a decorative style typified by quick-fire, daily and even hourly changes that the design obsessed make in their immediate surroundings and depend upon for their fragile sense of self. At LACMA we see the lifeless effigy of a living process, a single frame from a movie, displayed in a painted wood sarcophagus. The rest of the exhibit is not much better, with way too many bad chairs (the Eames' excepted) from architects; but there is some interesting clothing, Raymond Loewy's great Studebaker Avanti (lent by Dick Van Dyke) and an impressive 1960's Hi-Fi (one of which is owned locally by Bruce Botnick, the audio engineer and music producer).

Fortunately, right next door was the stunning exhibit, Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World, which details the culture wars that ensued after the Spanish military and political conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521 and the Inca Empire in 1532. The French historian Serge Gruzinski, quoted in Daniela Bleichmar's review of the exhibit in The New York Review of Books, February 9, 2012, has described the conquest of Mexico and the imperial regime that followed for the next three hundred years as a "war of images". She goes on to write,

"Cortes and his men marched inland from the Gulf carrying religious bannners, medals, and figures. They whitewashed murals in native temples and destroyed local idols, replacing them with Christian icons....After the conquest, Catholic churches rose in the exact spots of pre-hispanic temples, capitalizing on the sacredness of those locations. Missionaries waged their own war to extinguish native religion, burning ancient sacred books and ritual objects as part of their effort to achieve a spiritual conquest....But despite this campaign of extirpation, there survived, into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, local cultures that were a complex mixture of native, European and colonial elements..."

Within a hegemonic Spanish Colonial state, the losers in the political battle used images as a means for staking out religious, social and cultural claims; but both sides borrowed forms, techniques and iconography from the other and the results are thrillingly displayed in this exhibit. Thus the richness of native art (such as feather paintings), metal work and architecture did not disappear - they were melded into a unique hispanic heritage while the appropriation of Native sacred spaces for Christian churches and cathedrals ensured the survival of these ancient power spots.

In Burn Notice and Woman of the Apocalypse I noted that, in Southern California, although native cultures were entirely subsumed by their colonial conquerors, the survival of the Spanish tradition is not in doubt, despite Spain's early withdrawal and the territory's nineteenth century annexation to the predominately Yankee, Northern European and Protestant political entity we now know as the United States. Here, a rich cultural stew exists, but one absent the spice of Native American culture.

Tom Hines, the Architectural Historian established, in his Mission Bell to Taco Bell lecture at UCLA's History department, (which I attended back in the day) the enduring appeal of Spanish Colonial architecture. This tradition was goosed, in the late nineteenth century, by Helen Hunt Jackson's novel, Ramona and has now become Southern California's signature architectural style (New Moon). While the style runs the spectrum from full blown Colonial Revival to historicist pastiche, there is no hint of native American art and culture - although it was native labor that built the mostly primitive interpretations of the style in the Missions.

These Missions and Asistencias (sub-missions), despite proselytizing goals inimical to local traditions honored them in the breach. Asistencia Santa Paula, was founded on the site of the Portola Expedition Campsite (Independence Day) at the junction of the Arroyo Mupu and Santa Paula Creek, north of the 126 and east of the 150 at the present location of Harding Park, a significant confluence for the Mupu Indians whose main village was sited nearby on what is now the Thomas Aquinas campus. There is some indication that the Californian El Camino Real followed ancient native American trading routes and spirit paths. Certainly the trail established by the Spanish from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico, was overlaid on more ancient trade-routes connecting the Native Americans of the southwest to the Mesoamericans in the old Aztec Empire.

The CSU Monterey Bay archeoastronomer Ruben Mendoza has documented solstice or equinox effects at 14 of California's 21 missions. While he claims that this is a "complex blend of solar geometry and Franciscan cosmology" this is, at the very least, a remarkable intersection of Christian and native American interests and given the latter's local knowledge and key role in the construction process it is disingenuous to dismiss their role in these alignments (Space and Practice II). In 2008, Mendoza finally recorded the winter solstice illumination of the Royal Presidio Chapel of Santa Barbara after many years when cloud or fog obscured the sun. This mission played an intricate part in the lives of the local Chumash and to my eye, at least, the building has more of the rusticity of the native culture than the neo-classical trappings of the European; here surely the Chumash were complicit in the engineering of this solstice event.

Ultimately, of course, these are but the faintest glimpses of a native American past almost entirely buried beneath the over-burden of Spanish and American history. While many ancient sacred sites were co-opted by the Franciscans in the seventeenth century now the military, as the State's largest landlord has, deliberately or not, co-opted still more. California's Native American Heritage Commission (CNAHC) has a massive listing of over 170,000 sacred locations identified as either Worship/Ritual or Sacred/Power sites. Many of these are within military installations including, for instance, March Air Force Base and Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range, Miramar Naval Air Station, North Island Naval Air Station, and Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.

The Coso Hot Springs located on the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station were used extensively by a number of Indian tribes, primarily the Owens Lake Paiutes and the Desert Shoshones while the Coso Canyons contain perhaps the most significant collection of petroglyphs in North America (Things Fall Apart). The burial sites and village remains from scattered communities of Chumash who lived along the California coast areas are now often buried beneath coastal military installations and runways. Vandenburg Air Force base has a number of power spots sacred to the Chumash and possibly feather and paint pole shrines (Space and Practice). (Vine Deloria).

The wreckage of a culture is hidden beneath roads, buildings, religious, educational and defense facilities and millions of acres of industrial farmland - the infrastructure of twenty-first century California. Its images are not much memorialized in museums (The South West Museum of the American Indian in South Pasadena closed several years ago, its collections bundled off to the Autry National Center, formerly the Gene Autry Cowboy Museum) nor its cultural production recognized as of equal value to the Missions in California's heritage (California Dreamin'). The battle was lost on all fronts. The War of Images a non-starter. The cowboys won.