Caroline Ward Holland and her son, Kagen, stood before a crowd of 100 Native Americans at the Los Angeles Worker Center on December 27. They told how they walked 600 miles in 60 days to visit the California missions in order to protest the Junipero Serra canonization, to honor their ancestors and “to tell the truth.”
Serra, who founded eight of California’s 21 missions, has been accused of abusive behavior toward Native Californians.
The event was organized by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Indian Movement. In introducing Corine and Kagen (Tatavian/Fernandino Band), Corine Fairbanks (Oglala Lakota) of AIM told of two historical events that took place in December more than 100 years ago: The Dakota 38 and the Wounded Knee Massacre.
“Treaty violations and starvation led the Dakota to resist,” said Fairbanks. “In reprisal, the U.S. army captured more than 1,000 Dakotas on Dec. 26, 1862. They hanged 38 warriors by order of President Abraham Lincoln, abolished their reservations and exiled them.”
Fairbanks explained that just as no one teaches the truth about the California missions, school children do not learn that Lincoln was anti-Native American. Nor, she added, do teachers tell the truth about the Wounded Knee massacre of December 29, 1890.
That’s when Col. James W. Forsythe led a cavalry attack on a Lakota native encampment, killing 300 natives, mostly women and children.
“The soldiers were given medals of honor that have never been rescinded,” she added.
In her talk, Caroline Ward explained that she was shocked in early 2015 when she heard that Pope Francis intended to canonize Serra.
“Serra was no saint,” she said. “The Indians frequently walked to the missions, so I wanted to comfort them.”
Mother and son started at Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma north of San Francisco and worked their way south to San Diego. The trip took 60 days. They stayed at campgrounds, on the couches of strangers’ homes, and occasionally at motels when funds were available.
“We even slept in an apple orchard, and one time on a mountaintop,” said Ward.
Ward described a granite memorial in front of Mission San Francisco Solano engraved with the names of 800 Indians who had perished at the mission, including 200 children.
“We read the names of each one,” she said. “This was my first spiritual awakening on the walk.”
As with most missions, the neophytes (baptized Indians) succumbed to European diseases such as measles, small pox as well as syphilis contacted from the Spanish soldiers. They had no resistance to these diseases. This, along with crowded, unhealthy living conditions and forced labor contributed to the high death rate.
From Sonoma Caroline and Kagen walked three days to Mission San Rafael. “It was tough, she said, “but I thought about the ancestors’ walks. They had been removed from their land. Their children had been taken from them. They had little food or water, and they didn’t know where they were going.”
She described a plaque at Mission San Rafael with a message from a friar recounting the number of baptisms, but with no mention of burials. And when she inquired about the mission cemetery, a park official said the Indians were buried “under the parking lot.”
This would be a constant theme as they made their way south. At most missions, little care was given to Indian burial sites that are often paved over.
“It diminishes your sense of integrity to see those things,” she said. “There are hardly any markers for Indian burials.”
The next stop: Mission Dolores in San Francisco. “We walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, and when we got there 25 people greeted us,” Ward said. “The architecture there is beautiful, but we saw only one plaque that read, ‘This is dedicated to our faithful Indians.’ “
“From there we walked to Mission San Jose where we met Andy Galvan, an Ohlone/Miwok descendant employed by the Catholic Church. He told us how he wanted the Native people to come back to the church. I told him bluntly that I didn’t think we fit into the same circle,” Ward said. “As we left the mission, I told a priest, ‘If you say are what you are, then you know this is wrong.’ He hugged me and said, “Caroline, I’m sorry, really sorry.”
From San Jose, Caroline and Kagen walked to missions Santa Clara and Santa Cruz. At Santa Cruz, the staff told them the Indians were buried, once again, under the parking lot, but assured them they would never be disinterred.
“We sat there all afternoon and we prayed,” said Ward. “They have their plaques and their Junipero Serra statues, but nothing to commemorate the native people.”
They arrived at Mission San Carlos near Monterey, California, on September 23, the day of Serra’s canonization.
“The pro-canonization people had a big-screen TV there to show the ceremony,” said Caroline. “They rang the mission bells, and we could hear the singing. Meanwhile, we went the cemetery and held our ground. We prayed and sang louder than they did.”
Further down the coast at Soledad Mission they saw bones scattered everywhere on the grounds and a sign, “Please don’t collect the bones.” A mission director told them that there were no burial records—that the burial ground had been ploughed under for farmland and paved over for a parking lot.
“Of course they kept records,” said Ward. “They are hiding something. We are going out there with archeologists, and we are going to expose them for what they are.”
After visiting missions San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Buenaventura, Caroline and Kagen reached Mission San Fernando, their home base, in Los Angeles County.
“Our tribe greeted us,” Caroline said. “It was the first time that we all sang and danced together, all day.”
The downside, though, occurred when a visiting priest, dressed in mass vestments, came out of the mission church, screaming at them that their people were perverse, practiced human sacrifice and needed to find God. Ward said: “I told him, that’s not my God, and Serra’s not my saint.”
When they got to our final destination, San Diego de Alcala, a large group of Kumeyaay Indians met them on the road and sang them into the mission.
“At dusk, a bright light lit up the sky,” said Ward. “Was it an omen? Laughing Coyote said it was the ‘Star child.’ We learned later that it was a missile. The ancestors couldn’t have planned it any better.”
Mark R. Day is a former Franciscan friar, journalist, and Emmy Award–winning filmmaker. He is the author of Forty Acres: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers (Praeger, 1971). He can be reached at email@example.com.