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Indigenous Artists, Ingenuity, and Resistance at the California Missions After 1769


This dissertation aims to place California Indian agency and artistry at the forefront of California mission art studies through close analysis of Chumash and Tongva practices at four of Southern California’s missions: San Gabriel, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, and Santa Inés. Although the mission churches and their decorations reflect European stylistic influences, all twenty-one mission sites are the products of California Indian ingenuity and resistance. By examining primary accounts and ethnographic sources, this dissertation presents an Indigenous reading of Chumash and Tongva dances, stone sculpting, basket weaving, and painting carried out under great adversity at the missions. After entering the missions, California Indians continued to practice their ancestors’ traditions that pre-dated the Franciscan friars’ 1769 arrival. California Indian artists also combined local materials with European and Mexican styles, which gave their art and the mission buildings a unique appearance. This dissertation draws upon decolonizing methodologies, rooted in interdisciplinary studies, to deconstruct Eurocentric biases in archival sources and romanticized misunderstandings in historical scholarship about mission art and California Indian contributions. The traditional art historical tools of formal analysis and iconography bring to light the artistic talents of California’s first peoples and dignify Indigenous art on its own terms. No end date is given in this dissertation’s title because California Indian art survived and the descendants of the people who built the missions are continuing their legacy today. Readers will find a new perspective on the missions that seeks to honor the California Indian people who bravely expressed their beliefs and traditions through art in these contested spaces.

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