Several San Diego tribal bands gathered September 23, 2015 at the historic Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá Mission. They returned to what is sacred land in memory of their ancestors and to pray for healing of all those killed or buried on the grounds of the mission.
The first Franciscan Mission in what was then Las Californias, was founded on July 16, 1769 by Spanish friar Junipero Serra in an area long inhabited by the Kumeyaay Indians.
Anthony Pico, former Chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, addressed the crowd in remembrance of their tribal ancestors.
“Those running the mission knew this entire place was sacred ground but they started digging in this spot to make a building,” Pico said. “They began digging so they could construct the mission – but the lower they dug they started hitting human remains. By the time we found out about it, they were about eight feet deeper than a grave.”
“Those present that day looked over the holes and discovered skeletons were buried there,” Pico said. “Anthropologist Florence Peck took the bones to have them checked out. Florence told me that on the bones of the ones they took out, she saw marks on their forearms from being shackled and that they had to be under ground a long time to leave marks on their bones.”
As the day began to darken, more people arrived and singers began their chants and songs. It was a serene atmosphere as the Memorial was dedicated with lit candles surrounding a cross.
Pico remembers back in 1989 coming from the Viejas Reservation with other tribal members to the site at the Mission and singing for 18 hours and then digging for 10 hours to finally give those buried a proper burial.
“We did everything by hand with shovels, and it was brutal,” Pico said. “I felt exhausted, dirty and filthy, and when I finally made it home I just collapsed into bed.”
Angela Elliott Santos, Tribal Chairperson for the Manzanita Band of Mission Indians arrived this night with many of their band. Along with the Memorial and prayers for ancestors the tribal members were also protesting the upcoming sainthood of Father Junípero Serra who was in charge of the Mission when all of this happened.
“We are here because of the potential canonizing of a man who treated our people badly and to show everyone we still exist, Santos said. “This matters to us. The Manzanita were oppressed in the ‘80s. Even though some of us were younger we knew the history and what happened here. Our people were forced to build the missions and they were civilized people with their own religion. It’s very sad if they canonize a man who has cost so much heartache for us to get over. Today, on this sad day, we are here to pray for the ancestors and for ourselves to find a way to get through another atrocity to our people.”
The Honorable John Elliott, Councilman of the Manzanita Band of Mission Indians thanked those in attendance.
“Today we pray for the ancestors and for healing for our people,” he said. “The mission system was such devastation to all levels of our society that it’s time for us to start healing at this spot, an Indian cemetery that is sacred ground to us, and where we want to come and recognize them. They’re the ones that had to live under this oppressive system and their energy will be energized if we stand up and start healing our own people.”
As the group surrounded the cross-circled with candles, two signs under a tree expressed the message all were here to share. One read “Serra isn’t a Saint, God knows and so do we, genocide is wrong;” and the other “Native Lives Matter.”
Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra September, 28, 2015.