Rename Los Padres National Forest? Race and Recognition In the Woods

Should Los Padres National Forest be renamed?

In the roiling social wake of the George Floyd killing, and the peaceful protests and the violence and destruction that erupted across these United States and the world, in this moment of national reflection and argument on matters of race and recognition and respect, when statues of Confederate as well as Union leaders have been toppled, and the military stands guard around the Lincoln Memorial, the question above comes to mind.

Here in Santa Barbara a small nation of dark skinned people were once forcibly rounded up by other light skinned people motivated by a supremacist ideology, removed from their homes, and taken to camps where their kidnappers pressed them into labor, chased down runaways, and through the systematic use of violence from beatings to murder sought to reeducate them and strip them of their culture.

The events sound reminiscent of the antebellum American South.

This happened to the Chumash Indians in Santa Barbara County at the hands of the Spanish Franciscan friars, the padres.

The padres manifest their nation’s destiny by the sword over the peaceable hunter-gatherers, motivated by a sense of duty to a superior god and for the glory of Crown and Church and their exceptional nation-state, as they saw it.

These sorts of aggressive and belligerent actions were commonplace at the time and throughout history, nothing singular in their cruelty, and arguably in accordance with international law known as right of conquest.

Today we recognize the moral bankruptcy of the might makes right argument.

Morning at a spring in the Chumash Wilderness.

History is horrific.

“Women are never whipped in public, but in an enclosed and somewhat distant place that their cries may not excite a too lively compassion, which might cause the men to revolt.”

So wrote Jean Francois de la Perouse in 1786 after visiting a California mission and witnessing the abuse of Indians and the inner workings of the padres’ regime of oppression.

“The latter, on the contrary, are exposed to the view of all their fellow citizens, that their punishment may serve as an example,” La Perouse wrote regarding the punishment of Indian men by the padres.

La Perouse described a system of institutionalized control and abuse similar to slave plantations he’d seen in Santo Domingo:

These punishments are adjudged by Indian magistrates, called caciques. There are three in each mission chosen by the people from among those whom the missionaries have not excluded. However, to give a proper notion of this magistracy, we must observe that these caciques are like the overseers of a plantation: passive beings, blind performers of the will of their superiors. Their principal functions consist in serving as beadles in the church, to maintain order and the appearance of attention.

No doubt the padres carefully guided the selection of their caciques in order to facilitate Spanish conquest.

Disobedience,  insubordination, intransigence were not tolerated. Hence the whippings.

Walker A. Tompkins, the late Santa Barbara historian, wrote of what was the largest organized revolt in the history of California missions and noted that the fight of 1824 began “over the flogging of a Purisima neophyte.”

Outraged over the beating, the Indians burned much of the Santa Ines mission and surrounding buildings and the uprising spread to Santa Barbara and La Purisima missions.

The passage above from La Perouse calls to mind the epithet of “house negro” in describing such servants as the caciques that aided their oppressors if only to slightly better their own plight.

Malcolm X can tell you about it: Malcolm X: The House Negro And The Field Negro Speech.

La Perouse concluded that the padres thought of the California Indians as “too much a child, too much a slave, too little a man.”

White slave holders and postbellum oppressors routinely referred to black men in America as “boy” and to this day the simple word can be explosive and is loaded with the freight of history.

Mr. T chose his stage name with this in mind, so that whenever somebody addressed him the word “mister” came first. Growing up he says he saw too many white men call black men “boy.”

Scott O’Dell won numerous awards for his 1960 novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins. The book is based on the true story of a Nicoleño girl left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island after the padres forcibly removed her people to the mainland. Juana Maria, as she came to be known, is buried at Old Mission Santa Barbara.

Previous post on this blog: Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island: A Female Robinson Crusoe (1897)

When Chumash Indians fled the Catholic Church’s ruthless grasp and escaped into the interior hinterlands to live with other holdouts the padres launched military expeditions to recapture the runaways.

The following describes events surrounding runaway Indians from Mission La Purísima in Santa Barbara County. One of the padres had an especial relish for children.

By 1817, Tulami, a Yokuts village on the northwestern shores of Buena Vista Lake, had developed a reputation among the Chumash neophyte Indians of Mission La Purísima as a refuge away from Spanish settlements.

In the winter of 1817, Father Mariano Payeras discovered that six neophytes left Mission La Purísima and headed east to Tulami without informing him or the other missionaries.

Because the neophytes neglected to ask the missionaries for permission to leave La Purísima, Father Payeras categorized the Indians as “fugitives.” He asked the commandant of the Santa Barbara presidio to organize a search party to capture and return the “fugitives” to the mission.

Owing to his previous successes in the conversion of children, Payeras was especially hopeful of retrieving the youngest Indian, a thirteen-year old boy named Sebastián Viquiét.”

—Paul Albert Lacson “Born of Horses:” Missionaries, Indigenous Vaqueros, and Ecological Expansion during the
Spanish Colonization of California

Swallowtail on an iris beside the spring in the Chumash Wilderness, June, 2020.

In 1936, wildlands in and around Santa Barbara County once home to the Chumash for thousands of years were named Los Padres National Forest in honor of the Franciscan friars.

In 2007, in support of renaming San Marcos Pass the Chumash Highway, then California State Assembly representative, Pedro Nava, cited a “peer reviewed study that demonstrated the profound historical significance of the 8,000-year-old Chumash trail network.”

The profound historical significance of other issues should also be taken into account when naming our public resources.

That 8,000-year-old Chumash trail network cuts through the Los Padres National Forest.

Do you think something else besides a footpath may be of profound historical significance here?

In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act was passed which barred Asian immigrants from the United States. The law was sometimes referred to as the Japanese exclusion act and it served as a resounding victory for the anti-Japanese movement in California at the time.

Roger Daniels The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion 

Around the same time period Los Padres National Forest was named twelve years later, segregation was matter of course, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in California with the Klan openly demonstrating in costume and marching in rallies in Washington D.C. and it would not have been unlikely to see the same in Santa Barbara.

The naming of the forest was a product of its era and popular national sentiment of the time.

Judging the past by today’s mores and social norms can be a mistake.

And sometimes history is so muddled as to be impossible. Thomas Jefferson owned many slaves, but how can we possibly rid ourselves of the Declaration of Independence that he authored?

But, perhaps now it is time to reconsider the name of our forest all these years later after so much has changed. Even the Supreme Court changes its mind now and again.

In 1992, the United States honored the Chumash with a wilderness in their name. The Chumash Wilderness lies within the bounds of a national forest named in tribute to the marauding religio-racial supremacists whose plunder was found in the form of native bodies, and who enslaved and killed their kinfolk and tried to erase their culture from existence.

Think about that.

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38 Responses to Rename Los Padres National Forest? Race and Recognition In the Woods

  1. Coyote Dave says:

    Chumash National Forest has a nice ring to it!

  2. “One cannot and must not try and erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.”
    Golda Meir

  3. George Armstrong says:

    Excellent writing Jack. Very moving.

  4. says:

    I agree and I thank you for this well-documented post. You could have gone on to describe more horrific treatment of the Chumash and other California Indians by the missionaries. I’m pretty sure Golda Meir was referring to Germans and others wanting to forget about the Holocaust. That is not a fair comparison to the argument for renaming statues, monuments, parks, etc., that continue to degrade and demean oppressed people by their presence. Lots of places, streets, etc., are renamed over time. Now is the time to reconsider Los Padres. On that note, there is already a Chumash Wilderness in historical Chumash territory. The LPNF extends north into other tribal lands so that name might not be appropriate. I’m sure we can come up with something.

  5. Lila Henry says:

    Excellent idea. Thank you for bringing the fight home. How do we go about doing it? Good point about the different tribal territories within the Forest. So first we need a name of dignity and respect. Then we need to know where to apply to change it.

  6. Lila Henry says:

    We should talk to the tribes first. They probably already had names for the land. And see what they want, and ask how we can help.

  7. Jack Elliott says:

    This just hitting the wires this morning:

    “Not just Confederate statues: Indigenous activists want conquistadors, missionaries removed”

  8. Ellen says:

    Jack, I appreciate your account though I think we can doubt that the story of the padres was one of unremitting evil and cruelty. I have no brief for the California missions but do have concern as to whether anyone would protect them from vandalism and destruction. Have you considered opting for explanatory signage in lieu of the renaming (and sometimes the destruction) of countless candidates in this county for the treatment you suggest? Would you promote the changing of the name of our nation’s capital and virtually all its most prominent monuments and buildings? That is already being considered. And the name of the city where I currently live, Saint Louis, since king and saint Louis IX was a crusader some 800 years ago who we are told offends present-day Muslims and Jews? Why can we not add rather than subtract public information and displays as the number and spread of “cancel culture” actions and proposals flood the scene. Renaming isn’t vandalism, to be sure, but what we have now, mostly, is vandalism and vengeance. The crushing of idols is in our nature (viz. Moses and the Golden Calf); and the ideals of the French Revolution led ultimately to the guillotining of Robespierre and the radicals (as the revolution eats its own), then to Napoleon and empire. Name changing most frequently follows conquest. In the current frenzy over symbols, radical people in the streets don’t have time for reflection and discussion and conquer the symbols with ropes, paint and fire.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Ellen. Thanks for stopping by, and taking time to comment.

      I hear you loud and clear, and I have tended, with respect to this issue of renaming, through the years stretching back over a decade, to oppose renaming places and things in America.

      I would not necessarily support the renaming of iconic American buildings and monuments for various reasons. I can explain, but for sake of brevity will not do so at this moment. The White House was built by slave labor. I don’t think that necessarily means it should be razed.

      I agree with your comment on vandalism and vengeance.

      I never considered signage, as you suggest. I don’t fancy that idea, though.

      I understand that there will always be some offended group no matter what we do. You mention Muslim outrage. Cat Stevens called for murdering people that criticized Islam and Mohammed. Stevens agreed with bin Laden and al-Zarqawi. Salman Rushdie wrote a book critical of Islam and had a fatwa put out on his head. I don’t side with the Muslim radicals and militants and revolutionaries that are offended about free speech.

      Great point about the French Revolution and then the exporting of the revolution overseas into empire.

      California native farmer and a PhD classicist from the Central Valley, Victor Davis Hanson, addresses this either or scenario and suggests a middle ground in his book Mexifornia.

      “In the fourth grade we were asked to memorize the names of the California missions. Protestant and Catholic alike learned that Father Serra was a civilizing, if flawed figure that tried to introduce agriculture, transportation and some refinement to a barren California landscape. In contrast, later generations have been told that the friar whipped Indians and forced them to convert to Catholicism. Surely the truth lies somewhere between the romanticism of my own education and the cynicism of the current indoctrination. But what is missing in the new dispensation is any sense that the world in which we live now—the cosmos of universities, the rule of law, antibiotics, surgery and eye glasses—for good or ill evolved from the world of Father Serra, not from the indigenous peoples of California whom he may or may not have oppressed.”

      I understand that the missionaries were not agents of unremitting evil and cruelty. But it also appears just as clearly throughout the pages of history that what they did in the name of their god, Crown, Church and country was not something we should honor by naming our forests after the religio-racial conquistadors of a foreign power that ran their society based on the “casta” system of hereditary worthiness which in principle Americans rejected in the American Revolution. What good reason is there to name the forest in honor of Los Padres?

      The Ku Klux Klan were known to hand out charity baskets to black families. But we never allow such instances to cloud our understanding about all their other evil acts. Of course, there is nothing redeeming about the Klan. And Los Padres came from a culture and civilization from which Americans are tied in innumerable ways and are in fact indebted. Yes, Los Pares represented the vanguard of civilization on this continent, which Americans would later take up and expand. But I don’t see any reason why all that means we should be naming our forest after them. Surely all the other Spanish place names around here are more than sufficient in recognizing this aspect of our history. We don’t need Los Padres for that.

      • Rename the forest it makes no difference to me what you call it. I will still be out there every weekend searching for solitude and an escape from society and all of the worlds problems. It wont matter though, the masses will never be happy until every “iconic American building and monument” is renamed and or destroyed and even then it will never be enough. We live in greatest country in the world and yet it seems most Americans are never satisfied. This statement is not directed at you Jack just reflects my current thoughts. Thanks for the post.

  9. DONNA J HASLETT says:

    I totally agree. It is time to rename Los Padres and all the other public spaces that honor oppressors. Very cogent article. Thanks.

  10. Well, this subject is sure to cause a shit storm.

    I think there’s a valid distinction to be made between naming something in honor of someone (or, in this case, a group of “someones”) and a historical fact or object.

    So for example, in my mind the mission buildings themselves (even though their means of construction and what went on in them) are more of a historical artifact than they are monuments to the greatness of the Spanish padres that established them. The same is true it seems with the El Camino Real. As far as I know, we didn’t create the royal road to honor the Spanish explorers of old. Instead, it is in fact that path those explorers used in their journey north from present-day Mexico. Recognizing that fact isn’t the same thing as putting it up on a pedestal.

    As for the LPNF, I have no particular affinity for the name other than comfortable familiarity. If the name is changed to something that is less of a poke in the eye to the natives who resided their first, I’m not going to get upset about it. As you mention, the history, the good, the bad, and the ugly, won’t be going away any time soon.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      A show alright. Always fun to stir the pot!

      Excellent point in drawing a distinction between honoring somebody or some thing and naming for sake of historical significance.

      Although I am not sure we can separate the two. If we name for significance how can it also not be seen as a tribute or honor?

      My interest in considering a name change has to do with respect for natives, yes, but not only that. It also has to do with ourselves, as Americans as a country. I don’t think it reflects well on us as a people to continue with this name any longer. I think we could come up with a much better name.

  11. Jack Elliott says:

    In the post above I cited La Perouse likening the mission system and the treatment of the Chumash to sugar plantation slavery he’d seen in Santo Domingo.

    Here Peter Kolchin mentions those slave plantations in his history, American Slavery, 1619–1877, as operating the most sophisticated and highly developed system of slavery around.

    “The Southern United States represented the northernmost outpost of this plantation system, which reached its apogee of organizational development on the large sugar estates of Jamaica, Saint Domingue (later called Haiti), Cuba, and other Caribbean colonies.”

  12. Bryan says:

    Very interesting concept, you’ve once again fabulously paved a slippery slope. Well done. Taking it perhaps one step too far, does that also mean certain Spanish place names would also need renaming? Obviously Junipero Serra Peak would need an immediate change. See you later everything Reyes, right? I’m sure they weren’t all saints, I mean? maybe they were saints? I’m not even sure how to phrase that anymore??? Mission Pine would have to go. You certainly can’t leave the name Santa Cruz. What about Murietta? also an outlaw, two strikes, you’re out. Is Indian Creek okay? Beartrap, hunting extinct subspecies? And Nordhoff…. oh wait, that’s already happened. Mostly tongue and cheek but you certainly bring up an interesting topic to explore.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime,” said Beria the Stalinist.

      If looking for an offense we could probably always dig up something to find grievance in.

      Mission Pine is an historic place, which makes it distinctly different from, say, Junipero Serra Peak.

      Some of these names are not honorary, in other words, and so fall into a different category.

      There would certainly be other names that came to mind if we renamed the forest, but that’s not a good reason not to rename the forest.

      It is either the correct thing to do or not regardless of how many names may need reconsideration.

      There are a number of things about the padres that makes me question why we should name the forest after them.

      I would like to look back and see what the reasoning was at the time Los Padres was named. I’m sure it was a one sided affair with no mention of the all the atrocities. And so for how long should we continue to overlook these facts?

      The padres weren’t Americans. They didn’t write the Declaration of Independence. We didn’t inherit Blackstone’s Commentaries from them. So what is it about them that we should name the forest after them? I don’t get it.

      • Bryan says:

        From the History of the Los Padres Forest, 1945:

        “It will be seen that the Santa Barbara National Forest was the result of a consolidation of different national forest units. It was located, however, in six counties and residents of other counties somewhat resented the name Santa Barbara. Public pressure was brought to bear on local administrators to change to a name less identified with one county. The four counties of Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Monterey, in which the bulk of the national forest was located, were all closely identified with mission history, and the trail of the Mission fathers led over the rugged slopes of the Santa Barbara National Forest. Furthermore, nine of the old missions were located adjacent to the national forest area, already replete with an atmosphere of Spanish and Mexican days. It was quite logical that the name finally chosen, “Los Padres” (The Fathers), would be met with universal approval, so by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated December 3, 1936, the Santa Barbara National Forest became Los Padres National Forest, “The Forest of the Fathers”–a fitting memorial to its first white users.”

        And from Blakley’s 1985 Historical Overview of the Los Padres:

        “Many people considered it inappropriate that the name Santa Barbara National Forest should be retained or the new forest, as parts of it were in San Luis Obispo, Kern, Monterey and Ventura Counties. People in these counties lobbied to have the name changed. The name Los Padres National Forest was finally chosen because the Forest was situated near the area where the padres had performed their missionary work during the Hispanic Period.”

        And from Craig Carey’s 2012 first edition:

        “Named for The Spanish Padres who established a network of missions along California’s southern and central coasts, the Los Padres National Forest is the second largest national forest in the state…….”

        I would love to dig into more but I’m assuming they’ll all more or less follow suit. I agree, it would be educational to hear some debate from the time over the name and learn what other names might have made the short list. Maybe someone out there will be able to uncover that information…..

      • Jack Elliott says:

        Thanks. I’m curious of what was said at the time. In government and the press and such. By the people. I’ll have to read the executive order and see if I can dig up anything in the papers back then. Those three books say the same the thing but offer nothing deeper from primary sources material. Or do they? It’s a pretty vague gloss over. I’ll have to bother to spend a minute to look into it. I have those books.

        “the trail of the Mission fathers led over the rugged slopes of the Santa Barbara National Forest. ”

        We all know whose trail they were following.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        A clip from a 1937 newspaper also talks of the Santa Barbara name being an issue. Not much said.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      I would not expect the forest to have been named for Indians back then. And I am not suggesting it be named now for the Chumash. But I wonder why people were so enamored with the padres at that particular time. Who was pushing this in politics? Where did it come from?

      • Paul M. (To be renamed Pablo de la Playa) says:

        I’ve wondered about this too.

        There is a plaque at the Courthouse placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution around this same time, in 1927, honoring Gaspar de Portola. There is an image on the web of it.

        “First white men” is the phrase on the plaque.

        This might suggest that a few local and influential people with a conservative view of “heritage” raised their voices.

        What was happening?

        Was Thomas Storke a factor?

        Thanks for this essay Mr. Jack.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        Thanks for stopping by, Senor.

        That’s an interesting observation. I’ve seen that plaque. My interpretation wouldn’t be so political as perhaps your reading of the matter. I would not be inclined to view that plaque through the prism of today’s political labels, liberal and conservative.

        I don’t necessary think there is anything inappropriate about memorializing the first white man.

        I don’t think the phrase “white man” is a dirty word.

        Bryan kindly provided some excerpts from local history books above and one of those notes the Los Padres National Forest being named for sake of the first white men to be there or to use the forest, whatever.

        Currently, the US Forest has a page up memorializing Santa Barbara National Forest ranger, J. D. Reyes, as the first Hispanic ranger.

        I tend to view the “first white man” memorial comments in the same light.

        The Europeans that first set foot in California represented the vanguard of western civilization, of which we as Americans are absolutely the inheritors of. So the motivation for Americans to memorialize people like Portola and the Franciscan friars is perfectly clear to me.

        But, I am questioning why we should name the forest after those foreigners just because they were the first white people to be there, when so much of the padres’ history is not much different from the sorts of horrific events that went on in the South during slavery. I am questioning the idea that a shared skin tone and basis of civilization is all we need to consider when naming our forest after the padres.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        By shared skin tone, I am going out on a limb here and assuming that the push to name the forest Los Padres at the time was by and large the effort of white folks. But I suppose Hispanic residents back then might also have been inclined to support the name. Maybe it should be noted that Hispanics are often or at least sometimes considered white by government and in society.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        You mentioned Portola. I had mentioned JD Reyes.

        From the US Forest Service site commemorating JD Reyes:

        “Reyes’ great grandfather, Juan Francisco Reyes (1747-1809), was a member of the Portola Expedition that arrived in (Alta) California in 1768.”

    • Jack Elliott says:

      “The four counties of Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Monterey, in which the bulk of the national forest was located, were all closely identified with mission history,”

      Closely identified with the condor, too. Of course few people liked the bird back then in ’36.

      But nonetheless if only Americans had more imagination when naming the forest and less of an anthropocentric frame through which they viewed the natural world.

      They would have then called it the Condor National Forest.

      And everybody could have been proud.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Here’s the executive order, highly illuminating as it is. Should have expected as much.

      December 03, 1936
      By virtue of and pursuant to the authority vested in me by the act of June 4, 1897, 30 Stat. 1, 11, 36 (U.S.C., title 16, sec. 473), it is ordered that the name of the Santa Barbara National Forest, in the State of California, be, and it is hereby, changed to Los Padres National Forest.



      December 3, 1936.

  13. Jack Elliott says:

    Noozhawk article published August 10, 2020:

    ‘Indio Muerto’ Likely to See Demise as Santa Barbara Street Name
    Chumash tribal council says name given in 1851 is ‘insulting, offensive and demeaning’

    The street name “Indio Muerto” appears to be on death’s door.

    The Barbareño Chumash Tribal Council is calling on the city of Santa Barbara to drop the Eastside street name, calling it “insulting, offensive and demeaning.”

    In Spanish, Indio Muerto means “Dead Indian.”

    The Neighborhood Advisory Council voted 10-0 on Monday night to remove Indio Muerto and replace it with Hutash St., which means “Mother Earth,” in the Chumash language.

    The panel’s recommendation will now go before the City Council

    “To me, dead Indian street is like a dehumanizing commercial broadcasting every day, a direct message that says ‘you don’t exist and don’t matter,’ right into your subconscious, and the reality is that everyone is subjected to this inhumane symbol that Indian lives don’t matter,” said Fidel Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Santa Barbara.

    . . .

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