Courtesy Library of Congress
This tile work mural in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of California, serves as a memorial dedicated to the original peoples of the island.

Pastor Canoe: How the Missions Affected the Life of One Pimugna Man

Duane Champagne

Pastor Canoe was born about 1805 at the village of Pimugna on the island known today as Santa Catalina Island of the coast of Los Angeles, California. The villagers gave the island the same name as their village.

Canoe was born to a leading family in the village, and he was educated for a leadership position, or captain, as the Spanish say. His name was not Canoe when he was born, but the name was taken by the village leader after gaining the confidence and support of the village elders. By the age of 20, Canoe was leader of his village. He had been trained to conduct and understand village ceremonies. One of his most important duties was keeping the village sacred bundle, which was protected always by the leading village families. The sacred bundle was the spiritual focus of the village, and represented the heart, or perhaps the ancestral and living spirits of the Pimunga community.

As leader, Canoe was allowed more than one wife. He had three wives, who assisted him in entertaining visiting guests and supporting village gatherings and ceremonies. One of his wives took the name Coroni, which was a traditional name for the chief’s wife. Canoe had a reputation for strong powers and great ceremonial knowledge. An American in 1851 wrote in the Los Angeles Star that Canoe was still a “Great Wizard.”

About 1825, the mission padres at San Gabriel Mission in California ordered Canoe to leave Pimunga, and live at the mission. A few months before, Caroni was baptized at San Fernando Mission. She took the baptism name of Maria del Carmen. The padres were appalled by Canoe’s three wives, and told him he could retain only one. Two wives had to be abandoned. With some reluctance, Canoe left two wives and joined Caroni. The padres insisted that Canoe take Christian baptism and marry Caroni in a Christian ceremony. The marriage was witnessed by two men who became chiefs during the American period. The marriage ceremony witnesses were Ladislao, a chief among the Tataviam, and Vicente Francisco who served as First Alcalde at San Fernando Mission and later a chief among the Tejon tribe. Canoe was given the baptism name of Pastor, and his Indian name was recorded as Canoe. Unfortunately, Caroni died a few years later.

Upon entering the mission, Canoe had to decide what to do with his ceremonial leadership and the maintenance of the sacred bundle. Canoe probably buried the sacred bundle, and did not perform the ceremonies any more. The world had changed so significantly that the sacred bundle was not effective in protecting the people. The sacred bundled worked only if the ceremonies were properly performed, and the community knew how to support the meaning and purpose of the ceremonies. Nevertheless, Canoe tried to preserve the Pimunga heritage by passing on his traditional knowledge to the Pass Cahuilla who lived much more inland from the coast. He, like other missionized Chumash, Fernandeño, and Gabrieleño villages, shared songs, ceremonies, and shell money with interior Indian nations who were less exposed to the missions and the colonizing administrations. In this way, the mission Indians preserved the power and protection of the songs, ceremonies, and shell money wealth.

When the missions closed in 1845, Canoe and his family stayed on at Rancho Ex-San Fernando Mission as farm wage laborers. In the late 1850s, the Canoes moved to farmland on Rancho Ex-San Fernando Mission. Canoe died about 1869, but he left a wife named Josefa, a daughter Felicitas, and a son, Setimo. The family continued as leaders and took part in court cases and actions to maintain Indian land rights to Rancho Ex-San Fernando Mission. The Indians, however, were evicted in 1877. Setimo helped preserve knowledge of the Pimunga language when he served as an informant to anthropologist J. P. Harrington in 1916. Some family members continue to live in San Fernando.

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