Alta California - A Movie Script

Lynn H. Elliott

In 1851, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, told the Legislature to expect war “until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

Recounting his state’s dark history, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday issued an apology in front of a group of Native American tribal leaders on behalf of the state for a history of repression and violence.

Mr. Newsom, in an emotional presentation, recited a published chronicle from the 19th century that listed a tally of Indian deaths, including an account of a white settler who chose to kill children with a revolver instead of a high-caliber shotgun because “it tore them up so bad.”


“It’s called genocide,” he said. “That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.”

"Serra's legacy in California has been reevaluated in recent decades in light of the many native peoples who were forced to live and work at the missions where they endured physical abuse.  Thousands died."  (Adam Beam, Associated Press, Chico E-R, November 15, 2022)

The questioning of the Mission Era and the “good Padre Serra’s” effect upon the demise of the native Americans of California was, until recently, the province of historians.  That is beginning to change.

ALTA CALIFORNIA is a script dealing with the Mission Era in California and its effect on the demise of the indigenous peoples.  Even the name "the Mission Era" shrouds a time of violence and enforced religion.  It was a time when a single-minded and resolute priest, “the good padre” Serra, reinforced  a religious belief and way of living antithetical to that of the indigenous peoples. 

"To justify their plans, they took preexisting notions of their own centrality reinforced by their self-interested interpretation of the bible [my emphasis], and created a hierarchy of who could do what, who could own what, who was on top ["upper rung peoples from Europe"] and who was on the bottom and who was in between."  (Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, p. 23)

By so doing, Spanish priests and soldiers did whatsoever they wanted to those on the lowest rung: the indigenous peoples of California.  

Reaction to the Canonization of Padre Junipero Serra by Pope Francis in 2015:

  1.  Statues of Serra were defaced and torn down.
  2. Mission San Gabriel was destroyed by fire.
  3. California Assembly Bill 338 9/27/2021 authorizes the removal of a statue of Padre Juniper Serra in the Capitol Grounds to be replaced by an homage to the indigenous peoples of California.  Serra's statue was replaced by that of William Franklin, Sr. who worked to preserve the [Miwok] culture including its traditional dances.
  4. In 2022 land was returned to the Mechoopda tribe, "Hastings" law school was renamed (Serranus Clinton Hastings authorized the killing of Yuki Indians in Mendocino County), and nearly 650 offensive terms for Native American women were removed from geographical features and place names in California.

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In the foreground of ALTA CALIFORNIA is the fictional account of a young man Paco Palido's, existential quest for a home, a place he belongs, amidst the horrors of a dominating, foreign power whose enforced "religion" has assigned his unbaptized mother to their Hell.

PACO:  Remind me, padre, that no matter how much the neophytes study the scriptures,

how many times they fall on their knees and pray, how many ‘Hail Marys,’ they say,

how many times they confess and beg forgiveness,

for you the heathen is here, inside--always!

When Paco Palido's mother is slaughtered and his tribe wiped out, the half-breed boy is “saved” by a Franciscan priest.  His years in the mission school and attempts to Christianize him are unsuccessful.  The necklace his mother gave him is more powerful than any Christian symbol.  Throughout Paco has a choice: rediscover the life and religion of his indigenous mother, or accept the enforced religion and lifestyle of the European, Catholic conquerors whose religion condemns his mother to Hell.

Now a mission guard, Paco denies continued to reject any attempts to convert him.  Witnessing repeated whippings, treatment of “neophytes” (baptized heathens) as animals, the haunting words of a local chief, and the recurrent ghostly visions of his mother "now in Christian Hell"—all reinforce Paco’s inner struggle: “civilized” versus “heathen.”

Throughout Paco tries  to find his people, those with whom he belongs.   Eventually, after being captured by the “wild” Chumash of the Santa Barbara area, Paco is saved from death by a traditional necklace given him by his mother.  In a powerful scene during a “Big Meeting Celebration,” Paco talks with the ghost of his mother.  He has finally found her, among his people.  He also finds a new love interest, Ifapi, a “wild” native, so different from the passive “neophytes” (baptized natives) of the missions.

Woven into Paco's story as setting and background  is historical truth: 

  1. the Christianization and eventual demise of California Indians,
  2. The repeated clashes--true but conveniently forgotten in many history books--between the secular authority (Captain Felipe de Never), and religious authority (Padre Junipero Serra).   
  3. Captain Felipe de Neve was the third governor to confront Serra.  The first two were ineffectual.  Captain de Neve, a favorite of King Carlos, was excellent both as a military man and bureaucrat.
  4. With the white men racing from the East, drawn by gold, and the Spaniards preparing to leave California, there was a question of what to do with the "neophytes" (baptized mission indians).  Captain Felipe De Neve and King Carlos, the secular authorities, have one solution: return them to their tribal ways.  Padre Serra has another: leave them in the mission; God will protect them there.  How Serra won that battle is both conveniently forgotten, masterful and intriguing.  He won, De Neve, King Carlos and, eventually, the mission indians lost--with devastating consequences.   (see Edwin A. Beilharz, Felipe de Neve: First Governor of California, California Historical Society, 1971, and A Cross of Thorns, Elias Castello, Craven Street Books, 2015).