Bell symbolizing past atrocities stolen before planned Santa Cruz withdrawal
In the early 1900s, a series of beacons were installed along El Camino Real, a stretch of road connecting the Spanish missions, presidios and pueblos. The bells, hung on supports in the shape of a shepherd’s crook, were intended to attract automobile tourism to the missions.
Hundreds of bells now line various roads between San Diego and Sonoma counties.
But for some indigenous people, these bells are not nostalgic symbols of a bygone era. Instead, they are a representation of the suffering and dehumanization of their ancestors at the hands of Catholic missionaries.
“History says we needed missions because we were savages and we needed religion,” says Carolyn Rodriguez, youth group leader of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “But we had our religion. We had our own way of life. We didn’t need to have to take another one.
On Saturday, the tribal band led a ceremony to signify the removal of a bell at the intersection of Soquel and Dakota avenues in Santa Cruz, which is now the first city in California to remove all bells from public property. The tribal band is made up of descendants of tribal groups that fell under the influence of the San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz missions in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Originally, the tribal band planned to remove the bell following a public speech at Mission Plaza Park and a procession to the site. But late Friday night or early Saturday morning, the bell was stolen.
Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills confirmed the theft on Saturday. Mills said police had no suspects yet, but had collected evidence and were looking for surveillance footage.
“We think we can make some progress in the not too distant future,” he said. “We will definitely investigate the aspect of hate crime, if it is a hate crime. [Saturday] we create a visual presence to make people feel comfortable and safe.
Former Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings spoke out against the theft of the bell during the rally at Mission Plaza in front of a crowd of around 400.
“I strongly condemn the illegal removal of the bell as a night cover,” he said. “These types of shameful acts are not acceptable. Now is the time to honor all indigenous peoples. Today we are not here to reverse the story, but to get it right. “
Valentin Lopez, president of the Tribal Band, says the theft doesn’t matter in the long run.
“It was going to fall anyway,” Lopez says. “The most important thing is that it was deleted. The ceremony was a time of prayer and community gathering. It was time to recognize the true story of the missions and move on towards healing.
He also says that the removal did not change the ceremony “in any way”.
“We had the same prayer, the same speakers and the same message,” he says. “[It] brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to reflect, pray, learn and recognize the time to change and to heal.
In November 2020, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted to remove the bell from Soquel Avenue. This followed another ceremony in 2019, when one of them was pulled from the UCSC campus.
“It’s about showing the real story of what Indigenous people went through,” says Rodriguez. “Removing the bells means we are moving away from the mistaken myths we were taught in school about the mission system. We’re now focusing on the Indigenous perspective and how that leads to modern times, how we still struggle today. “
Ahead of the ceremony (and the premature withdrawal), Rodriguez said she expected some people to claim that removing the bells would take away important parts of California history.
“But we don’t take away anything that is really true,” she said. “A lot of times people don’t want to think about the bad side of the story… They find it hard to come to terms with the violence that has taken place. People could also say that the missions were necessary for the development of the United States, but they were not. We have been dehumanized. We had no rights. They looked at us like we had no soul. Keeping those bells glorifies this story.
The bell was replaced on Saturday with an informative metal sign that describes the reasons for its removal. The sign will eventually be replaced by a permanent memorial to be developed by the tribal band and the city of Santa Cruz.
Lopez said the tribal band is continuing their work to remove more bell markers statewide. This includes a campaign calling for the bells to be removed from state property.
“We hope to speak to other native California affected by the missions and continue to work with the tribes who attended the ceremony,” he said. “We hope to develop a way to talk to government officials and officials about the need to remove the bells and its importance. “
Rodriguez added: “Santa Cruz leads by example. But there are still a lot of bells there. I hope this change will pave the way for lowering more bells and creating more healing for more communities. “
For more information on the current effort, visit removethebells.org.