Ticket to the Twenties Themes: Chief Menito and Tourists, Mission San Gabriel, 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

At this weekend’s Ticket to the Twenties festival, exhibits of historic artifacts from the Homestead’s collection will be displayed in the Workman House and La Casa Nueva covering a variety of themes from Prohibition, to the presidential election of 1928, to local music, to notorious criminal events in the region.

In the library of La Casa Nueva, where there are scenes from Cervantes’ famed early 17th century novel, Don Quixote, the emphasis will be on the “romance” of the Spanish and Mexican era of California as reimagined by such elements as the Mission Play, a passion play performed for some two decades at the Mission San Gabriel.  One term used for this “interpretation” of pre-American California is Spanish Fantasy Heritage.

The play, penned by journalist and poet John Steven McGroarty, promoted the notion that Spanish missionaries brought civilization to native peoples as a noble endeavor, a position hardly endorsed by many, especially descendants of native peoples, today.

It was wildly popular at the time when the Ramona pageant in Hemet was taking off, as well, and counted Walter P. Temple, builder of the romance-filled La Casa Nueva, as one of its most fervent supporters.  Temple, in fact, contributed $15,000 to the building of the Mission Playhouse, completed in 1927, and his business manager, Milton Kauffman, was on the executive committee for the project.

Temple’s devotion to San Gabriel was amply demonstrated when he bought the block of property across from the mission and constructed three commercial buildings on it and then donated the lot for the city hall, designed by architects he worked with on La Casa Nueva and other projects.

Another “romantic” aspect to the mission’s status as a major tourist destination was its “display” of “Chief Menito” who was held out to be an aged Indian chieftain.  The Homestead has a couple of photographs of him in the collection, including the one highlighted here.

This 1920s snapshot photograph from the Homestead’s collection shows “Chief Menito,” touted as a “real Indian” with a group of tourists at the Mission San Gabriel.  Note the Plains Indian-like feathered headdresses, jewelry, blankets and other ornaments.  Local Gabrieleño Indians indigenous to the greater Los Angeles region, however, wore nothing like these items.

The image shows the diminutive Menito, standing second to the right in the front row with a sextet of visitors.  Not only is the “chief” dressed up, Hollywood-like, in a feathered headdress, but so are the other two males, who wear natty suits and ties to go with the head gear.  The women, meanwhile, are wrapped in blankets, wear necklaces and other jewelry, and one has a headband with two feathers on it.

Obviously, feathered headdresses are drawn from examples found among the Plains Indians of the midwestern United States.  The Indians in the greater Los Angeles area, commonly called Gabrieleño, had nothing like that, nor were the blankets and necklaces accurate to this region.

To the average tourist, much less non-Indians generally, this was of no consequence, because knowledge of variation among the many native indigenous people was not of much concern.  For the folks in this photo, it was probably more than enough that they thought they were posed with a “real Indian” in “Chief Menito,” who might well have been of Indian descent.

Even that has to be questioned, though, without information as to who “Menito” actually was.  After all, a lot of us grew up believing that Iron Eyes Cody, best known to my generation as the regal Indian shedding a tear at the pollution of our country in a 1970s commercial, was a “real Indian.”  He actually was an Italian from New Orleans, who passed as a native American until his identiy was revealed in the mid-1990s.

There is no shortage of romantic references to the Spanish and Mexican periods in our regional architecture, street and city names, and elsewhere.  Conditions have changed significantly, however, and there is certainly more awareness now of just how “reimagined” those pasts were in the 1920s and before.

This photo of “Chief Menito” and the tourists is testimony to just how common and embedded those romantic notions are. Visitors to the free Ticket to the Twenties event this Saturday and Sunday from 3-7 p.m. can see other examples as well as other interesting exhibits.

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