Tongva and Chumash Medicine Women who led rebellions

No pictures exist of two Indian medicine women who led resistance movements against the Spanish mission system in southern California. We don’t even know the name of the Chumash prophetess who preached a return to the old ways of her people at the Santa Barbara Mission.

In 1785, the 24-year-old medicine woman Toypurina inspired her Tongva people to rise up against the mission system in San Gabriel (now Los Angeles). She allied with two chiefs from traditional villages and Nicolas Jose, a convert who was angry that the monks forbade the mission Indians to hold their native dances. CAmissionsA soldier who understood the language overheard people talking about the revolt, and the rebels were captured. The military governor of California ordered them flogged to prove “that the sorceries and incantations of the woman Toypurina are… powerless in the face of the True Faith.”

Toypurina told the Spanish military judges that she had instructed chief Tomasajaquichi to tell the mission Indians not to believe the friars. “I commanded him to do so, for I hate the padres and all of you, for trespassing on the land of my ancestors…” They deported the seeress to Monterrey, where they forced her to convert and to marry a soldier. In this captivity she died of grief.

Many people don’t realize that the California Missions enslaved Indian people, whose mortality was high, not just from European diseases but from overwork, rape, floggings and other abuses. They were not free to leave, as the following history shows.

The Chumash Prophetess of Chupu (Earth Mother) was a Chumash woman (whose name the Spanish colonials did not record). She had a vision in 1801 after ingesting the herb sacred datura (known to the Chumash as Momoy, the Grandmother). She started a spiritual and political movement that culminated in the Santa Barbara rebellion of 1824.

Chupú, Mother Earth, appeared to this seeress, telling her that Indians who remained baptized would die, but that those who bathed in the “tears of the sun” could throw off the baptism. As word spread among the Chumash, people came from far away to see the prophetess and to honor Chupú. They made small shrines out of wood, cloth and feathers. The missionaries flogged the builders of these altars whenever they discovered them. While the monks suppressed the outward signs of this movement, the Chumash continued to venerate Chupu in secret. Finally they mounted a revolt in which half of the people succeeded in escaping inland, into Indian Country. Mexican soldiers suppressed the rebellion, and the institutionalized violence resumed at more ferocious levels.

Junípero Serra led the first colonial wave in Alta California (what is now the US state). He had been an inquisitor who repressed Indian religion and culture in eastern Mexico. Later he founded a series of prison-missions between San Diego and San Francisco, run on captive Indian labor serving the monks and the soldiers garrisoned there. The Franciscans flogged Indian residents for acting like free people, practicing their own customs or refusing labor. Armed soldiers stood by during the mandatory masses, while the congregation was kept on its knees by the whipping and caning of church bailiffs.

The colonists infected Indian “neophytes” (baptized captives) with contagious diseases that killed thousands. Soldiers abused the Indians living in the missions and committed mass rape against Indian women, as Serra knew. Such crimes, combined with the whipping of mission Indians who attended a traditional dance, precipitated the Kumeyaay revolt of 1775 at San Diego. Indian resistance to the totalitarian mission system for decades. As early as 1656, the Timucuas had revolted against Spanish missions in far-away Florida. In 1734, Baja California rose in insurrection against the mission system; it took the Mexican army two years to suppress them. The Yuma staged a successful revolt along the southern Colorado river, expelling the Spanish from their lands in 1781.

These revolts ultimately failed to stop the invasions and colonizations. The California peoples were too socially advanced (in real terms, not fake “civilization” hierarchy and accumulation) and this worked against them as they faced European-style militarized colonizers under central command structure. Not to mention they were totally outgunned against invaders totally lacking in morals, scruples, or humanity.

© 2011 Max Dashu

I’ve drawn from various sources, but the best I’ve found so far is:
Daniel Fogel’s Junipero Serra, the Vatican, and Enslavement Theology, San Francisco: Ism Press, 1988.

My original post elicited this great comment from Andrew Lara:
‘Here’s to Modesta Avila (Juaneño), who in 1889 refused passage of the newly placed Santa Fe Railroad track in San Juan Capistrano. She placed a sign that read, “This land belongs to me. And if the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay me ten thousand dollars.” She was arrested and died in San Quentin in her early twenties. Fight on!’