Activist Threatens to Resist Canonization : To Many Indians, Serra Was No Saint

Times Staff Writer

As regularly as the swallows have returned to the historic mission at San Juan Capistrano, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776, charges that the Franciscans were guilty of extreme brutality toward California Indians have dogged the effort to turn Serra into a saint.

Serra, founder of the California mission system, has already been designated “venerable”--the first of three steps to canonization. He will probably be declared “blessed,” or beatified, by Pope John Paul II in September of 1987 when the pontiff visits Serra’s grave at the Carmel mission. A niche for a statue of the beatified Serra already has been prepared at the new Mission Capistrano church.

If that happens, said CheqWeesh Auh-Ho-Oh, a Chumash Indian activist who interrupted a ceremony in Serra’s honor at Carmel in 1985, there will be active resistance to the Pope’s declaration.


“They’re going to be opening the lid on something so explosive if they try and go through with this,” she said. “There are going to be Indian demonstrations like they have never seen before in all their lives.”

“I’ve heard from lots of Native American Catholics on this,” said Father Gilbert Hemauer, president and executive director of the Tekakawitha Conference, which represents more than 10,000 Indians of the Roman Catholic faith. Hemauer, a member of the Capuchin order, said he is “uncomfortable” with the pace of Serra’s canonization. “I really don’t think Native American people have been consulted,” he said.

For more than a century, historians have debated the impact on the Indians of the California mission system, founded and headed for 15 years by Serra.

Defending the actions of Junipero Serra and his close associates has largely been the province of Franciscan historians since the “Apostle of California” died in 1784. The sharpest criticism has come from secular academics at the University of California, Berkeley, such as historian Hubert Howe Bancroft and physiologist Sherburne F. Cook, as well as independent scholars such as Carey McWilliams.

Nonetheless, there is general agreement on several issues, although interpretation has varied.

“The land on which the missions were built was land that was held in trust for the Indians,” said Msgr. Francis J. Weber, archivist for the archdiocese of Los Angeles.


“It was given by the crown. The Spanish government had an interesting philosophy in their dealing with the Indians. They first of all Christianized them, they civilized them and then they exploited them,” said Weber, a Serra scholar and supporter, but not a Franciscan. “The Spanish government felt that by civilizing the Indians they would become taxpayers of the empire.”

Or, as Auh-Ho-Oh, puts it: “The missionaries were sent here by the Spanish monarchy along with the military to work hand-in-hand to colonize this so-called virgin territory. And to bring the Indian people through the baptismal into slavery.”

There is also concurrence that Indians who came into the missions died in wholesale numbers in very short order. Encountering Europeans for the first time, they died by the tens of thousands from smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, measles, dysentery and even the common cold, against which they had no natural immunity.

“The missions themselves, as institutions, were an important cause of death among the converted Indians,” wrote Father Francis F. Guest, a Franciscan Serra scholar for 26 years and former archivist at Mission Santa Barbara.

At Mission Dolores in San Francisco there is prominently displayed a colorful, modernistic mosaic marking the establishment of the mission by Serra in 1776. The work, by the Mexican artist Guillermo Granzio, is composed of panels representing the different groups involved in the event, with a single Spanish word at the top of each panel.

Above the panel depicting the soldiers is the word “Rey, King, and above the one portraying the friars is the word “Dios, God. Across the top of the section that pictures a peaceful Indian village scene is the word “Muerte, Death.

Many Buried at Missions

In Mission Dolores’ graveyard, there is a monument, “In prayerful memory of our faithful Indians,” noting that the remains of 5,000 unnamed souls lie beneath. At Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, founded by Serra in 1770, another mass grave records that between 1771 and 1833, 14 Spaniards and 2,364 Christian Indians perished. More than 15,000 are buried at San Juan Bautista.

“So far as the Indians were concerned,” Carey McWilliams wrote 40 years ago, “the chain of missions along the coast might best be described as a series of picturesque charnel houses.”

Despite this, few on either side of the Indian issue question the motives of Serra and other Franciscans.

McWilliams, one of the Franciscans’ harshest critics, wrote that the missionaries had “the best theological intentions in the world.” Auh-Ho-Oh, who teaches Native American culture at Cabrillo College in Aptos, Calif., and is organizing a network of Indians and sympathetic church people to oppose Serra’s canonization, also acknowledges that the Franciscans “had good intentions.” Notwithstanding, she added, “they paved the way to our hell.”

Missionaries’ View

“The unconverted Indians,” Father Guest wrote, “in the eyes of missionaries, were heathens, victims of barbarism, of superstition, of error, and they were to be removed from these unfortunate circumstances as soon as possible and Christianized.”

Indians were lured into the missions by Franciscans with various trinkets and ornaments. When food was scarce, the Indian hunters and gatherers came to the missions for food. Some even came to learn how to play the Spaniards’ musical instruments. For whatever reasons, once they were baptized, they were not permitted to leave the missions.

Within the missions, the Indians were lodged separately by sex, and required to work row crops and provide labor to construct mission buildings. To ensure that they remained, some Franciscans prohibited the cultivation of row crops outside of mission land and forbade Indians to learn to ride horses.

“Initially Indians came into the missions on a voluntary basis,” said Clement Meighan, professor of archeology at UCLA, “sometimes without perhaps knowing what they were getting into, and not understanding the language fully, not understanding what the commitment was if they became a convert to the missions.”

‘Penal Servitude’

Once inside the missions, daily life for the Indians “was a kind of penal servitude,” Meighan said. He cautioned, however, that some Indians resisted missionization, that “the missions were not as much of an Indian roundup as some people have supposed. That is, the idea that the missions somehow went out and got every single Indian and dragged them all into the missions by force if necessary. Not true. And there’s strong archeological evidence to show that didn’t happen.”

“Of course they didn’t go in voluntarily,” said Rupert Costa, head of the American Indian Historical Society in San Francisco. “They sent out troops to bring them in. . . . They destroyed a whole culture. . . . It was a regular Inquisition.”

Costa and Meighan also differ on the kind of life the Mission Indians left behind. The archeologist insists that the life of the hunter-gatherer society was no bed of roses, that many people starved and that infant mortality was high. Costa and Auh-Ho-Oh maintain that, for the most part, village life for California Indians was like life in Eden.

The most serious charge made against Junipero Serra himself is that he personally mistreated Indians in his care, beating them with whips, and putting them in chains and shackles and stocks.

Rodolfo Acuna, professor of history and Chicano studies at Cal State, Northridge, calls Serra a “sadist” and a “fanatic.”

Defended Himself

Even during his lifetime, Serra was criticized for beating his Indian converts, and he was very forthright in defending himself.

According to Father Guest, “there is incontrovertible testimony that delinquent Indians were whipped, sometimes excessively, by the padres” under Serra’s jurisdiction. However, Guest, who supports Serra’s canonization, wrote in a lengthy defense of Serra in Southern California Quarterly, “many priests, religious, lay people and even some saints in the 18th Century seem to have exceeded the bounds of prudence where the use of discipline was concerned.”

“Judging by the standards of contemporary American society, one feels inclined to condemn the physical punishment imposed upon delinquent Indians--whippings, shackles, the stocks--as severe, much too severe. One must not fail to devote due attention, however, to the subjective order, the order of thought, the order of conscience. How did these practitioners of physical punishment see themselves? How did they judge their own conduct?”

Guest also raises the point that Serra, an active member of the Spanish Inquisition, practiced public self-flagellation and scourging in front of Indian converts. According to Father Francisco Palou, Serra’s student, longtime friend and co-worker, as well as his first biographer, Serra beat himself with stones and with a short whip, ropes and chains--sometimes until he bled--and on other occasions touched his skin with lighted candles.

“The chastisement (of the Indians) seems limited when compared with what pious Spaniards inflicted upon themselves every week in their spiritual exercises,” Guest wrote.

Serra’s defenders point out that he vigorously opposed lengthy imprisonment and capital punishment for Indians. He once wrote the Spanish viceroy in Mexico “that in case the Indians, whether pagans or Christians, would kill me, they should be pardoned.” The Franciscans were constantly protecting Indian converts from Spanish soldiers and colonists who wanted to turn the natives into servants and concubines.

Another major point made on Serra’s behalf was that, in 1773, he went from Carmel to Mexico City to meet with the Viceroy, and to defend the interests of the Indians.

Got Bill of Rights

“He was planting the same ideals on the West Coast that the Founding Fathers were establishing on the East Coast,” said Father Noel Francis Moholy of San Francisco, who has overseen Serra’s sainthood campaign for the Franciscans for more than 30 years. “He came back from Mexico with a Bill of Rights for the Indians of California 18 years before there was an American Bill of Rights.”

Most academics agree--and recent Franciscan historians concede--that the primary reason Serra went to Mexico was to wrest civil control from the military governor at Monterey, Pedro Fages. Serra was successful in this effort, and the controversial Fages was replaced, although he later returned for a second term. Control over the Indian population was a constant struggle between the two men.

The key provision of the document Serra brought back from the Viceroy stated that “the management, control and education of the baptized Indians pertains exclusively to the missionary fathers . . . just as the father of a family has charge of his house and the . . . correction of his children.”

Fages seems to have been as much a defender of the Indians as Serra. In 1783, the military governor of California, then in his second term and still battling with Serra, criticized the missionaries for beating the Indians, adding that “chastisement by putting in chains is very frequent at all the missions, but principally at Carmel,” where Serra maintained his headquarters.

Two Basic Arguments

Serra’s defenders make two basic arguments with regard to his treatment of the Indians.

For one, they argue that it is unfair to judge actions taken in 1786 by the standards of 1986, which approach aboriginal evangelization with much greater sensitivity.

But numerous theologians in Spain and Latin America--some writing as early as 200 years before Serra’s arrival in California--argued in opposition to extreme discipline and compulsion toward native peoples, and in favor of cultural sensitivity.

“These were huge debates that involved great Spanish theologians on the whole issue of using force for conversion,” said Father John A. Coleman, a professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

Serra’s defenders also say that in colonial America everyone beat the Indians. They contrast the well-meaning but admittedly destructive approach of the Franciscans toward Indians on the West Coast with other European colonial powers, who did worse. The contrast is sharpest, they say, with that of the treatment of Indians on the East Coast by the French and English (and later, the Americans) who drove the Indians off their lands or slaughtered them wholesale.

Gentler Treatment

However, Russian colonists and traders in Northern California made no effort to convert Indians or seize their lands. And in French Canada, Jesuit missionaries traveled with Indians or lived in villages with them, beginning in 1640, without destroying their culture.

“All of this Jesuit material from Canada was published and circulated within the Jesuit order. It’s not as if the example wasn’t there to follow if he (Serra) wanted to,” said James Axtell, author of “The Conquest of Cultures in Colonial North America.”

“In retrospect,” Coleman said, “we can now say there were some people who knew better about acculturation and the Gospel.”

The Vatican, however, does not agree.

“The good that Serra did for the Indians far outweighed any of what we might now consider negative elements, namely blending them into the Spanish culture,” said Father Robert Sarno, an official of the Sacred Congregation for Causes of Saints in Rome.

“Serra was revered as an exceptional individual” by Native Americans in California, said Moholy, whose official title is vice postulator of Serra’s sainthood drive. “The Indians truly loved him. And that’s why it hurts so much to hear some of these indictments.”

More Critical Standard

Close scrutiny of Junipero Serra’s moral character and judgment is required by the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Vatican officials say, inasmuch as canonization carries with it the imprimatur of papal infallibility. Thus, a much more critical standard is applied by the Vatican than by secular academics, according to Sarno.

Without substantial dispute, it is agreed that the Franciscans under Serra lured Indians from their native society, subjected them to forced labor and did not permit them to quit the missions or to retain significant elements of their culture. In subjecting the Indians to European diseases the missionaries decimated the Indians in large numbers and beat them, sometimes excessively.

Should a saint have known better?

“It’s the right question to ask, but it’s a difficult question to answer,” said Father William Spohn, professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School at Berkeley. “If we’re speaking morally, it’s a question we have to ask.”

Most saints, Spohn said, “are canonized for some things and not others. Most saints were neurotic in some ways, like most historical figures, usually about minor dimensions of life. While the church would not endorse the neurotic aspects of their personality, maybe it would overlook certain social blindnesses as well. Social sin is a relatively new development.”

Questions to Be Asked

“If you’re holding someone (like Serra) up as an example of sanctity,” said Hemauer of the Tekakawitha Conference, “one of the questions you have to ask is, ‘what was his ministry as a Catholic priest and what was his outreach in accompanying the Spanish?’ ”

Serra’s treatment of the Indian converts, Hemauer said, was a “red flag” that might prove to be “an embarrassment” to the church in an era when it is increasingly turning toward the Third World generally and particularly acting as a defender of Indians throughout Latin America. Hemauer said he had written to Moholy about the issue, but had received no response.

“It would not be the best message to send to native peoples,” said Father Michael Galvan, the only ordained Indian priest in Northern California. Galvan, an Ohlone and the son of mission Indians near San Jose, said he personally found the issue of Serra’s sanctity “complicated,” but volunteered that he was convinced that Pope John Paul II would not overlook Indian issues in deciding on Serra’s elevation.

Thomas Quigley, Latin American adviser to the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, suggested that the elevation of Serra would not “send bad signals to the church.”

“The present is the time in which the people live. The identification of the church is with native peoples in Brazil and Guatemala and not with what happened in California 200 years ago,” he said.

In the museum inside Mission San Luis Obispo there is a display of Chumash Indian artifacts with a plaque above it explaining how and why the Chumash disappeared. The last sentence reads: “The folklore, religion and magic of the Chumash are forever gone.” However, someone has crossed out the “forever,” and written above it the word “not.”

“We are responsible now for what we know now,” said CheqWeesh Auh-Ho-Oh of the drive to canonize Serra. “It is all right to say he thought he was doing his best, for what he believed in. But you can say that about a lot of people who perpetrate really horrible crimes. . . . People who have had 200 years of seeing the after-effects and what actually happened are now making this move and this decision to make him a saint. That is creating the whole crime all over again. This is really too much.”