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Many Indigenous people see California mission bells as a reminder of painful history

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hundreds of cast-iron bells hang along California roadsides from San Diego to Sonoma. The bells follow a route called El Camino Real between the state's 21 Spanish missions, but for many Native Americans, they celebrate an era of genocide. And now some are calling for the bells' removal. From member station KAZU, Jerimiah Oetting reports.

JERIMIAH OETTING, BYLINE: Santa Cruz is the first city along California's El Camino Real to rid itself of the mission bells. Indigenous leaders from across the state met in Santa Cruz for the ceremony. They spoke out against the bells and the traumatic history of the mission.

VALENTIN LOPEZ: What we're calling for is that all bells throughout the state of California be removed.

OETTING: That's Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, who's leading the effort.

LOPEZ: They should no longer be used as tourist attractions. They should no longer be used for lies. The truth needs to be told.

OETTING: The first highway mission bells were installed in 1906. They were roadside markers placed every mile or so to help travelers find their way between California's coastal towns. By the mid-1950s, the highway bells were drumming up car tourism, leading road trippers between the missions.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: El Camino Real - primitive (ph) beginning of one of the great road systems in world history, our modern California highway.

OETTING: The Spanish missionaries are often credited with creating El Camino Real, but the path followed well-worn indigenous trade routes. Martin Rizzo-Martinez, a state park historian for Santa Cruz, says the mission bells that line the highway aren't just inaccurate. They whitewash the brutality that occurred at the missions.

MARTIN RIZZO-MARTINEZ: The vast majority of people coming to the missions died, and they died rapidly, very quickly, shortly after coming here.

OETTING: Records show that more than 90% of the Native Americans living at Mission Santa Cruz died in the 40 years it operated. Many of those deaths were among children. It was a system of forced labor, says Martinez. The high death rate was from a combination of new diseases, terrible living conditions and corporal punishment.

RIZZO-MARTINEZ: The removal of these bell markers is an attempt to tell a more honest history and to engage with it and to get rid of these markers that celebrate lies and untruths.

CONNIE ROGERS: Not everyone sees the bells the same way.

OETTING: That's Connie Rogers. She's the president of the historical society in Gilroy, a small agricultural city on Highway 101. Just an hour from Santa Cruz, Gilroy isn't removing the bells, but adding them. To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the city recently installed a new bell downtown.

ROGERS: To me, they symbolize California almost as much as the California poppy or the golden bear.

OETTING: Rogers agrees the missions were harmful to indigenous people. She calls it an ugly part of history. But to her, the bells aren't to blame. And in the end, she just likes them. If they were removed...

ROGERS: I would be very disappointed. I would. Educate us, but don't try to erase our culture like yours was erased.

OETTING: The mission era ended in the 1830s. Amah Mutsun chairman Valentin Lopez says the Californians of today aren't to blame for the past.

LOPEZ: But they're the ones that have benefited tremendously, tremendously from that history. And so we ask them to please recognize how much you had benefit. And please recognize that you have an obligation to learn the truth. Those bells remind us of slavery. You know, why do we have to look at those bells every day and have that reminder?

OETTING: The post that once supported Santa Cruz's now-removed mission bell today holds an interpretive sign explaining why it was removed. As for the bells themselves, Lopez says they could remain in a museum and be given proper historical context, or they could be melted down. For NPR news, I'm Jerimiah Oetting in Santa Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.