Kent G. Lightfoot

Weatherhead Resident Scholar


California Frontiers: The Ethnogenesis of a Pluralistic State

California provides a unique opportunity to look at two distinctly different colonial systems: the Hispanic missions in the south, and the Russian mercantile outposts in the north. In California Frontiers: The Ethnogenesis of a Pluralistic State, resident scholar Kent Lightfoot and co-author William Simmons investigate the implications and consequences of these differences that "resonate in Indian communities to this day," says Lightfoot, "and are critical for understanding the roots of contemporary multi-ethnic California."

While the Hispanic missions were concerned with converting the Native peoples to Catholicism and integrating them into Spanish culture, the Russian mercantile colonies, such as Ft. Ross, were focused primarily on generating profit as long as the Native peoples remained peaceful and didn’t disrupt labor practices, they were allowed to maintain their own cultures.

This essential contrast resulted in dramatically different impacts on the many small hunter-gatherer tribes of coastal California, caught between these two colonial systems: Groups such as the Kashaya Pomo, who interacted with the Russian system, were generally able to retain their tribal identities; most of the Southern California native groups, who encountered the Hispanic mission system, became fragmented and underwent significant cultural change.

Unlike most histories of colonial California, California Frontiers focuses explicitly on interactions between Natives and colonists, and explores new ways of using multiple data sources such as ethnohistory, Native oral traditions, and perhaps most significantly archaeology.

"Archaeologists view their field as a viable source for examining the life ways and interactions of poorly documented peoples in the past," Lightfoot explains. "If archaeology can truly ‘democratize’ the past, then California is ripe with promise for rewriting history given the massive amount of archaeology that has been undertaken in the state in the last twenty-five years."

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

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