The Tree at the Center of the World, by Bruce Walter Barton, 1980

“In all situations — scholastic, judicial, or spiritual — native Californians functioned with a powerful sense of community. Theirs was a primary, root, or radical culture. And as a result of their prime or primitive tradition, a communal wholeness existed. Within these small, closely knit societies each individual enjoyed an important membership; self-definition and self-importance were therefore achieved as a result of community relationships. In terms of cultural image, the native community was expressed as a living tree whose size and shape was constituted by the people standing together. Since the absence of even one person diminished this unity. the tree was careful to nourish and protect itself. And, because members functioned independently and the actions of a single individual could have profound impact on the whole, it was necessary to be individually responsible.

In relating to the tree each person saw himself or herself standing at a unique center — the heart of the individual was projected to that single point where the tree’s vertical and horizontal axes intersect. No matter what size the community, each member enjoyed the same, yet singular position. California’s natives knew who they were — and they knew where they were — because of this sacred tree at the center of the world…

When the communities were first developing, native boys considered it a singular honor to be selected to climb atop the mission for the purpose of affixing [the sign of the cross.] Converts of all ages were taught to regard it in several very particular ways. Each native was invited to understand his or her individual existence as a living experience at the intersection of the cross’s horizontal and vertical axes. They were instructed that the longest section of the vertical beam (the part which extends downward from the center) represents each person’s ancestors — the tradition from which he came; while the shortest section (the part which extends from the center upward) represents the future — each person’s potential, and his or her unity with God. The horizontal beam symbolizes the present living community — the body of Christ. Natives learned that the Christian life is conducted with an awareness of, and a reverence for, the interaction of these aspects. When contemplating the ‘sacred tree,’ converts were further urged to recall the life, suffering, death and resurrection cycle of Nature and Jesus.

Analagous to the Christian practice of surmounting the church with a cross, natives, prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, commonly secured evergreen boughs to the apex of their dwellings. The branches were thought to represent the point of absolute beginning. The custom changed somewhat with the coming of the padres, after which converts began to bring healthy young evergreen trees into their mission homes during December of each year. The trees were then festively decorated and given the most prominent positions in the lodge. Natives learned that the function of this gesture was to recall that culture is grounded in nature, and that the tree celebrates the very moment and place of creativity.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of Archive.org, Kahle / Austin Foundation, “The tree at the center of the world: a story of the California missions,” by Bruce Walter Barton, 1980

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