Goldsmith, Paul & Ernestine Ygnacio De Soto
2009 6 Generations. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Notes: DVD, 57 minutes
Reviewed 21 Jan 2012 by:
Jack David Eller <email@example.com>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
De Soto, Ernestine Ygnacio
Chumash Indians - California - Santa Barbara - Biography
Indian women - California - Biography Indian women - North America - Biography
ABSTRACT: A truly lovely portrayal of six generations of one Chumash (California) family relates the intimate lives of native people to global/colonial forces, discovering the lingering hole in the hearts of these people and many of the indigenous peoples of the world.
Some films do not deserve a review so much as a rhapsody, and “6 Generations” is one of these special films. There are some productions that go beyond ethnography to find the heart of a people—and show how individual anthropologists can transcend the professional limitations of their discipline and really engage fellow human beings—and “6 Generations” is just such an achievement.
The story of the disastrous impact of Western contact and colonialism on indigenous peoples is too well-known to require an introduction, yet this story is seldom brought to life in such a powerful and personal way. The subject is the Chumash, who had the good fortune, as the movie informs us, of “living along the coast of southern California for many thousands of years, as far back as the archaeological record can determine. Recent genetic evidence suggests that they were part of the very first group of people to reach the Americas.” More importantly for our tale, they were residents of perhaps the last part of America to be conquered, only brought under Spanish jurisdiction in the mid- to late-1700s and not integrated into the United States until the mid-1800s. Therefore, the memory of contact and conquest is recent and fresh.
As the film explains, “This is the story of one Chumash family that can trace their history back to first contact.” The living matriarch of this family is Ernestine de Soto, who is introduced first visiting a museum exhibit of Chumash traditional culture. She is also shown working with Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History curator of anthropology John Johnson and at an archaeological dig from the mission era of contact.
What is truly unique and moving about this film is its narrative, dramatic character. Ernestine de Soto voices six generations of her family ancestors, from first contact to the present, recounting their lives and the world-historical events that shaped those lives. She begins with her great great great grandmother, baptized Maria Paula (1769-1855). Spain initially sought to control California as a port for its Philippines trade route, and missionaries, as anthropologists have come to appreciate, were part of the colonial project. Ernestine’s ancestors avoided the invaders for a time but eventually joined the mission. Measles struck in 1806, and the Spanish soldiers and guards were routinely cruel and sometimes took advantage of women. In 1824 the locals revolted and escaped, embarking on their own (and little remembered outside their society) trail of tears to get away from the Spanish. But they returned to the mission on the promise that they would not be punished and in fact would be emancipated. If there was ever a serious chance of this future, it was interrupted by Mexican independence, which ended the path of Indian land ownership. Soon the Chumash were outnumbered by Spanish speakers.
Great great grandmother Maria Ygnacia (1798-1865) was sick as a girl, and the priests guaranteed that if she was baptized she would heal. On the other hand, a devastating earthquake convinced the natives that their serpent-god was angry that they were losing their traditional religion. Ernestine’s family had the good luck of possessing some land, which helped them preserve their culture and language. However, they were robbed by some ‘paisanos’ whom the family had taken in, robbers who also raped Maria Ygnacia’s daughter. Justice was never properly served for these crimes, since Indians had no rights and only became citizens in 1917.
Great grandmother Luisa Ygnacio (1835-1922) was born at the Santa Barbara mission and adopted into a white household around age 8 as a servant. During her life, an epidemic of cholera killed most of the remaining Indians. Her second marriage produced 13 children, plus two from first husband, but about half of her offspring died and others went to prison. In 1912 they were visited by Alfred Kroeber, who came to study their language. The family continued working with anthropologist John Harrington, who formed a long-term relationship with the family.
Grandmother Lucrecia Garcia (1877-1937) was born at Indian Orchard Ranch, learning Chumash at home and never becoming fluent in English. She fell in love with a white boy and had a child with him. She became re-acquainted with Harrington, who more than most appreciated the threat to Chumash culture. He ended up working for more than 50 years with the family and even took Lucrecia to the Smithsonian in Washington DC as well as to Philadelphia and New York.
Ernestine’s mother Mary Joachina Ygnacio (1897-1965), perhaps the descendant of that white father, was light-skinned with curly hair. She spoke only her Indian language until age 12, when she was sent to school. Her formal education ended at age 15, pulled out of school to labor on the family farm. After being widowed young, she moved into town and fell in love with a Chinese man; they eloped to Washington state, one of the few places in the American West where such a marriage was legal, but they eventually separated. In 1952 she too began working with Harrington.
Which takes us to Ernestine Ygnacio de Soto herself, born in 1938 with a congenital heart defect. She remembers meeting Harrington in 1952, describing him as a man obsessed with Indian culture who blended easily into the family. While Harrington is not much celebrated in the history of anthropology, he appears to have been an exemplary anthropologist. Ernestine and Harrington viewed each other as annoyances, as rivals for her mother’s attention. Her mother started keeping her own notebooks after Harrington became too ill to continue his research, and Mary Joachina fed and cared for the aging scholar. Ernestine herself soon discovered boys and had three children in quick succession; even after that, she continued, by her own admission, to be young, foolish, and self-destructive. After one more abusive relationship, she began to turn her life around—turning toward her culture and her ancestors.
The entire tale is a tragedy and an epic of global forces and of the local lives of one Chumash family that cannot be disembedded from those forces. Ernestine’s performance is courageous and moving, and wonderfully generous. The film gives the brief impression that she performs this story regularly. Her final ruminations are among the film’s strongest moments, as before the ‘Occupation,’ her people owned all the land in common, although they never thought about ‘ownership.’ She notes that audiences listen intently to her story but don’t really understand why 200 years later “we’re still whining. We’re not whining, we’re just realizing that we can never retrieve what’s taken away, ever. We have bits and pieces, you know, we’re all struggling, the other Indian people and myself.” She concludes that “there is a hole in all Indian hearts.” Perhaps the greatest thing that anthropology can do is to discover this hole and, in some modest way, begin to help people fill it.
This would be a particularly effective film to use in the classroom.
Level/Use: Suitable for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of gender, anthropology of colonialism/globalization, and Native American studies, as well as general audiences.