Pope Francis recently announced his intention to declare Father Junípero Serra a saint in recognition of his missionary work as “the evangelizer of the West in the United States.” The campaign for canonization has been ongoing since 1985 when Pope John Paul II declared Serra eligible for sainthood.
The pope’s decision represents a profound insult to Native Americans and an injustice to our history.
Serra (1713-1784), a Franciscan missionary from Mallorca, Spain, established a chain of Catholic missions in Alta California, from San Diego to San Francisco, in the latter half of the 18th century. According to California’s public narrative, Serra is considered one of the state’s founding fathers, recognized for his role in Christianizing Native peoples and teaching them “how to farm, make new things, and work hard,” as a 21st century textbook for children puts it. Along with Ronald Reagan, Serra represents California in Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington, D. C.
This grandiose image of Serra’s humanity denies historical evidence and covers up his inhumanity.
Even by 18th century standards, Serra’s religious fanaticism was over the top. With beliefs grounded in doctrines inherited from the Middle Ages, he took pleasure in extreme self-mortification and worked as a loyal comisario, or field agent, for the Inquisition, tracking down witches, heretics, and practitioners of “cryptojudaism” in Mexico City. According to historian Steven Hackel, Serra was “a calculating and unrelenting interrogator of those he thought had committed crimes against the Church.”
But he’s known best for recruiting Indians to the Catholic Church, and for his organizational genius in making the mission system, at least during his lifetime, an important outpost of the Spanish empire. To Serra, the people who had lived “from time immemorial” in relative peace and comfort were backward children in need of a firm hand, just as the Confederate South imagined enslaved Africans.
Prior to Serra’s civilizational mission, at least 300,000 native peoples of what became Alta California lived self-sufficiently and relatively well for thousands of years in decentralized and small tribes. The catastrophe they experienced as colonized subjects is typically divided into two master narratives. One emphasizes the unfortunate, unintentional result of diseases that shredded Native immune systems from the late 18th to mid 19th centuries throughout the Americas. Under Spanish (1769-1821) and Mexican (1821-1848) occupation of Alta California, the indigenous population declined by at least one third.
The second narrative emphasizes the role of human agency in the devastation of Native survivors during the second half of the 19th century. Under American rule in California the Indian population plunged to a nadir of about 15,000, primarily attributable to policies of extermination, or what Governor Peter Burnett in 1851 referred to as “the irregular mode of warfare.”
Guerilla-style resistance in rugged northwest California was no match for the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of miners and settlers, backed up by greed, a sense of entitlement, and armed militias. Scholars generally agree that what happened in California after 1848 meets the standards of the United Nations post-World War II definition of “genocide.” But the groundwork for the terror of the Gold Rush was laid by the Spanish regime.
Over a period of about 150 years, the Native population declined by well over 90 percent, comparable in impact to the fate of Tutsis under the Hutu regime. While the Spanish and American colonial systems were by no means identical, they both engaged in nation building and conquest. And they shared similar attitudes about the inferiority and expendability of Native lives.
I regard the extraordinary loss of life resulting from disease and malice as interrelated human-made tragedies, just as Holocaust scholars regard the estimated twenty percent of Jews who died in the concentration camps from malnutrition and exhaustion as victims of genocide.
An epidemic of fatalities under Spanish colonialism in Alta California was ultimately the result of contagious diseases, but premature death was facilitated by an authoritarian and brutal mission system, enforced by irons and the whip. Life “under the bell,” as prescribed by Junípero Serra, was disastrous for Native people. Functioning as forced labor camps, the missions imposed baptisms and conversions, fiercely policed the boundaries of Christian sexuality, and punished infractions with flogging. Cut off from their homelands, deprived of cultural traditions, and exposed to unfamiliar viruses, one in three babies born in missions did not make it to their first year; forty percent of those who survived died before their fifth year; and between ten and twenty percent of adults died each year.
The missionaries gave the neophytes a short course in Christianity before converting them en masse. But when they died en masse, they received burials fit for savages, not Christians: they’re stacked ten and more deep in anonymous pits on the grounds and beneath the iconic buildings of missions that have become one of California’s leading tourist attractions. “We don’t know the location of their burial,” said a guide during my visit to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, referring to several thousand mostly Ohlone corpses somewhere beneath our feet.
From the late 19th century until the present, the official history of Native peoples in California has been fashioned to suitably fit the state’s racially sanitized origins story and narrative of relentless Progress. By-passing the region’s indigenous and Mexican roots, the state’s textbooks and popular culture have perpetuated the myth that California was born in Castilian Spain and transported to the New World via religious missions.
Rather than reinforcing this selective and racist history by conferring sainthood on Father Serra, Pope Francis should emulate retired Bishop Francis Quinn of Sacramento, who in 2008 acknowledged the Catholic Church’s “serious misdeeds,” especially its efforts to “impose a European Catholicism upon the Natives,” and apologized “for trying to take Indian out of the Indian.”
This piece in a slightly different form, titled “Sainthood and Serra: It’s An Insult to Native Americans,” was originally published in the Los Angeles Times, 25 January, 2015.