SAN FRANCISCO -- Andrew Galvan stands on the steps of the old adobe building and sees a relic of a colonial crusade that wreaked havoc on his ancestors.
He walks through the heavy wooden doors of Mission Dolores and, as a faithful Catholic, thrills to the realization that he's in the room where his Bay Miwok great-great-great-grandfather was baptized a Christian.
It is, Galvan concedes, "a very odd juxtaposition to find oneself in." But he has hopes his double-edged past is just what's needed to cut through the misconceptions shrouding California's big, brash, and often brutal history.
"What I am looking for is to tell all sides," says Galvan, the first American Indian curator of Mission Dolores.
Formally known as Mission San Francisco de Asis, Mission Dolores was founded in 1776 by Franciscan padres -- but built by Indians. It is one of 21 Spanish missions in the territory the Spanish called Alta California.
American Indians were conscripted to work at the missions, and the encounter proved fatal for many. Thousands died of Western diseases such as measles and flu against which they had no immunity. Others languished and occasionally rebelled against the regimented mission lifestyle, with its strange diet and sometimes harsh discipline.
After the mission system was disbanded in the early 19th century, by Mexican officials newly independent from Spain, conditions actually grew worse for the Indians. They were cheated out of land and banished to the far corners of the state. Ultimately, Indians were hunted to near-extinction by new settlers drawn by the gold rush that began in 1848 -- the same year California was ceded to the United States, following the Mexican-American War.
Historians disagree on the pre-European Indian population in California, with estimates ranging from 300,000 to more than three times that. By the 1900 census, only 16,500 Indians were recorded in the state.
For years, the true history of American Indians in California and elsewhere was ignored or glossed over. But it has been more widely acknowledged in the past decade, in no small part due to the efforts of American Indian scholars and activists.
This September marks a milestone in Indian history when the National Museum of the American Indian opens in Washington, D.C., on the Washington Mall, the product of years of collaborative planning between the Smithsonian Institution and a number of tribes.
"This was seen as an opportunity to have a museum that is very much from the native perspective," says the Indian museum's spokesman, Thomas Sweeney. He, like one-fourth of the staff, is American Indian.
The same broadening of perspective has occurred in California, where "most of the missions now try to incorporate a little bit more balanced picture," according to Jeffery Burns, director of the Academy of American Franciscan History, based in Berkeley.
Still, Galvan's appointment, made earlier this year, is stirring up some excitement.
"He provides an extraordinary balance of the different factors in one person that makes it really interesting to see what he'll do there," Burns says. "There's been a feeling this should have happened a long time ago."
Galvan worked closely with his predecessor at Mission Dolores and isn't anticipating any major upheavals in the way the facility is run. But there's no doubt he brings a unique sensibility to the job.
Looking around the softly lighted mission chapel, Galvan makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the pleasingly symmetric rows of pews and the stunning carved wooden screen behind the altar (known as a reredos), that depicts gold-trimmed saints and a simpler representation of Christ on the cross.
"Anywhere here do you see a sense of Indians?" he asks rhetorically.
It's not until you get to the cemetery outside that you get a hint of the thousands of Indians buried beneath Mission Dolores. A tule house, the traditional home of San Francisco Bay area Indians, stands in one corner of the graveyard, and a statute of Kateri Tekawitha, an East Coast Indian who was an early convert to the Catholic faith, is dedicated in "prayerful memory of our faithful Indians." Now that Mission Dolores has its first American Indian curator, Galvan, who is a historian, is working on getting more Indians involved. He hopes to have members of area tribes come to demonstrate traditional skills such as basket weaving and string making.