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A Visit and Observation of The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana

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I visited the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. There were three main categories of California History: The Native American’s settlement, the Mission Era, and sections of paintings significant to depicting California’s history. These exhibits illustrated the beginnings of California and how our modern state was formed initially, through the first citizens being the Native Americans to the colonization through the missions.

For the Native American settlement period, pottery, jewelry, tools, and baskets were showcased to construct an image of the lifestyle the Native American people led. While a multitude of Indian tribes inhabited the state (some of them being the Mano Palute, the Pomo, and the Yokut), Southern California was particularly special as it housed several tribes including the Chumash and the Gabrielino. The Bower Museum displayed various baskets made by Californian Indians. These baskets were used for gathering food and water (with the basket woven tightly enough), cooking, storage and used for ceremonial purposes. Each basket illustrated a unique pattern to symbolize themes of health, vitality, love, prosperity, and so on. One such basket portrayed what we recognize as swastika signs. The museum attendant with us explained that for native people, this particular sign represented several things, ranging from the process of making a fire to the rays of the sun. It is interesting to note how a sign that represents hate, prejudice and death today meant the complete opposite a few hundred years ago. In the Frontier Tales: The Narrative Construction of Cultural Borders in Twentieth-Century California by Kerwin Klein, a tribal informant and chief Francisco Patencio of the Cahuilla tribe states that all families had a specific sign mark. Found on “ollas, baskets, on everything they made, was the signature mark of the family—the tribal sign, too. These marks did not mean language, no. The language could change, but the sign marks never” (Klein 481). Native Americans relied heavily on symbols to convey messages of love, ownership, family, friendship, nature and so on. These baskets could represent what was of utmost importance to a family or tribe.

Shells played a vital role in Native American culture. The Bowers Museum contained plenty of shells, ranging from huge abalone shells used for ceremonial purposes to small shells used for hair decoration to shells designated as currency. One such example of the hair accessories are the butterfly-shaped ornaments that the museum states is from the Channel Island Culture in the years 250-1600 A.D. The abalone shells also served more than just ceremonial purposes, small bits of abalone shells acted as fish hooks with their shimmery and shiny qualities. Besides the standard shells one could find, the museum quotes Hugo Reid who said that the Native Americans used “thick rounded shells, less in diameter than a five-cent piece. They had a hole in the center and were strung on long strings” (Bowers Museum). The primary uses of these shells were currency, and Native Americans handled distinct shells (also marked by the string and holes) to trade goods. The broad usage spectrum these shells have indicated how the Native Americans made the most use out of their surroundings and natural materials.

I found that the Native American section shed significant light on the earliest evidence we have on civilizations in California. Native Americans once dominated the entirety of the United States, and as they were original citizens, it is vital that we study and recognize their cultures and practices and understand how those eventually shaped and influenced our culture and lives today (specifically the Californian Indians). By visiting the museum, I gained a rough understanding of how the Native Americans navigated obstacles and challenges and various tools they utilized. Some examples of these include the shells they used for money, jewelry, and ceremonial purposes. As neat as the materials and treasures in the museum are, Anthony Andreas of the Caliente tribe reminds Klein and us that “culture, it’s not material things, it’s more spiritual” and while tapping his chest says “it’s in here” (Klein 490). The Natives did have material goods, but the focus of their culture was on the bonds and emotions one had for their culture.

The frontier movement in California quickly shifted into the mission settlement era. Communities and religion rooted throughout California and slowly forced Native Americans out of the areas or into the missions themselves. Settlers established businesses, and consequentially the economy started developing, and social classes began to unfold. One such example of the colonists was the Pico family. One of the first settlers in the Los Angeles area, the Pico family obtained power and positions through a marriage. The museum labeled Pio as the last governor of California who was “a colorful figure with enormous land holdings and a penchant for gambling” (Bowers Museum). He fought for Mexican independence and also for California to become more liberal. Pico fought against American invaders and became very involved with politics, and by the 1840s, he had made a name (and fortune) for himself. The museum’s biography of Pico contains intriguing tidbits such as the fact that Pico owned the first significant hotel in California, located in the Los Angeles area. Maria Casas reviews Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California by Carlos Manuel Salomon. The article states that while his political positions and penchant for economic dealings secured Pico wealth and fame, his gambling addiction lead to his eventual bankruptcy as he bet against another man to race horses (as Pico believed he owned the fastest horse in the land). Betting countless animals and goods, Pico lost the race and slowly declined into bankruptcy and lost his fortune. However, Pico and his family still serve as an iconic symbol of the mission and settlement eras as he colonized land and fought in the war to keep California free from America’s clutches.

The stepbrother of Pio Pico, Juan Forster, arrived in California in 1833. Immediately enamored by the new and blended culture California provided Forster changed his name from John to Juan and even applied for Mexican citizenship. He married Pio’s sister Ysidora and eventually moved his family to San Juan Capistrano. Bowers museums biography of Forster states that Pio Pico gifted his brother-in-law Rancho Mission Viejo plus Portnero de las Pinos and Forster himself bought the mission of San Juan Capistrano from an auction, using the abandoned mission as his home. However, in an ironic twist, Forster opted to assist the Americans in the Mexican-American war and supplied the troops and eventually joined them. Forster helped the American forces avoid an ambush and contributed to Mexico’s retreat and surrender of California. It’s interesting to note that Forster engaged in the Mexican culture but didn’t extend his loyalties to his adopted culture or to in-laws (who were Mexican) in the war but chose to aid the Americans and their endeavors. Perhaps for a man like Forster, it wasn’t about loyalty but getting to be involved with a new and exciting civilization. After all, America was still very modern to most standards and held plenty of exotic and exciting opportunities.

Robert H. Jackson outlines the statistics and facts behind missions in his work, “the Dynamic of Indian Demographic Collapse in the San Francisco Bay missions, Alta California, 1776-1840”. According to Jackson, the majority of working people were usually male ages fifteen to forty-nine. He notes that “there were also increasing incidents and active resistance in the missions, large-scale flight, and armed conflict… The Spanish-Mexican colonization effort in Alta California stalled as a consequence of growing resistance by an increasing number of Indian groups” (Jackson 144). He moves on to study life expectancy and mortality rates in missions, finding that life expectancy was higher in missions located in San Diego, Monterey, Santa Barbara and San Francisco with life expectancy averaging out to around thirty years. (Jackson 150). The reason for this boils down to better treatment and living conditions for the Native Americans and other inhabitants of the missions.

These missions, even though their memories are filled with sickness and death and enslavement, are still essential to study as they act as a bridge, transitioning California from a time and place dominated by Native Americans to civilization and settlement.

The painting galleries featured several similar paintings that boasted bright colors, loose shapes, and nature. These paintings were created to represent the idyllic lifestyle California was known for, gorgeous landscapes that had everything: beaches, the ocean, mountains, plains and hills, and even deserts. Lifestyles in California were spurred by hope from the gold rush and of a new state and economy. People in California were adventurous, courageous and determined and these were shown in the paintings. The paintings also portrayed how California had the perfect setting for booming agricultural industry. Iconic paintings I viewed included the Ideal California Day by Frank Coburn. The painting is described as the “quintessential image of the healthy California lifestyle” featuring plenty of flowers and vibrant colors. Coburn’s art captured the essence of how lush and bountiful California was, possibly enticing newcomers to come to California. Carl Oscar Borg’s Guardian of the Trail from 1930, ironically, depicted the lifestyle of the native peoples and scenery way after it would’ve been possible to encounter such a scene in California. Bowers Museum notes that these paintings, coupled with romantic novels such as Ramona, ignited a passion within citizens for the rancho lifestyle and of the Native Americans.

Fannie Duvall’s Confirmation Class highlighted the Anglo community of San Juan Capistrano and also the mission area. The painting illustrated young girls clad in white dresses outside of a mission. Duvall portrays how mission lifestyles weren’t all work and no play but could easily contain a family lifestyle. While religion did play a huge role in any mission lifestyle, this also encouraged families to become involved and could also foster the minds of young children. In essence, this landscape showed how living on a mission was for everyone, not religious leaders and men.

To capture the untainted beauty of California, painters largely favored the plein-air style of painting. According to the museum, this style involved painting the landscape of California to appear untouched and free from modern life. Additionally, from the study “Constable, Duranty, Mallarme, Impressionism, Plein Air, and Forgetting” by Joel Isaacson, it is said that plein-air has two main themes of “forgetting (putting knowledge aside) and finding (pursuing nature innocently and directly” and also “performs a role in renewing the public’s awareness of and responsiveness of both nature and art” (430-431). This style is closely linked to the Los Angeles culture boom of 1920. Known as California Impressionists, the plein-air style was seen back then as a Bohemian approach with Laguna Beach becoming a focal point of California art. Secluded and not entirely developed in the early nineteenth century, Laguna Beach slowly became a popular tourist attraction with canyons, coves, and beaches providing the perfect setting for painters, like Frank Coburn, who painted in Laguna Beach using the citizen’s daily lives as inspiration. Even though modernism took over California, citizens remained captivated by California’s natural beauty and sought to preserve that through paintings. Thus, the plein-air paintings of the century became wildly popular. Paintings held in the Bowers Museum offered a visual history lesson through breathtaking pieces of art that represented how life progressively changed in early California. From paintings focused on Native Americans to the mission settlements to more modern takes on California, one can grasp a firm understanding of California history.

The visit to Bowers museum offered a detailed glimpse into the history of California, ranging from artifacts that depicted how Native Americans lived to the rapidly developing civilization of missions to the paintings that showed the ins and outs and typical Californian lives. Outside research provided a backbone to the museum’s intriguing artifacts and information, fleshing out the smaller details of how a brand-new territory and state looked like and how it unfolded to become one of the world’s economic beacons eventually.

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