We are told that Junipero Serra is being canonized because he brought Christianity to California Indigenous Peoples. If that were all he had brought to us, perhaps I could find it in my heart to forgive Pope Francis’ decision. If Serra had brought us the choice of Christianity—with no punishment for choosing to remain faithful to our own religions—perhaps I could understand the Pope’s decision. But Serra did not just “bring” us Christianity; he imposed it, he forced it, he violated us with it, giving us no choice in the matter.
Missionization, for California Indians, was more like indoctrination in an abusive cult than spiritual grace. Natives who resisted or refused conversion were beaten, imprisoned, starved, exiled or driven from their homelands—usually by soldiers, at the behest of priests. Catholicism was the stealth weapon of Spanish colonization; a “moral” reason for conquest, to protect lands Spain wanted for itself from Russians moving south from Alaska. In addition to Christianity, the Spaniards brought disease, including their own special brand of syphilis that not only sterilized Native women, but caused birth defects, blindness and death. A pre-contact population of close to one million dropped to 250,000-300,000 in less than 70 years. These numbers, these statistics, are human beings. Our Ancestors. Our relatives. Our families. The missionaries’ efforts directly caused generations of historical trauma to California Indians from which we still have not recovered (loss of indigenous religion, culture, languages, art, land, health, psychological well-being and sovereignty were direct results of Serra’s missionization efforts).
In other historical contexts, this kind of abuse of power is called genocide, a crime against humanity. It is certainly about as far away from sainthood as anything I can imagine, and the Catholic Church’s stated intentions to honor Serra with canonization indicates that it has learned nothing, and does not understand that it needs to learn: violently enforced religion is not missionization, it is terrorism.
Why, then, is Serra’s canonization seemingly imminent? After the church rape scandals in the past couple of decades, Serra may be seen by many in the Vatican as someone whose reputation is above all of that, having lived prior to and not affected by the legal cases still going on. And this canonization is definitely seen, within Vatican circles, as having taken too long already—Serra was beatified in 1988, which raised protests from Native peoples and, along with the then-necessity of a second miracle—may have put things on the back burner until now.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis’ participation in the fast-tracking of the double canonization last year (of his predecessors, Popes John Paul XXIII and John II) should serve as a red flag, indicating a lack of judgment and sensitivity toward the suffering not just of Native Americans and their Ancestors, but of Catholics themselves, particularly those who were sexually abused and whose Church covered up the crimes. As Barbie Latza Nadeau writes, Pope John II not only protected one of the priests involved (“Legionnaires of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who sexually abused seminarians, fathered several children and even abused his own son”), but actually rallied around him. In addition, “In many ways,” says Nadeau, “John Paul II laid the groundwork for his own fast track to sainthood back in 1983 when he dismissed the office of the advocatus diabolus, or devil’s advocate. Until then, all causes for saints had to be scrutinized by a canon lawyer, called the Promoter Fidei, who studied each saint’s worthiness. John Paul … would not likely have made the cut based on his record on the child abuse scandal.” Indeed, with the new rules for sainthood no longer requiring two miracles, Serra’s canonization does seem likely to happen soon.
Serra, many of his supporters have argued, was simply “a man of his times.” In other words, colonization happens, and we should not blame those caught up in it. But that has a flip side to it: if Serra was, in fact, “a man of his times” in 1769 when he founded the first California mission in San Diego, he should have known better: Bartolome de las Casas knew better in 1552 when he published “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” and spent his entire life working for the freedom of Indians and return of their lands (a wealthy man, a priest, and former Indian slave-holder); a document Serra and all priests in training would have read and debated.
Padre Antonio Horra knew better in 1799 when he protested soldiers’ rapes and beatings of Indian converts at his California mission. The Church officials in California and Mexico sent poor Padre Horra home saying he had gone insane from the stress of missionization and his inability to deal with the hardships of The New World. Mission websites state that “Padre Antonio de la Concepcion Horra (1767-?) became a problem almost from the very beginning. Then-President of the missions, Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, assigned Padre Horra to work with the experienced missionary Padre Buenaventura Sitjar, for the founding of Mission San Miguel. Less than a month after the July 25, 1797 founding, Padre Horra began showing signs of insanity … ‘Two surgeons at Monterey examined Horra and declared him insane; the governor made it official, and Horra was returned to Mexico. From there, Padre Horra was returned to Spain on July 8, 1804.”
However, there is another, rarely heard side to this story: “The treatment shown to the Indians is the most cruel … For the slightest things they receive heavy floggings, are shackled, and put in the stocks, and treated with so much cruelty that they are kept whole days without a drink of water,” Horra wrote in his own defense, adding that charges of insanity were false and brought against him because of his serious charges against of cruelty by priests and soldiers, and mismanagement of Church resources (Bancroft 587). In closing, Horra asked to be sent back to Spain because he feared for his life—not because of wild Indians, but due to his own Franciscan brethren.
Many letters, diaries and records of others traveling in California during Serra’s tenure and afterwards left behind testimonies of the brutality brought on by the missions. In 1786, French explorer Jean-François de Galaup de la Pérouse observed that during his visit to Mission Carmel a mere three years after Serra’s death, “Everything reminded us of a habitation in Saint Domingo, or any other West Indian slave colony. The men and women are assembled by the sound of the bell, one of the religious conducts them to their work, to church, and to all other exercises. We mention it with pain, the resemblance to a slave colony is so perfect, that we saw men and women loaded with irons, others in the stocks; and at length the noise of the strokes of a whip struck our ears.” Other visitors in the same era noted that Indians were even beaten with a whip or cane when they did not “attend worship”—not simply going to services, but actually paying attention to the service and necessary responses. These people saw through “the eyes of their time” and what they saw disturbed them deeply. Serra knew, too.
In 1988, the last time canonization of Serra came up, protests from California Indians was loud and immediately. “He is as responsible for what happened to American Indians as Hitler was responsible for what happened to the Jews,” Jeannette Costo told The Chicago Tribune.
This comparison is often dismissed out of hand as hyperbole, yet there is something to it: when Serra supporters write that “he was a man of his times, part of an inevitable colonization and expansion of European powers,” I often wonder, would we accept that as an excuse for Hitler, as well? Wasn’t he just another power-hungry European leader who went to war for more territory?
More recently, retired Bishop Francis A. Quinn apologized to the Miwok Indians during a Mass at the Church of St. Raphael in San Rafael California; Bishop Quinn admitted that missionaries “took the Indian out of the Indian,” and imposed “a European Catholicism upon the natives.” He also admitted that mission soldiers and priests had raped Indian women and enforced missionary rules with brutal and violent punishments. Perhaps most stunning, Bishop Quinn agreed with what some of us have long known: that Indians were civilized, had forms of religion, education, art, governance and agricultural knowledge long before the Spanish arrived bent on conversion and their own version of civilization.
And still more recently, Bishop Richard Garcia asked forgiveness from the Diocese of Monterey (in December 2012) when he offered a formal apology for the abuses of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians, one of several tribes taken into Mission Carmel.
A clear thread of protest from within the Catholic Church itself runs parallel to the protests of California Indians, although each has often been in danger of erasure by the powers that wish to control the narrative.
So is it any wonder that California Indians, and many of our allies, feel that Serra’s canonization is a mistake that will only cause further damage to our struggle to return from the aftermath of genocide—a struggle which in large part depends upon our ability to challenge and expose the Mission Mythology that supports past injustices?
As I write this, my mind is already leaping ahead to the hate mail and comments sure to follow. In the comment section of a November 2013 issue of an article about Junipero Serra in The Guardian, I saw this typical thread:
The sheer inability of people to do their own research, or lacking that, to critically examine the arguments of the “research” they do read (or imagine they read), stuns me. Obviously, our California Indian Ancestors not only survived “the ravages of Mother Nature,” but had a deeply spiritual connection with the cycles and our responsibilities to the beings around us; we did not need a “refuge” “against” nature, because we had spent thousands of years working with our world and understood what was required for an equitable relationship. I’ve seen far, far more vicious threads in the past few days. On the New York Times comment section after an article in which I was quoted (along with two other California Indians), someone named Richard M wrote, “I hate to be blunt, but it must be said: ‘Prominent Native Americans’ here equals ‘usual handful of professional left-wing activists.’” I replied with my academic and tribal credentials, gave him a few hard facts about missions, and told him to educate himself. I refrained from his own brand of blunt simply because, as an Indian, I’ve learned that I cannot stoop to the level of haters without losing what little credibility I have.
So I don’t fool myself into thinking that I am going to change the minds of haters, or of the people who think this debate is highly amusing and not worth their time, because “it’s all water under the bridge now, just move on.” But I do feel strongly that as one of the few descendants of the Indians who survived the missions, I have a responsibility to my Ancestors and to my own descendants to speak up and try to create a clearer understand about why Junipero Serra’s canonization would be another historical flogging of California Indians. No, Serra was not the only one involved. Yes, he was part of an intricate machine run by the Spanish Crown’s political desires, the Spanish military’s might, and the Vatican’s multiple ambitions to convert and acquire both souls and wealth. But Serra was also a man who, like many before him, was faced with a choice: go along with the program, achieve his own personal goals, and ignore the larger crimes—or take a stand against inherently inhumane and unchristian acts against a people who were obviously vulnerable to diseases and technologies far different from their own.
Serra made his choice. And in my eyes, that choice does not make him a saint, or anything close to it. Why not canonize Mother Teresa? Why not Archbishop Romero, who died defending Indigenous Peoples from poverty and injustice? Why honor and elevate a man who allowed himself to close his eyes and continue to head an organization that was clearly destroying souls faster than it could “save” them? This is what I want to bring to the attention of those who are willing to consider the more difficult sides of this debate: when we believe in Mission Mythology, or even simply just allow it to continue to exist, unchallenged, we accept that cruelty and injustice is allowable, inevitable, and profitable.
But that will come back to bite you, and those you love, one day.
This story originally appeared on the blog Bad NDNs, and has been republished here with permission.
Deborah Miranda is a Native American writer and poet. Her father is from the Esselen and Chumash people, native to the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez/Monterery, California area and her mother was of French and Jewish ancestry. Miranda earned a B.S. in Teaching Moderate Special Needs from Wheelock College in 1983 and earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington in 2001. She is currently John Lucian Smith Jr. Memorial Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, where she teaches Creative Writing (poetry), Native American Literatures, Women’s Literature, Poetry as Literature, and composition. She is also the author of “Bad Indians: ATribal Memoir,” a mixed-genre story of her ancestors’ survival of the California missions.