Thursday, December 6, 2018

Native American Quaker missionary: the story begins

The fact that one of the first Quaker missionaries to Bolivia was a Native American from Southern California has long fascinated people, myself included. But details of the life and service of William Abel remained largely unknown, and differing versions competed, according to who was telling the story.
So Hal and I spent a year investigating this part of the history of the Bolivian Friends Church (INELA). Our travels took us to university and mission archives in California and Indiana, the city museum and school district records in Ramona, California, the Indian museum in San Pascual, California, and the Kumeyaay Indian Reservation in Valley Center, also in California. Mysteries still remain, but we were able to unearth a good part of the story.
William Abel (probably not his original name) was born a member of the Kumeyaay Indian tribe on the tribe’s lands in San Pascual, California. The year was likely 1870, although Abel himself was never sure when he was born. This was during a time when white settlers and poachers were gradually taking over land that had been previously given back to the tribe by the US government. Within ten years no more Indians would be living in San Pascual.
While Hal and I were going through the archives at Azusa Pacific University, I found an autobiography written by Abel in the school’s 1900 newsletter. It was one of those historical discoveries that caused me to yell, even though I was in a library. Abel wrote it as a young man and new student in the Training School for Christian Workers, so it only covers his childhood. But it answered some of our questions and provided a wonderful link to the Aymara peoples of Bolivia. Let me share some of his early experience with you.
He writes that he lost both his parents by the time he was eight years old and found himself living for a time with his grandfather in the mountain village of Julian. He notes that he “was left mostly to look after myself.” He goes on to give a brief picture of his ten years in the area around Julian and his work herding first goats, then pigs, and finally, cattle. In his first work herding goats, he says he made his living, “such as it was,” and earned $5.00 a year. This corresponds to the conditions and customs of an indentured child servant, part of California’s legal way of dealing with the Indians. Summing up his misadventures as a child goat herder, Abel writes,
“I didn’t know how to herd goats, and the American for whom I worked was hard on me, oftentimes my flock would wander away from my care. The goats would climb up the mountain, on and on to the highest rock and there lie down. I would follow and by the time I was with them at the top, I would think it was a good place to lie down too. I was tired and while the goats were resting I would go to sleep.
“Sometime when I awoke, my goats would be gone and if I did not bring them home I would have to suffer for it. Once when I lost the flock I was afraid to go again to my master, and so I ran away, after two years as a boy goat herder.”
Abel tells of his next two years herding pigs, noting that “I didn’t know how to herd hogs any better than I did goats.” He goes on to explain the details of being fired from this job, at the probable age of ten: “The occasion of my leaving them [the hogs] was this: I had let them run into the dry foxtail so much that, strange as it may seem, the eyes of many had become destroyed, the eyeballs emptied by the barbs which had pierced them. My master, when he discovered this, accused me of having punched out their eyes with my thumb, and so he fired me.”
Abel writes that his life improved with the next job of herding cattle because he got to ride a horse. He did this for the next several years, and at the age of 18 was freed from his servanthood and made his way to the town of Ramona where he enrolled in the first-grade. He describes this experience: “I did not know my letters, but entered the public school. I was put in the first grade with the little children. I was ashamed, but I staid by and in three years I had passed the sixth grade, leaving the little ones behind, but I worked for it, studying almost night and day.”
Abel also apprenticed himself to a local butcher and in a few years learned the trade and opened his own butcher shop. It was all quite an accomplishment for an orphaned Indian boy who had been pushed off his tribal land and spent his childhood as an illiterate indentured child servant. We don’t know where the motivation to become educated and learn a trade came from, but it would not stop there.
As I read this, I was aware of the similarities of experience between the Kumeyaay and the Aymara, although a continent apart. The Aymara of Bolivia are a herding people (among other things) and have a history of loosing their ancestral lands and being marginalized. Universal education for Aymara kids is a recent reality, not part of their history. The list could go on.
I will continue with the William Abel story, the Quaker part, in the next blog.

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