Pope Francis’ decision to declare Father Junipero Serra a saint in recognition of his work as “the evangelizer of the West in the United States” represents a profound insult to Native Americans and an injustice to history.
According to California’s official history, Serra is 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. 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 UC Riverside historian Steven Hackel’s biography of Serra, he 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.
In 1769, when Serra arrived in San Diego, site of the first of 21 California missions, between 225,000 and 300,000 native peoples had lived for thousands of years in relatively peaceful, self-sufficient, decentralized tribes in Alta California. To him, they were backward children in need of a firm hand, not unlike the way the Confederate South viewed enslaved Africans.
The catastrophe the Indians experienced as colonized subjects is typically divided into two narratives. One emphasizes the unfortunate, unintentional result of European diseases that shredded native immune systems from the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. Under Spanish (1769-1821) and Mexican (1821-1848) occupation of Alta California, the indigenous population declined by about one-third.
The second narrative emphasizes the role of human agency in the premature deaths of native survivors, especially during and after the Gold Rush. Under American rule in California, the Indian population plunged sharply, primarily attributable to policies of extermination, or what California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, in 1851 referred to as “the irregular mode of warfare.”
Guerrilla-style native resistance in the rugged northwest of California was no match for the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of miners and settlers, bolstered 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 more than 90%.
I regard the two narratives that explain the extraordinary reduction of the California tribes as interrelated human-made tragedies, just as Holocaust scholars regard the estimated 20% of Jews who died in the concentration camps of malnutrition and exhaustion as victims of genocide. Although 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.
The epidemic of premature fatalities under Spanish colonialism was facilitated by an authoritarian and brutal mission system, enforced by irons and the whip. Life “under the bell,” as prescribed by Junipero 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, 1 in 3 babies born in missions did not make it to their first year; 40% of those who survived died before their fifth year; and 10% to 20% 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 in anonymous pits on the grounds and beneath the iconic mission loggias, chapels and gardens, which are among California’s leading tourist attractions.
“We don’t know the location of their burial,” said a guide during a visit to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, referring to the thousands of mostly Ohlone corpses somewhere beneath our feet.
From the late 19th century until the present, California’s history has been fashioned to fit the state’s racially sanitized origins story and narrative of relentless progress. Bypassing the region’s indigenous and Mexican roots, 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, racist history by conferring sainthood on Father Serra, Pope Francis should emulate retired Bishop Francis Quinn of Sacramento, who in 2008 acknowledged his 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.”
Tony Platt is affiliated with the Center for the Study of Law & Society at UC Berkeley and author of “Grave Matters: Excavating California’s Buried Past.”
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