American Indian Scholars Publish Critical Writings : Debate Continues on Serra Beatification

Times Staff Writer

Despite Pope John Paul II’s decision not to beatify Father Junipero Serra next month in Monterey, the debate over the 18th-Century missionary’s treatment of California Indians is continuing, with publication by American Indian academicians of a critical book on the subject, and presentation by a Franciscan historian of a research paper vigorously defending Serra.

Last week a Vatican spokesman announced that the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints must still meet to consider whether to recommend that the Pope elevate Serra to the second of three steps to sainthood.

Serra’s backers had hoped that the process would be completed in time for the pontiff to proclaim the beatification at a Sept. 17 Mass at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey. After the Mass, the Pope is scheduled to visit the nearby San Carlos Borromeo mission in Carmel, which Serra founded in 1770 and where he was buried in 1784.


Old Controversy

The long-simmering beatification controversy between supporters and opponents of Serra, known as “the Apostle of California,” may heat up with the appearance of the two sharply worded works.

Serra, write Rupert and Jeannette Henry Costo, editors and contributors to “The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide,” was “an arrogant, opinionated, hypocritical Inquisition commissioner, whom we classify as a bigot and whom history holds responsible for the decimation of hundreds of thousands of Indian people” in California.

The driving force behind the Mission system, write the Costos, who were raised Catholic but say they no longer practice their religion, was “greed for expansion on the part of the Spanish Crown; greed for recognition on the part of the Franciscan friars, and greed for mercenary gain on the part of the Roman Catholic Church itself. It was mindless, unconscionable greed.”

Rupert Costo, 81, is a Cahuilla and his wife Jeannette, 79, an Eastern Cherokee. They founded the American Indian Historical Society in San Francisco in 1962 and the Indian Historian Press, which has published the new book and 35 others on Indian history and culture, in 1969. The society endowed the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs at the University of California, Riverside, in 1986.

The 248-page book includes eight essays, mostly by Indian historians, along with depositions, interviews and resolutions by individual Indians and Indian organizations. It was compiled more as a response to a 90-page report on Serra issued last November by the Diocese of Monterey than to the sainthood drive itself, according to Jeannette Costo.

However, a copy of the book has been sent to the Congregation in Rome, she said, and the Tekakwitha Conference, a national organization of American Indian Catholics and their supporters, is sending copies to all U.S. bishops. By coincidence, the bishops will soon be receiving a new paperback edition of a favorable Serra biography co-authored by Father Noel F. Moholy, Serra’s chief backer for sainthood in the United States.


The Monterey diocese’s report, which is reprinted in its entirety--without permission--in the Costos’ book, includes interviews by a publicist with eight historians and an article by a ninth, Father Francis F. Guest, archivist of the Santa Barbara Mission, all of which were favorable to Serra.

While the plans to beatify Serra angered the Costos and other members of the historical society, the Monterey diocese’s report and the accompanying challenge by Bishop Thaddeus A. Shubsda to refute the report infuriated them.

“In order to honor one of their own,” said Jeannette Costo in a telephone interview, “they are vilifying and defaming the American Indian.”

The Pope’s decision to put off beatification “is what we wanted. This is what we’ve been working for,” she said, in order to present their case to Rome.

A resolution by the Tekakwitha Conference, reprinted in the book, charges that the diocese’s report “is grossly inaccurate and totally misrepresents the native understanding of its own history and culture.” Among the signatories of the resolution is Bishop Donald Pelotte of Gallup, N.M., the first and only Indian bishop in the United States.

Monterey Bishop Shubsda, in a statement issued Friday, said, “Father Serra was a man who was ahead of his time. The reason we issued this report was to let people know what nine scholars hold as truths about Father Serra himself, as well as their perceptions of Indian culture at that time.


“This report was not issued to antagonize Native Americans, rather it was issued to clarify the separate nature of Father Serra from his own Spanish culture. I wish to emphasize that if the Tekakwitha Conference was also offended by our report, we regret that.

“Our intent was to center on the goodness of Serra and the goodness of the Christian message that he brought.”

Guest has just completed a paper entitled, “Principles for an Interpretation of The History of the California Missions (1769-1833),” to be delivered at the end of August at an international meeting of church historians at the University of Salamanca, Spain.

Called ‘Propaganda’

In the paper, some critics of Serra and the mission system are referred to as “propagandists,” and at least one of their arguments, “the concept of Franciscan missionaries imposing brutal floggings on their neophytes (converts),” he said, “renders the history of the California missions almost unintelligible.”

In a cover letter to the paper, Guest characterizes another criticism of Serra, that he was responsible for the forced conversion of the Indians, as “nonsense.”

In support of Serra and the missions, Guest points to “the extraordinary fidelity of the California mission Indians to Catholicism,” to this day, as well as the “apparent anomaly” that the Indians did not violently resist cruel priests.


The Costos cite numerous examples of rebellion and say it is “a general myth, probably encouraged by mission historians, that the Indians were docile, passive, (and) did not revolt.”

Charges and countercharges notwithstanding, there is considerable cross-fertilization in the debate, with many of the same sources cited in both works. Guest’s scholarship, for example, appears frequently in the text and footnotes of the Costos’ book. An essay on the Serra beatification by an Ohlone priest, Father Michael Galvan, which was solicited for the diocese’s report and then rejected, apparently because it turned out to be critical, appears in the Costos’ book.

Guest acknowledges some of the major points in the Costos’ book: that it would be difficult to separate Serra from criticism of the California mission system he founded; that Serra condoned the use of corporal punishment on Indian converts; that once they were converted, Indians were required to remain resident in the missions; and that as a result of their interaction with the missionaries, the Indians died in large numbers.

And Guest repeats--albeit for purposes of refutation--some of the more damaging evidence about Serra from the period, including the observation of Felipe de Neve, Spanish governor of the Californias in the late 1770s, “that the condition of the Indians at the missions was worse than that of slaves.”

Although he has written elsewhere that it would be unfair to judge Serra by the standards of the 20th Century, Guest notes that Serra--a college professor before he was a missionary--in some ways did not reflect the best Enlightenment ideals of his own time.

The Costos go further in their book, suggesting that Serra did not even reflect the highest ideals of the 16th Century, as embodied by the life and missionary experiences of Fray Bartolome de las Casas, “who carried on a lifelong crusade on behalf of the Indian people of those lands Cortes and his legions depopulated” in the Americas.


De las Casas’ book, “The Tears of the Indians,” was so outspoken an expose that it was banned for a time by the Inquisition, the Costos say, suggesting that De las Casas would be a far better candidate for the church to sanctify, “if a saint they must have.”