Ruin of the Indian quarters, Mission San Luis Rey

Mission Indians are the indigenous peoples of California who lived in Southern California and were forcibly relocated from their traditional dwellings, villages, and homelands to live and work at 15 Franciscan missions in Southern California and the Asistencias and Estancias established between 1796 and 1823 in the Las Californias Province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.


Spanish explorers arrived on California's coasts as early as the mid-16th century. In 1769 the first Spanish Franciscan mission was built in San Diego. Local tribes were relocated and conscripted into forced labor on the mission, stretching from San Diego to San Francisco. Disease, starvation, excessive physical labor and torture decimated these tribes.[1] Many were baptized as Roman Catholics by the Franciscan missionaries at the missions.

Mission Indians were from many regional Native American tribes; their members were often relocated together in new mixed groups, and the Spanish named the Indian groups after the responsible mission. For instance, the Payomkowishum were renamed Luiseños, after the Mission San Luis Rey; the Acjachemem were renamed the Juaneños, after the Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Kizh or Kisiannos renamed the Gabrieleño, after the Mission San Gabriel.[2]

The Catholic priests forbade the Indians from practicing their native culture, resulting in the disruption of many tribes' linguistic, spiritual and cultural practices. With no acquired immunity to the exposure of European diseases (as well as sudden cultural upheaval and lifestyle demands), the population of Native American Mission Indians suffered high mortality and dramatic decreases, especially in the coastal regions; the population was reduced by 90 percent, between 1769 and 1848.[3]

Despite the missionaries' attempts to convert the Indigenous peoples of the missions, often referred to in mission records as "neophytes," they indicated that their attempts at conversion were often unsuccessful. For example, in 1803, twenty-eight years into the mission period, Friar Fermín de Lasuén wrote,[4]

Generally the neophytes have not yet enough affection for Christianity and civilization. Most of them are excessively fond of the mountains, the beach, and of barbarous freedom and independence, so that some show of military force is necessary, lest they by force of arms deny the Faith and law which they have professed.[4]

When Mexico gained its independence in 1834, it assumed control of the Californian missions from the Franciscans, but abuse persisted. Mexico secularized the missions and transferred (or sold) the lands to other non-Native administrators or owners. Many of the Mission Indians worked on the newly established ranchos, with little improvement in their living conditions.[1]

Around 1906, Alfred L. Kroeber and Constance G. Du Bois, of the University of California, Berkeley, first applied the term "Mission Indians" to Southern California Native Americans, as an ethnographic and anthropological label to include those at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and south.[5][6]


On January 12, 1891, the U.S. Congress passed the "An Act for the Relief of the Mission Indians in the State of California". This would further sanction the original grants of the Mexican government to the natives in southern California, and sought to protect their rights, while giving railroad corporations a primary interest.[7]

In 1927, the Sacramento Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent Lafayette A. Dorrington was instructed by Assistant Commissioner E. B. Merritt, in Washington D.C., to list the tribes in California from whom Congress had not yet purchased land, and for those lands to be used as reservations. As part of the 1928 the California Indian Jurisdictional Act enrollment, Native Americans were asked to identify their “Tribe or Band.” The majority of applicants supplied the name of the mission that they knew their ancestors were associated with. The enrollment was part of a plan to provide reservation lands promised, but never fulfilled by 18 non-ratified treaties made in 1851–1852.[8]

Because of the enrollment applications, and the native American's association with a specific geographical location (often associated with the Catholic missions), the bands of natives became known as the "mission band" of people associated with a Spanish mission.[8] Some bands also occupy trust lands—Indian Reservations—identified under the Mission Indian Agency. The Mission Indian Act of 1891 formed the administrative Bureau of Indian Affairs unit which governs San Diego County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, and Santa Barbara County. There is one Chumash reservation in the last county, and more than thirty reservations in the others.

Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Ventura and Orange counties do not contain any tribal trust lands. But resident organizations that self-identify as Native American tribes, including self-identified Tongva in the first and Acjachemen in the last county (as well as Coastal Chumash in Santa Barbara County) continue seeking federal tribal recognition by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. There are no state-recognized tribes in California.

Eleven of the Southern California reservations were included under the early 20th century allotment programs, which broke up communal tribal holding, to assign property to individual households, with individual heads of household and tribal members identified lists such as the Dawes Rolls.

Depiction of three "Indian Crones" from the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, published in "American Indians: first families of the Southwest" by John Frederick Huckel, in 1920

The most important reservations include: the Agua Caliente Reservation in Palm Springs, which occupies alternate sections (approx. 640 acres each) with former railroad grant lands that form much of the city; the Morongo Reservation in the San Gorgonio Pass area; and the Pala Reservation which includes San Antonio de Pala Asistencia (Pala Mission) of the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Pala. These and the tribal governments of fifteen other reservations operate casinos today. The total acreage of the Mission group of reservations constitutes approximately 250,000 acres (1,000 km2).

Southern California locations

Indian cemetery at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, Carmel, California

These tribes were associated with the following Missions, Asisténcias, and Estáncias:

Northern California missions

In Northern California, specific tribes are associated geographically with certain missions.[8]

Mission tribes

The territorial boundaries of the Southern California Indian tribes based on dialect, including the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Cupeño, Diegueño, Gabrieliño, Juaneño (highlighted), Luiseño and Mohave language groups.[9]

Current mission Indian tribes include the following in Southern California:

Current Mission Indian tribes north of the present day ones listed above, in the Los Angeles Basin, Central Coast, Salinas Valley, Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay Areas, also were identified with the local Mission of their Indian Reductions in those regions.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b Pritzker, 114
  2. ^ page 8 Pritzker, 129
  3. ^ Davis, Lee. (1996) "California Tribes" in Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Frederick E. Hoxie, editor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 95. ISBN 0-395-66921-9
  4. ^ a b Champagne, Duane (2021). A coalition of lineages : the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. Carole E. Goldberg. Tucson. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-8165-4285-7. OCLC 1245673178.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ Kroeber 1906:309.
  6. ^ Du Bois 1904–1906.
  7. ^ Acts of the Fifty First Congress. Session II. Laws of the United States. Chapter 65 Jan. 12, 1891. 26 Stat., 712. Oklahoma State University Library website Retrieved February 22, 2017.
  8. ^ a b c Escobar, Lorraine; Field, Les; Leventha, Alan (September 1999). "Understanding the Composition of Costanoan/Ohlone People". Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  9. ^ Alfred Kroeber, 1925
  10. ^ Mission San Miguel
  11. ^ "California Indian Tribes and Their Reservations: Mission Indians." Archived 2010-07-26 at the Wayback Machine SDSU Library and Information Access. (retrieved 6 May 2010)
  12. ^ "About Us - Tribal History". Archived from the original on August 14, 2014. Retrieved August 25, 2018.


Further reading