Exhibit Paints Serra in Un-Saintly Glow ‘California Mission Daze’ Joins Fray Over Treatment of Indians

Junipero Serra is responsible for:

a) the founding of the California missions;

b) the conversion of the “mission” Indians;

c) opening up the West for colonization ;


d) the death of thousands of Indian people .

This is not a trick question. And it’s not from a classroom textbook.

But, if the message of its four authors is heard, more and more people will choose “d” as the “most correct” answer.

The quiz is found in a small book produced by three artists and a historian as part of a project, “California Mission Daze.” Now the centerpiece of an exhibition at downtown’s Installation Gallery, the work combines video, audio, images and text. Although the installation is surrounded here by other works of art, its real setting is the stage of world events, particularly the recent beatification of Father Junipero Serra.


The 18th-Century Spanish missionary was beatified last month in Rome by Pope John Paul II, a move that placed Serra just one step away from sainthood. The Pope had declared Serra venerable in 1985, the first of the three stages of canonization. If a miracle credited to Serra’s intervention can be documented by the Vatican, the final requirement will be fulfilled and Serra will be proclaimed a saint.

On the day of his beatification, a protest vigil was held in Carmel at the mission where Serra is buried. Here in San Diego, at the Presidio Park site of the first California mission established by Serra, vandals sprayed several monuments with graffiti branding the priest a “slave driver” and a “genocidal maniac.”

Artists David Avalos, James Luna, Deborah Small and historian William Weeks entered the debate over Serra’s activities more than a year ago. With “California Mission Daze,” they hope to contribute to the public dialogue that has surrounded his beatification.

The mission system is characterized by its:

a) “benevolence”;

b) “civilizing influence”;

c) “social efficiency”;

d) “forced-labor system.”


Serra’s defenders claim that he acted honorably toward the Indians, that he toiled at their side and risked his own health and safety to ensure their “salvation.” They characterize the nine missions that he established (of the 21 that now exist in California) as tranquil and enjoyable Christian communities, in which Indians adored their padres.

Is there truth to such claims about Serra’s benevolence?

“You have to look at it in terms of Indian culture,” said Weeks, who teaches at San Diego State University. “If you respect that, how can you say it was good? If you look at their numbers, everyone already agrees that they were destroyed. The only way you can see it as a good thing is if you think that they were a bunch of naked savages in their animal state, who had been given this great gift of Catholicism and civilization. That’s what the issue turns on.”

Indians were forced against their will to stay at the missions, subjected to slave labor and whipped if they attempted to escape, the group claims, citing historical records as well as accounts in Serra’s own words. Charts bordering one wall of their installation document the decline in Indian population under the mission system.

A tape, based on Serra’s accounts and other historical sources, plays continuously within the installation’s mission-like structure. Blending fact and fiction, it recreates a confession, in which Serra describes his motives and means for establishing the mission system.

“You know we had to destroy the savages in order to save them,” the voice says of the Indians. “They had no respect for what we know to be right or wrong. . . . We taught them that to live is to suffer. . . . Forgive me if I was too moderate. . . . The whip--the divine instrument of their salvation--should have been employed more often . . . “

Before the arrival of the missionaries, in what is now the state of California, there lived:

a) a larger number of Indians than anywhere else in what is now the United States ;


b) Indians whose detailed knowledge of the ecology enabled them to meet the nutritional needs of this large population;

c) Indians with civilizations based on complex religious and ethical values ;

d) all of the above .

Even Father Serra’s biggest defenders agree, said Weeks, that “he had two aims: to convert the Indians and to eradicate their culture. Although some priests would attempt to introduce Catholicism by working within native culture, Father Serra was explicitly oriented to eradicating it, to the point that the traditional sources of food were denied Indians as part of the civilizing, teaching them to eat only cultivated products.”

Framing the question of Indian mistreatment solely in terms of Serra’s own actions obliterates the larger issues, however, said the “Mission Daze” group.

“Whether he personally flogged the Indians, for us, seems irrelevant,” said Small, who teaches at UC San Diego. “It’s the system, the fact that he’s the architect of the system, and you don’t want to sanctify a whole system of forced labor, forced confinement, a place where rape of the Indian women was endemic.”

In “California Mission Daze,” the legacy of Serra and the mission system is examined not only through historical data but also through evidence in contemporary culture. One wall of the installation re-creates an “Honest Injun” souvenir stand, plastered with items that recall, at least in name, the mission system: a Padres baseball team banner, an ad for the Padre Trail Inn, a Taco Bell wrapper and miscellaneous toys relating to Indian tools and garments.

But the legacy extends beyond such superficial forms, the group said. It still permeates our language and attitudes, as demonstrated by the common use of such terms as civilized and primitive, and the widely accepted notion that the Spanish explorers arrived in an unpeopled wilderness, despite proof that Indians had been living on this continent for thousands of years.

One of the points of the piece, said Luna, a Luiseno Indian from the La Jolla reservation in North County and a counselor at Palomar College, is to prompt viewers to “stop for a minute and think about the information that they’re getting. My role as an artist is to present a forum where people can think about things and the way that we present them.”

Challenging such widespread notions about the benevolence of the mission system, however, has evoked outrage and denial. The reason, said Small, is that such evidence is “a threat to American mythology about who we are and what we think our national character is. To really deal with the relationship between the Europeans and the indigenous people here would be to upset all that mythology.”

“What we’re asking for is a reexamination,” added Avalos. But people “don’t want their myths bruised, much less completely discredited. People are still very much plugged into a mythology of the romantic Spanish mission days of California, and they don’t want to go beyond that.”

One of the aims of art since its earliest days has been to offer new perspectives and, in more modern times, to challenge conventions. “California Mission Daze” aims to confront viewers with fundamental questions about the past and, implicitly, the future.

“There’s a belief in this group that art can affect people’s consciousness in a way that has concrete benefits for society,” said Avalos. “There’s a belief that knowing history makes a difference, that it’s not just an academic subject, but that it has a relevance in our everyday lives.”

Knowing historical facts is not enough, added Small. “It’s knowing how we should remember these things. Whose interpretations are we going to look at and whose are we going to present? What kinds of images are going to be in textbooks? History is a terrain of struggle and debate. It’s not a given. It’s revised and rewritten. Who has the power to write the mainstream history and teach what is considered mainstream history?”

The group hopes that “California Mission Daze” will serve as a history lesson to viewers now as well as to students in the future. A COMBO grant they recently received is enabling them to expand the book that accompanies the installation and to distribute it to libraries and classrooms.

When it gets there, the standard lessons about Serra and the mission system will meet their challenge in questions like this:

To appreciate the missions today, you must view them:

a) in the gentle gold of predawn;

b) in the fiery afterglow of sundown ;

c) under the silvery cast of the moon ;

d) through rose-colored glasses.