Community members gathered Saturday for the final El Camino Real mission bell removal in Santa Cruz.
Community members gathered Saturday for the final El Camino Real mission bell removal in Santa Cruz. From left to right: Dr. Stanley Rodriguez (Kumeyaay, San Diego), Caroline Ward (Tataviam, Los Angeles), and Corrina Gold (Lisjan Ohlone, Oakland).
(Courtesy of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band)
Civic Life

Where Santa Cruz’s final mission bell now tolls not the question — just its tragic history, what it stood for

Just 24 hours before its scheduled removal, the mission bell at Soquel and Dakota avenues was stolen. Chair Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band says it’s important to talk about the historical significance of the bell, and he is working with the MAH to best assess how to represent this tragic and unknown history.

Just hours before its scheduled removal and corresponding ceremony, the last El Camino Real mission bell in Santa Cruz was stolen early Saturday. Yet, for indigenous community members like Valentin Lopez, the missing bell is not of concern; what’s more important now is moving forward to discuss the tragic history surrounding the bells.

“Our intentions didn’t change — it was going to come down, and that’s what’s important,” Lopez, the chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, said.

The bell marked the last of the El Camino Real bells in the city, which symbolized the enslavement of indigenous peoples throughout the state in the California Mission system. The event on Saturday, co-hosted by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and the city of Santa Cruz, continued on as a significant event for indigenous community members from across the state to celebrate future healing and wellness for all residents.

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In November, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously voted to remove all bell markers and other monuments of indigenous peoples’ experiences in the mission system. Santa Cruz is now the first California city to remove the markers. UC Santa Cruz removed a mission bell marker on campus in 2019, and a bell in Mission Park was stolen almost a year later during a protest.

That all coincides with other recent historical reexaminations in Santa Cruz County: the removal of George Washington’s bust in Watsonville and the ongoing discourse around whether Cabrillo College should change its name.

Lopez said the bell event was one of the first steps for the various indigenous peoples and communities to come together, heal and take action in recognizing the trauma associated with these symbols. He spoke with Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers at the event, who plans to write other California cities to share more about the event’s significance and encourage them to plan for removal as well to help indigenous Californians heal.

“The true history of California’s indigenous peoples has never been told, and we want people to recognize that things have got to change,” Lopez said. “We are going to work together and support each other, and the time to make changes is now.”

An overhead shot of the crowd at Saturday's bell removal event
An overhead shot of the crowd at Saturday’s bell removal event, made up of members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, county and city leaders, and indigenous community members throughout the state.
(Courtesy of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band)

Where will the bells go now? For Marla Novo, director of exhibitions and programs at the Museum of Art & History, that is all dependent on what the local indigenous communities find appropriate.

“Chairman Val and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and all of the community members involved in the Mission Plaza Project want to have truth in history, and tell the whole complete, accurate story,” she said. “What we’ve learned was a more romanticized version of the missions — in truth, they were locations that were very abusive, brutal and tragic histories that we did not learn.”

The MAH has worked with Lopez and other indigenous community members on this specific bell removal project since convening over the past year, under former mayor Justin Cummings. As Novo said, the museum aims to be “an ally not just in name but in action,” and have worked diligently to be that partner over the course of the removal plans and efforts.

“It’s a pivotal point in our time together, and it really is a time for reckoning, and to go back and have the whole story,” Novo said. “It’s not about erasure, but including those stories that haven’t been told and giving back voices to communities who have been silenced.”

Currently, the MAH and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band are still in communication about what to do with the two mission bells that were removed earlier this year, whether it would be best to incorporate them into the history gallery or the indigenous peoples’ section, or to keep it in the basement with a specific placard explaining why.

Community members triumphantly standing on the mission bell
Community members triumphantly standing on the mission bell, one of the last emblems of the tragic history of indigenous communities in Santa Cruz County.
(Courtesy of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band)

“The MAH was willing to accept this artifact and use it in a way to tell the narrative in a way that Chairman Val and the Amah Mutsun Tribe thought best,” Novo said. “They were going to take the lead, as they should, and let us know how we can support.”

Martin Rizzo-Martinez, a historian for California State Parks who focuses on indigenous histories and stories from 19th-century California, said this step is just one of many to start telling the truth of indigenous communities’ histories across the state, and provide healing for the community at large.

“Part of the healing process is telling the truth and stepping away from the lies and deceptions,” he said. “We must understand the names and processes, and recognize the native names and histories whenever we can.”

Throughout his work with Lopez and local indigenous communities, Rizzo-Martinez said that displaying the bells publicly could appear to be semi-endorsing that tragic history. However, the ultimate choice on displaying this history lies with the indigenous communities themselves.

“If you can give the context so people can understand the history, I think that’s helpful,” he said. “There’s a big difference in exhibiting in a place like the MAH, where we can understand the importance of how these bells were celebrated.”

While the decision for displaying the bells is not yet confirmed, Lopez said the ultimate goal is to tell the true history of the missions, period.

“These bells are a constant reminder that we were dominated and defeated,” he said. “It’s time for that to change — to have the truth told of our indigenous history.”