Mission Dolores Acquires ... a Human
Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.
Vincent Medina stands next to the graves of his great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents, who also worked at Mission Dolores.
Can cultural institutions acquire people?
According to Andrew Galvan, the only mission curator who is a descendant of the very men and women who worked -- and died -- at a California mission, the answer is an emphatic yes.
No one can accuse this series of wanting for diversity. Since January, Recent Acquisitions has introduced readers to the arrival of nearly 20 entities, including endangered animals, modern art, a pneumatic vibrator, a flax cloak, and a 3-inch disc that promises to save humanity. These are kinds of things I have come to expect from Bay Area cultural institutions. But the only entities we've featured that have had a heartbeat also had a snout or tentacles.
Let us introduce you to Vincent Medina.
"He is a living database that is our most valuable acquisition at Mission Dolores," asserted Galvan, who oversees California's oldest Roman Catholic Church.
Medina finds the reference "flattering, yet slightly confusing." In practice, the 25-year-old is too busy revolutionizing how mission history is presented (in addition to taking night classes) to quibble over such matters.
At age 21, Medina sought out Galvan, an influential community leader, at the very Mission their ancestors built more than 200 years ago. Distant cousins, they are both Ohlone, the Native American people who inhabited the central coast. Before the Spanish arrived in 1769, Ohlone culture was stable, boasting a population of more than 25,000. The missionaries and soldiers forced the Ohlone to build their missions, convert to their religion, and submit to their geographic usurpation, among other atrocities.
By 1852, there were scarcely 800 surviving Ohlone.
Together, the cousins curate exhibitions, run public programs, and tend to the gardens, planting flowers around the graves of their ancestors. Most of Medina's days are spent giving tours -- perhaps one of the most undervalued and underused services offered by a cultural institution.
"I'm glad I can give a first-person perspective to my personal story, as opposed to anthropologists interpreting our story for us," Medina says of his work and personal life, acknowledging there is no separation between the two.
He is the most popular guide at the mission, and I immediately understood why last week, lingering in the back as he offered a personal introduction to those outside his community.
Most museum guides are well-trained, many are charismatic, and a few are downright hilarious. Medina's strength is his transparency and authenticity.
"I love to spread Nutella on Shetnen (sha-tnen)," he tells the group while pointing out artifacts protected beneath a glass case. His ancestors used these very tools to make the acorn bread, a tradition his family still practices.
"We don't always have time to gather the acorns, like our ancestors. Sometimes mom orders the acorn flour off the Internet," he explains, adding "and that's okay."
Vincent Medina points to the tool his ancestors once used, and he offers modern alternatives utilized in his house.
Medina believes reconciling cultural traditions with the modern world means adaptation is necessary -- and no cause for shame.
At one point a young visitor interrupted Medina, declaring halfway through the tour, "I've never met an Indian!"
"Now you have," Medina responded, going on to mention his favorite childhood book, Green Acorns and Salmon by Quirin Luna.
Interjections are relatively common, and the youngster's remark was mild compared with many of the assertions visitors have made.
Medina says more people than he wishes to remember have interrupted him, midsentence, demanding proof. He patiently explains disease and genocide wiped out 90 percent of his ancestors, which does not account for the forced conversions and labor, including sexual abuse.
"You have casinos!" they contend, going on to challenge Medina's own existence as well as that of many others who live in the San Lorenzo Valley he calls home.
His great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Jocbocme, also lived in the area. She traveled along the same route to the mission, something he often thinks about while comfortably riding BART.
Medina no doubt internalizes these comments, but he recovers quickly, seizing the teachable moment. But concedes these challenges can nonetheless be vexing.
"I often feel very alone," he admits. "I am living in my ancestral homeland, but few know who the Ohlone people are, or sometimes [they] don't care."
To combat this sense of alienation, Medina maintains a popular blog, Being Ohlone in the 21st Century, which chronicles his struggles, but also his triumphs. He is actively reviving Chochenyo, the language spoken by his ancestors, and seeing meaningful success.
Looking forward, Medina has big plans. He wants to tell a more comprehensive narrative, and he hopes the Ohlone can reclaim the mission building as one of its own. He also is hard at work recognizing the 6,000 Native Americans in unmarked graves on the property. He also hopes to see Ohlone ceremonies at the mission.
The Mission Dolores today.
He notes these goals are short-term. Greater trials lay ahead.
"I will forever fight with all my being to protect our sovereignty, to protect our identity, to educate people," Medina pledges. "I want to see us federally recognized. I would like to see my children speak Chochenyo someday."
Mission Dolores (also known as the Misión San Francisco de Asís) is open daily at 3321 16th St. (at Dolores), S.F. Admission is a suggested donation of $3-$5.