A popular rite of passage for many California fourth graders is the “mission unit,” an element of the state’s History / Social Science educational framework designed to help teachers navigate the complexities of the California mission period. Unfortunately, mission unit lessons often devolve into little more than scale mission models made of sugar cubes and popsicle sticks. The 2016 update to the framework denounces the literal sugarcoating of mission history and provides instead content standards geared more toward researching the experiences of the people who lived in and around the missions.
With that in mind, teachers looking for more mindful material for mission unit lessons may want to consider historical fiction works, such as Gary Robinson’s novel Lands of our Ancestors. Robinson (Choctaw/Cherokee) wrote the book for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, and notes that while the story focuses on characters from the Chumash Nation, it represents what happened to the Indigenous people from nearly forty tribes who encountered the Spanish priests and soldiers that came to the region to establish religious missions and colonial outposts. Robinson also notes that the Chumash depicted in the book lived in the Santa Ynez Valley and spoke a Chumash language called “Samala.”
Lands of Our Ancestors begins as a light-hearted coming-of-age story during the California mission period. The protagonist, Kilik, is a twelve-year-old boy who trains to become the “ideal Chumash man” like his uncle Salapay, who is as knowledgeable and strong as his name implies. As the narrative progresses, however, an uneasiness sets in. Kilik’s father reads the night sky and sees an inscrutable change coming for his people. There is anxious talk between Chumash villages of strangers who “speak an odd language and wear odd clothing that covers their entire bodies.” Readers knowledgeable of California mission history will know who the strangers are and what they want. What they won’t know, however, is what happens to Kilik and his family after encountering the strangers. Along with other narrative draws—including relatable characters, high stakes, good pacing, interpersonal conflicts, and balanced syntax—the unknown ending, the open loop within a known history, makes the Lands of Our Ancestors a definite page-turner.
The novel includes in its introduction an overview of relevant Chumash words, character names, and tribal history, but also refers readers to the accompanying teacher’s guide for further exploration of the Chumash people in pre-Columbian California. Created by Robinson and Cathleen Wallace, the guide also includes highlights of Chumash cultural revitalization work, images of traditional Chumash life, critical thinking prompts, additional vocabulary, and project ideas designed to meet fourth grade History / Social Science Common Core Standards, per the guide’s description.
History has been whitewashed for various reasons, some more insidious than others. Land of Our Ancestors strikes a great balance in its effort to provide another perspective of California mission history to young people and their educators.