Junipero Serra exhibition at the Huntington seeks a full view


It’s a scholastic rite of passage for every California fourth-grader: studying the history of the Spanish Catholic missions and the life of Father Junípero Serra.

Steven W. Hackel remembers the drill.

“We were taught that Father Serra was a good, gentle padre who built missions every one-day’s horseback ride apart for tired travelers, as sort of like Motel 6’s of the day,” says Hackel, a UC Riverside associate professor of history and author of a new biography of Serra. “And there was nothing about Indians in those missions at all.”

Finding the complex man of God wrapped inside the saintly myth and putting the missing indigenous Americans back into the picture, are lead objectives of an exhibition scheduled to open Aug. 17 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and run through Jan. 6.


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Titled “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” and co-curated by Hackel and Catherine Gudis, also a UC Riverside associate professor of history, it’s perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled about the devout Franciscan friar who established nine of the 21 missions in present-day California and is sometimes called the state’s “founding father.”

But Serra has been seen by some historians in much darker terms: as a rigid theological bureaucrat, a Spanish imperial agent who, in the guise of converting “heathens” to Christianity, hauled pre-Enlightenment ideals into the New World and imposed a slave system that destroyed the Indians’ traditional way of life.

The exhibition, coinciding with the 300th anniversary of Serra’s birth, hews to a scholarly middle path that avoids either hagiography or vilification. Instead, it emphasizes the complex interaction of European and Native American civilizations and illustrates how Serra’s image has evolved through the centuries.

It also goes into greater depth than previous exhibitions about California Indian life, from 10,000 years ago to the present, with artifacts ranging from antique textile fragments to first-person audio narratives by modern-day descendants of Indian mission-dwellers.

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“One can imagine a show that was just about clash and destruction,” Hackel says. “But we wanted to call attention, interpretively, to the blending of cultures and the survival of California Indian crafts and ideas and customs within the very, very difficult situation of the California missions.”

Spanning 1713 to ’84 and comprising nearly 250 objects from lenders in the United States, Mexico and Spain, some on loan for the first time, the exhibition begins with Serra’s early career in his native Majorca, Spain. Original baptismal registers and portraits by prominent Spanish and New World painters such as Miguel Cabrera help illustrate this formative period.

Indeed, the influence of Majorca, a major center of Mediterranean trade and a bastion of by-the-book Catholic faith, stamped itself definitively on Serra’s life and thinking. Born to a family of poor farmers, he later joined the Franciscan order and spent two decades living and studying at the Convento de San Francisco in the island’s capital of Palma.

He modeled himself on ferociously devout Franciscans like Ramon Llull, absorbing dogma and adopting the favored practices of extreme poverty and self-flagellation. He also studied the influential writings of María de Jesús de Ágreda, a nun who preached to Indians across the future U.S. Southwest.

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By the time Serra arrived in the New World in 1750, he already was 55, and his views, including his perception of Indians as childlike and primitive, were fully formed. Although he kept copious diaries of his early travels in California, wrote scores of letters to his Franciscan superiors – several of which are on display at The Huntington – and was “exceptionally literate,” Hackel says, “Serra is not a good observer of Indian culture.”

“He’s not an ethnographer. The insights are that they’re naked and they live like Adam. That’s his worldview.”

In actuality, the Chumash and other Indian peoples that Serra encountered were highly skilled craftsmen and traders, as exhibition artifacts such as baskets, sculptures and ancient fabric scraps attest. The various California Indian communities spoke between 80 and 100 different languages and, except for the Chumash mainly lived in small autonomous villages.

The exhibition moves on to examine the daily realities of California mission life. Some Indian cultural elements such as music and dance were assimilated into Catholic liturgical traditions. Other Chumash skills like basket-weaving also were encouraged by the friars.

So was the use of corporal punishment, a practice that Serra defended, insisting that “everyone knows that the padres love the Indians,” as he wrote in a 1780 letter. One of the exhibition’s most moving features is an overhead, electronically timed display of the names of tens of thousands of Indians who lived in the California missions, compiled from baptism, marriage and burial records.

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As the old mission system began to collapse in the years after the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, and the Franciscans were banished, California was absorbed into the expansionist, English-speaking, mainly Protestant United States.

Subsequent exhibition displays show how a new, symbolic image of the missions took hold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This heavily romanticized view of ruined buildings, apparently abandoned and largely depopulated of Indians, was popularized by the nostalgic landscape paintings of Jules Tavernier and Edwin Deakin. A brooding photographic series by Carleton Watkins focused more on the forlorn architectural remnants than on the remaining Indians scratching out a living in their shadows.

Somewhat later, Golden State arrivistes such as journalist Charles Fletcher Lummis, a champion of the mission preservation movement, and “Ramona” author Helen Hunt Jackson, who became an early Indian rights advocate, perpetuated this sympathetic but historically skewed vision. So did citrus growers and land developers, hoping to lure consumers with advertising imagery of jolly padres, sultry señoritas and other “exotic” elements of a Spanish fantasy past.

“These Anglo newcomers are grasping at signs of civilization of a land that they otherwise don’t quite know what to make of,” Gudis says. “So these are some of the stories that they’re telling themselves, and it’s very curious that they’re Spanish Catholic stories, particularly given the real vitriol against Catholicism, as well as the real concern [about] the Mexican influx by the 1910s into California.”

The final room documents Serra’s 20th century elevation in stature as a major U.S. historical figure and his beatification by Pope John Paul II in 1988, bringing him closer to canonization. The room also displays the photographic and oral histories of California Indians and contemporary art works including a commissioned video installation, “Family Matters” by Luiseño artist James Lunacomposed of photographs and film of four generations of Luna’s ancestors and relatives.

These displays push back against notions that California’s Native Americans more or less disappeared with the mission system’s demise. Although disease and harsh living conditions devastated the state’s Indian population, from a peak of around 325,000 in 1769 to below 100,000 by the 1850s, California remains home to large numbers of Indians belonging to numerous tribes.

“He was the architect of our holocaust, our ethnic cleansing of California Indians,” Luna says. “It was a form of slavery; there’s no getting around it.”

But the exhibition also charts the emergence of the Native American rights movement for increased political power and self-governance. The recorded voices of modern-day Indians help dispel the hazy glow that still surrounds Father Serra and California’s Spanish-colonial past.

“It’s still going,” Luna said of the state’s Native American presence. “We’re not a figment of your imagination.”