Use “San Salvador” Replica to Tell the True Story of What Happened to Native Americans in San Diego and California

by on December 19, 2014 · 13 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, History, Media, Ocean Beach, San Diego

The San Salvador, October 2014. Photo by Eric Gerhardt

Continuing the Debate: Is the San Salvador Replica a “Symbol of Genocide” or a “Marketing Tool for San Diego”? or can it be used to tell the true story?

In the interests of continuing the debate of the controversy that has arisen over the current construction of the San Salvador , the replica of Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo’s flagship, which is being built at Spanish Landing in San Diego Bay by the Maritime Museum, we offer the following comments.

We’re certain that the building of the replica of the San Salvador, is widely known around town by now, and many even know that most of the construction is being accomplished by volunteers using the “original” tools and methods of the 16th century. There are tours, displays and some PR by the San Diego Maritime Museum.

In fact, the Museum is planning to stage the official launch of the vessel in late February 2015.

As it is a local story of interest, the OB Rag has covered the building of the ship several times, with photo essays, a focus on the volunteers – particularly the women volunteers, the craftsmanship, tools and imported wood.

San Salvador Oct2014 eric 02Yet, our coverage has encouraged discussion, and because of our posts  here and at our online media partner, San Diego Free Press, a debate has arisen – as the construction of the replica of the 500-year ship has run into a wall of controversy.

A contributor to the San Diego Free Press, Will Falk, has written that he is deeply troubled by the reconstruction of the ship, as it actually represents “A Legacy of Genocide“. Falk asks the reader what they see when they look across San Diego and see the San Salvador:

Do you see the first wave of wave upon wave of white settlers who systematically dispossessed California’s indigenous people of their lands?  Do you see the beginnings of a process that reduced the indigenous population of California from 250,000 in 1800 to less than 20,000 in the matter of a century?

 Citing a myriad of horrible historical encounters between European colonizers and indigenous peoples of the Americas, Falk finally concludes:

As a privileged white member of settler culture living on occupied Kumeyaay land (otherwise known as San Diego), as a student of history, and finally, as a human being, I’m deeply troubled by the reconstruction of the San Salvador. We should realize the terrible symbolism inherent in reconstructing one of the machines so essential to a legacy of genocide.

 In a later piece, Falk continues his questioning:

How accurate are we going to get with the San Salvador? Are we going to use African and indigenous slave labor to build it? Are we going to use human tallow? … We’re not going to be THAT historically accurate, are we? No, settlers just want to build a replica of an interesting part of history. Settlers just want to celebrate a moment in history that brought them to this beautiful land. What’s so wrong with that??  …

Well, even if it was only in the past, I’d have a hard time forgetting the world’s worst period of holocaustal genocide. It’s not in the past. Genocide continues right now. North America’s indigenous peoples have been cornered into reservations, [and] indigenous women are being forcibly sterilized …. This is not about the past. This is about right now. The genocide continues and the San Salvador is its propaganda in San Diego.

Steven Newcomb of Indian Country  agrees with Falk, as he says Falk,

“… has pulled the lens back enabling us to focus on the broader historical context and the horrific consequences that colonization has had for the Original Nations of this continent and this hemisphere. Those consequences should not be ignored relative to the slave-built ship San Salvador, and relative to the entire so-called “Age of Discovery.”

Newcomb reminds us that:

Once completed, the vessel is to be a replica of a ship built under brutal conditions with Indian slave labor under the command of the conquistador Juan Rodíguez de Cabrillo. … The project is an attempt by the San Diego Maritime Museum to celebrate Spain’s shipbuilding prowess, and navigational skills, while ignoring the fact that the original ship, and many others, were built in Guatemala using Indian slaves.

The museum and a number of supportive scholars seem to be doing their level best to draw attention away from the horrific genocidal consequences of Spain’s sea-faring imperial expansion under the so-called “right of Christian discovery.”  … Clearly Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was one of those conquistadors who played the part of a devil in the domination and dehumanization of Indian nations and peoples.

The San Diego Maritime Museum is working frantically to meet its scheduled completion date, but without any plan to acknowledge and teach about the legacy of genocide that is integral to the Indigenous peoples’ experience of and perspective on the San Salvador.

If one visits the Maritime Museum’s current website (see link above), there really isn’t much there now to indicate they will using the San Salvador as an educational tool. So, rightly, Newcomb asks:

If the ultimate aim of the museum is to use the San Salvador as an educational experience, then what curriculum is going to be carried by the San Salvador up and down the coast of California to create experience? Will it be a teaching experience that depicts an Indigenous nations and peoples’ perspective, or will it deflect that viewpoint by aiming only to “celebrate” Cabrillo by avoiding the uncomfortable reality of a legacy of genocide?

These are good questions. Finally Newcomb presses the Museum:

One question I have is this: Given its mission, why has the San Diego Maritime Museum assumed an attitude of historical amnesia around the San Salvador when it comes to the horrific toll that conquistadors such as Juan Cabrillo had on the original nations and peoples of this hemisphere? It is time for a much wider and ongoing discussion of these issues.

 When I called the Maritime Museum this week, I spoke with Robin the PR person who adamantly refuted these assertions. She told me:

“The whole mission of the San Salvador is an educational one.”

Admitting that their website is out of date and being worked on, she reiterated the Museum “brought the Kumeyaay in early in the process” of the construction to ensure that their story is properly told. They had a Kumeyaay village on display over at Spanish Landing, but it had to be removed due to the space requirements of the ship building.  She stressed that an educational curriculum will be developed with lots of input from the community in how to address the history of the Native Americans.  But again, there is no current sign of that on their website.

Robin finally told me, that if anyone in the community wishes to contribute to whatever curriculum that is developed,  they can contact the Educational Director Susan Sirota via their basic email: .

Returning to the important questions that Falk and Newcomb have raised, it is terribly important for San Diegans to understand the history of the native peoples who lived in the area before the Europeans arrived. And the Europeans, the whites, the Anglos – did devastate their livelihoods;  their stockyard animals decimated the Kumeyaay agricultural lands; diseases wiped out their villages, and those people who did join the Spanish ended up as slaves. Yes, all this did happen, and we who followed need to appreciate this story. The Indians had their lands stolen from them – and today, everybody who has migrated here since have benefited from this theft of their lands.

Of course, this didn’t just happen in San Diego. In happened all over this continent.  And we need to understand that for a while here in good ol’ California during the latter years of the 19th century, it was official state policy to exterminate the Indians.

Will Falk has raised the important concept of “settler” – the Europeans were settlers here, as they were on the East Coast of the continent and across America, and in other lands where Europeans either slaughtered or took over the societies of non-white peoples they colonized.  His point is that white people in San Diego are still “settlers” and gain a level of privilege from that distinction.  The questions that he and Newcomb have raised will hopefully be addressed fully by the Maritime Museum and the local Kumeyaay will have a central role in the educational curriculum connected with the San Salvador.

Yet still, I feel, the picture is not complete.

It isn’t complete because there’s been a lot of water under the ol’ historical bridge since Cabrillo landed in San Diego. There’s been hundreds of years of human development since the first mission was put up in Mission Valley.

Empires and countries have come and gone. Peoples have been wiped out – and they have also come back. New empires have been built, revolutions have been made. The Mission lands were secularized, the Americans arrived and defeated the Californios, the land we live on here today was seized as spoils of the war our country deliberately started with Mexico, slavery was legally ended, newly conquered peoples immigrated here, Chinese laborers were shipped in to work on railroads and build dams,  freed slaves and former Confederates settled here, white  people from the Mid-West were enticed to move to Southern California, field workers from Mexico supplied California agriculture … and it goes on, so, yes, a lot of water.

Looking around San Diego today we can see that the San Salvador replica is not the only symbol of genocide of the native peoples. We’re literally surrounded by names, signs, symbols and places that smack of our genocidal history. From the island of Coronado, to Cabrillo Elementary School in Point Loma and Cabrillo Monument, to other public schools with like names of Spanish colonizers, to Old Town with symbols of the old Spanish and frontier era, to Kit Carson Park up in Escondido – Carson was an infamous Indian-killer.

And then there’s all those monuments to Kearny;  we have Kearny Mesa, Kearny High School, and then there’s Friars Road, Mission Valley, more names to remind us of our past. Not to mention the still-to-this-day functioning church, the Mission de Acala in Mission Valley, the site of the first major mission.  Even our baseball team, the Padres, has overtones of the past that we’re not proud of.

Actually, the friars at the San Diego Mission were reportedly not as horrible as at some of the other missions, once it was rebuilt after the fatal attack by some of the local tribes.

The fact is, we’re surrounded by reminders and symbols of this horrific story of how European peoples ripped off the native peoples, stole their land, decimated their peoples, burned down their villages, and removed them to reservations.  With all of this, I’m not certain we can just pick out the San Salvador replica as the major symbol of genocide.

Fast forward to modern times. There have been some huge changes involving Native Americas in this county. And those changes are dramatized by one word – casinos.

From the Kumeyaay’s website, we discover that “San Diego County is arguably the ‘Indian Casino Capital’ of the world!”  Kumeyaayinfo  Why? Because it has more Indian reservations (19) and Indian casinos (8) than any other county in the United States.

According to their website, the Indian Gaming Industry is big business, for across America, the Indian casinos bring in around $27 billion a year (2010 figures). In terms of employment, the casinos provide more than 400,000 jobs, with non-Indians filling nearly 75% of them – that’s 300,000 non-Indians working at the casinos.

The website further informs us, that a large Indian casino-resort-hotel in Southern California typically employs more than 2,000 employees and hundreds of independent contractors. There’s more than casino, hotel and resort workers – there’s also people who work for the fire department, tribal police, for dental, hospital and emergency medical departments, who do construction and landscaping – all employed by the casinos. In some counties, Indian tribes have become some of the largest employers.

Casinos have allowed those tribes that own and operate them to have jobs, adequate housing, education, health care for the first time. Through “per capita” payments, tribal members are allotted money by the tribal councils in monthly stipends. It’s “common practice among gaming tribes to pay their tribal members monthly checks on their gaming revenue, profits.”

Because of this change – as well as all that other water under the bridge –  the relationships that Anglos have with local native peoples are more complex than simply as “settler –  conquered native”. Many Native Americans have entered the regular work force, and work side by side with Anglos as co-workers, as fellow employees at schools, factories, hospitals, malls, everywhere people work, which means that both Anglos and Indians form part of the working class. And for those thousands of Anglos who are employed at the Indian-owned casinos, they have a subservient relationship to the owners – the tribes – who themselves have become a type of collective capitalist.

Then there’s all those other non-Anglo, non-tribal peoples who have for one reason or another migrated to this land, to San Diego County. They also have the same type of relationships with the native peoples – even though they’re not white. Yet it’s even more complex because they don’t benefit from that white privilege that Anglos have.

What all this means, is that the typical “settler” doesn’t have to be white, and that the relationships between the European descendents and the native Kumeyaay in today’s world are complex; there’s the settler vs native side, there’s the side where they are members of the same working class, or even have a proletarian versus capitalist relationship side.

Returning to the building of the ship San Salvador itself. It’s true it was probably built in large part by Guatemalan natives working as slaves. But two things here.

By celebrating the work and skills needed to construct a ship like this is not to celebrate the slavery and the hardships of those who built the original, but to appreciate the level of the craftsmanship and expertise demonstrated by the hands that constructed it from scratch. We can appreciate their labor and skills without celebrating the lashes of the slave-masters.

And second, we can also appreciate the labor and contributions of today’s volunteers who painstaking are reconstructing a ship built by skilled Indian slaves, of the individuals who are putting in hundreds of hours of their time and feel that are giving back to their community.

Another note, by denigrating just the Spanish symbols and legacy of the genocide of the native peoples, we are conveniently overlooking the more English-based partnership of this legacy.  This fits a patently biased pattern that goes back more than 500 years to that old English versus Spanish imperial conflict.  White Anglos from the more English side of San Diego need to appreciate the Spanish role in this part of the world, outside of a few place names and titles of styles of architecture.

Finally, we join Newcomb and press the Maritime Museum, its Advisory Board and its friends, to ensure that this vessel of the San Salvador is truly used as an educational tool for San Diego and California. We hope that the completion of the San Salvador, its launching in February, and its public role in educating the people of this state all are utilized to teach the history of the region, its native peoples, the whereabouts of their villages and the wisdom of their culture, about the real role of the Missions of how they enslaved natives and how they took part in the destruction of the Kumeyaay livelihoods and lands.

We need to acknowledge how these peoples who lived here for thousands of years before Cabrillo landed knew every plant, every bush, every flower, every animal, every bird, every rock, and knew every season.

With the launch of the San Salvador, it should be the season of learning about this past.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex Alexander December 20, 2014 at 1:20 am

Mayans, Aztecs, Incas, Apache, Cheyenne, Chippewa and more, were extremely sanguine with the smaller, weaker tribes in where the Stronger always conquered and made disappear a whole lot of smaller tribes.

It was a dog eat dog native America war.


Marc Snelling December 20, 2014 at 5:59 am

The Kumeyaay were in this region, not these Nations. You talk about these Nations like they are a part of history. They are not. The Chippewa are better known as the Ojibwe and they number in the hundreds of thousands today. They are known for being among the first to get Europeans to sign treaties for their lands, and for their detailed record keeping of history, for their medicine society, for their skilled canoe making, and their songs, dance and language. The wars they fought post-contact were motivated by European interests – joining with the French against Britain. They fought with the Iroquois and Lakota, they also made peace treaties.

The Haudenosaune (Iroquois) are known as a powerful nation with fierce warriors. Still the symbol of their Nation is the Great Tree of Peace. Before 1722 they were the Five Nations and many have said the US Constitution is based on the Iroquois Great League of Peace. The history is not just some “dog eat dog war”.

My ancestors came from the Piedmont of the Virginias/Carolinas. They Iroquois were sworn enemies for generations. Yet after these Nations were decimated by disease and hundreds of years of European inspired wars they still banded together. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) adopted the Tuscarora Nation making it the Six Nations. Smaller tribes were not “disappeared”. My ancestors were Tutelo-Saponi. Even after all the years of war the Tutelo were adopted into the Haudenosaunee as part of the Cayuga Nation. Their dance and traditions have been kept alive to this day. Fluent speakers of their language died out, but many still work to preserve it. They lived in Coreogonel – what is now Ithaca NY and Buttermilk Falls State Park under the protection of the Cayuga until all their villages were burned during the Revolutionary War.

Are any of the people you talk about your ancestors Alex Alexander?


Rufus December 22, 2014 at 6:45 am

Will Falk should give all his possessions and money to an indigenous family and then move back to where the Falks came from.

Talk is cheap. Self loathing can be cured. Go home Will, go home.


Frank Gormlie December 22, 2014 at 9:53 am

Rufus, why so negative vs Will? His point is well taken – it’s just not complete.


Marc Snelling December 22, 2014 at 10:01 am

What do you know of Will Falk’s ancestry Rufus? Please enlighten us. The fact is that millions of Americans have mixed race ancestry, including the founders of West coast cities like Los Angeles. There is no erasing history. Every person of European descent could go back to Europe and it would not change the past. You reaction to this article sounds like projection.


DinkyDauBilly December 22, 2014 at 7:11 am

Perhaps Falk and Friends should seek counselling for their White Guilt. Or perhaps he and they should pull up stakes and move back to wherever it is from whence their ancestors sprouted.

Falk sees himself as a ‘privileged white member’ of a ‘settler culture’ living yaddayaddayadda …

I see myself as an old white guy whose ancestors made their way over here from a tired, blood-soaked land, and who later took up residence on lands, though ‘new,’ were similarly blood-soaked by a few millennia of internecine warfare between ‘indigenous peoples.’

Does Falk really think the locals were sitting around naked in trees, thinking beautiful thoughts, until The Evil White Man (including non-black Hispanics/Latinos) came along?


Frank Gormlie December 22, 2014 at 4:03 pm

DinkyDB – While it is true that one can reasonably raise the question of how far back in history do you go to seek reparations from the peoples/ nations / empires who colonized / defeated / oppressed the people(s) that anyone comes from, it is still very important to acknowledge and appreciate the people that were annihilated right here in the valleys, mesas and mountains that we – the settlers – now live – and not that very long ago. One doesn’t have to be motivated by anything other than a disgust of the history that we are part of.


Marc Snelling December 23, 2014 at 9:38 am

Evil doesn’t have a color. What is White anyway? Where is the country of White? Do you speak White? Grouping Nations together as ‘White’ or ‘Indigenous’ is a huge generalization. The Inuit, Hopi, Lenape, Haida, Seminole, Cheyenne, Catawba, Cree, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Lakota, Kumeyaay, the list is long… these Nations are all very different. Just like England is not Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Hungary, Norway, Ireland, Greece etc. So people still know their history going back much further than colonial times – in America and in Europe. Many Europeans know their history more specfically than modern countries Huguenots, Bavarians, Norse, Bohemians, Celts. Some of these European and American Nations have a history together and many people’s modern identity is a combination of both like the Metis. These people don’t have the luxury of writing off ‘Whites’ or “Indigenous’ people as the enemy, they are part of both groups. Colonialism is still a force that people are trying to reverse today it isn’t just history.

The Kumeyaay are still here and if you want to know their history in this area ask them.


James Thayer April 15, 2015 at 1:35 pm

History is complicated and it is quite often messy. The arrival of the Spanish in California set in motion a chain of events that changed California forever. Some of that change has been good and some of it was bad in unequal measures for different peoples.

But here is the thing: no matter how much we wring our hands over what happened, we cannot go back and fix it. What we can do — and must do — is learn what happened (both good and bad) and we must apply that knowledge to how we act in the present and future.

I am one of the volunteers that built this ship. My hope is that the existence of this ship will help educate people about what happened here in California (and elsewhere) to the native peoples and hope it will also educate them about how modern California has arisen from these events.


Grace Sesma April 16, 2015 at 11:33 am

“You are not responsible for what your great-grandparents did to my great grandparents, but [you are responsible] to hear the truth about the past, learn from it, and to never let it happen again.” –Tom Gamboa (Choctaw). I like what you say James… The concern that I have is that as many times as I’ve requested a copy of the class curriculum that will be used once the ship is sailing and holds on-board classes, I still haven’t received it. The docent’s are not sharing an accurate and balanced view of the ship’s history, especially as it relates to its original builders and the native peoples it harmed (physically and culturally). Only a superficial “nod” to the Kumeyaay (and others) is given. I look at the make up of its board(s) and see that there is no equal representation by Kumeyaay members. I don’t think that it is that difficult to see this as an opportunity to do right by friends, neighbors, and relatives. This is the time for us to join in building a ship that will bridge cultures instead of creating more barriers. Eyey Ahan.


Baratacus November 29, 2018 at 11:39 pm

The ship is a publicity stunt by the Maritime Museum and all of the businesses in the area to bring more tourists and money to seaport village and the embarcadero. I believe they were acting out of an insensitive ignorance, common to our older generation. Once brought to light however, they can no longer claim ignorance. Their claims of educating the public to the trials and tribulations of the indigenous population was a weak attempt at damage control. They knew the only ethical solution would be to disassemble the ship.
This article seems to throw “white” and “Anglo” around a lot in reference to the conquistadors and missionaries. While some Spaniards are very “white skinned” they are Latinos, not Anglos. Anglos are responsible for many genocidal horrors, but not this particular one from this era.
The author then confuses me by finishing up the article by saying that Anglos need to give more recognition to to the Spanish influence in San Diego other than a few street names. While he does get the “Anglo” label correct, is he asking Anglos to recognise that the Spanish were raping, pillaging invaders? It sounds more like he wants the Anglos to give homage to the Spaniards. Even though his entire article was about how horrible the Spaniards (mislabeled as Aglos) were.
Existing monuments and Structures that Represent genocide and racism should be allowed to stand with the addition of a historical placard. They serve as reminders of the atrocities that took place, with factual information on a placard documenting the horrific nature of the monument. Be it a mission or a statue or a park. New construction on structures or monuments, or ships glorifying genocide and racial supremacy should not be permitted.


Vern November 30, 2018 at 1:51 pm

Agreed (“… The ship is a publicity stunt by the Maritime Museum and all of the businesses in the area to bring more tourists and money to seaport village and the embarcadero….”).


Geoff Page November 30, 2018 at 1:04 pm

This one sentence from you, Baratacus, invalidated everything else you had to say.

“I believe they were acting out of an insensitive ignorance, common to our older generation.”

But then, insensitivity is common among our younger generation.


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