Story Education

A New (and More Accurate) Way to Teach California Indian History

Iris Yokoi

The state’s new guidelines encourage teachers to move away from Mission replica assignments and toward a depiction of the often difficult experiences of California’s first peoples.

Photo from California Missions Foundation website, California Missions Night Photography Project by Paul Richmond


There’s now an open book for a new curriculum, for us to shift the conversation and the ways we talk about particular times in California’s history. 

Michelle Lorimer, Ph.D., Lecturer, Department of History, California State University, San Bernardino

​If you grew up in California, chances are good you remember the "Mission project" assignment when you were a third- or fourth-grader. For decades, the state's elementary school curriculum for teaching California history focused on the project, which required students to visit one of California's 21 missions and write a report about their mission of choice.

Somewhere along the way, the assignment, for many, evolved into kids (and often their parents) creating replicas of the missions in the form of shoebox dioramas or adobe churches and ranchos made of sugar cubes, Legos, or even candy.

These days, though, both experts in California Indian culture and education professionals say that's not the way to teach children about the first peoples of the state. On October 9, both groups will gather at California State University, Sacramento to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day and discuss a big shift in the state's teaching curriculum for third- and fourth-graders as part of the California Indian Curriculum Summit.

"The Mission project seems to be, in many cases, pretty superficial," says Michelle Lorimer, Ph.D., a lecturer of history at CSU San Bernardino and the author of Resurrecting the Past: The California Mission Myth (Great Oak Press, 2016).

"It tends to ignore the complicated experiences of native people within the mission system and focuses … heavily on the Spanish perspective — especially the perspective of the priest, the European explorers."

Shifting the Conversation

In 2016, the California Board of Education approved a new framework for history and social sciences, including new standards for K-12 education.

The change has given Dr. Lorimer and her fellow members of the California Indian History Curriculum Coalition the opportunity to help direct the new curriculum and, she says, "for us to shift the conversation and the ways that we deal with particular times in history, and even entire groups or California history as a whole."

"We're trying to gather the histories of locals, trying to bring more voices to tell the stories," adds Lorimer, who will speak at the October 9 event.

Specifically, Lorimer and her mother-in-law, Maureen Reilly Lorimer, Associate Professor of Education at California Lutheran University, would like to contribute to the new curriculum with lessons they've created that present the perspective and experiences of native Californians, such as "how people interact with the land over time," she says.

Lorimer also says she wants students to understand the impact of newcomers who moved into California, and how the interaction between groups changed for both sides, and how native people survived and continued to exist through such changes. The arrival of the Europeans led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and even millions of Native people as a result of disease, warfare, malnutrition and starvation from livestock and intrusive plant species brought to America.

"I want to try to bring attention to the experiences of native people beyond death and disease and destruction, but show greater focus on culture and cultural continuity and continued survival."

Lorimer notes that, for young kids who are first learning about the missions, the lessons must first focus on building their geographic skills.

With that in mind, the lessons that Lorimer and Reilly Lorimer have created incorporate four maps, starting with a basic land-form map of California, followed by those showing plants, animals, birds, native trails, and large village sites. Students then can begin to see "how everything is interrelated," Lorimer explains. "And then you can see what happens throughout the different periods."

Moving Beyond the Mission Project

The new state history and social science framework does not include detailed lesson plans for teachers to adopt for each segment, Lorimer points out. Instead, teachers have room to adopt aspects of the framework in their classrooms. They are encouraged to engage students in complex issues by posing questions such as, "How were people’s lives affected by missions?" "How did the life of California's Indians change during the mission period?" And, "How did the Mexican War come about?" 

"The framework is fairly open but it specifically discourages teachers from doing mission projects," Lorimer says. "It really wants students to do a lot of investigative work, to look at complex relationships, use primary source documents, images, artwork, artifacts.

"We want students to engage deeply with the content instead of doing more superficial projects."

Learn More

California Indian Curriculum Summit 
Monday, Oct. 9, 2017
8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
California State University, Sacramento, Orchard Suite, University Union
Event details >

California Indian History Resources
A project of the California Indian History Curri​culum Coalition
This website offers California Indian History issues, including news coverage, lesson plans, books and other resources.

Kim Marcus, who is from the Serrano and Cahuilla tribes of California, is culture director and head counselor at Noli Indian School on the Soboba Reservation. He is pictured here opening the Fall 2017 Convocation at Cal Poly Pomona with a ceremonial Native American blessing, Sept. 18, 2017. Photo courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona