“That the spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, by blows appears to be as old as the conquest of these kingdoms, and so general, in fact, that the saints do not seem to be an exception to the rule.” – Father Junipero Serra, 1780 (Castillo, 2015, p.81)
Junipero Serra was no saint.
As founder and President of the California missions, Serra was the moral authority of an imperial project that brought genocide to what we now know as the Golden State. His passion and energies contributed greatly to the establishment of the California missions, and with them the Spanish Empire’s savage subjugation of Indigenous peoples.
The Spanish presence in Alta California was first firmly established in 1769 with the “Sacred Expedition”, of which Junipero was at the forefront. When it came to settling remote northern areas of the empire they claimed, the Spanish crown provided scant resources, and turned instead to their always-dynamic relationship with Catholic orders. In Alta California, it was the Franciscans who were selected to ‘tame’ and administer land claimed by the crown, but as yet ‘unsettled’. For the Spanish crown, the settling of Alta California was a way to bolster their colonial claims, provide a buffer to Russian expansion down the Pacific coast, and perhaps furnish a suitable port for the Manila Galleons to rest and re-supply in case of emergency on their long journeys between Manila and Acapulco (Engstrand, 1998). In short, the settling of Alta California was an important piece of Spain’s imperial puzzle, a fact that Serra knew well. Serra had his own ideas of the type of European project he would like to impose on California, but he was nevertheless the leading edge of the Spanish crown’s efforts to control the territory. The 1769 “Sacred Expedition” put these Spanish imperial designs into action, and included the founding of the present day California cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, and Monterey. Over his next fifteen years in California, Serra founded ten missions throughout the territory in which thousands of Native people lived at some point.
In contrast to the comparisons of Alta California to the biblical Garden of Eden that Serra and his fellow friars made in their writings (Gonzalez, 1998), the California missions were a place of misery for most Native Californians. The forced labor of Native peoples was the foundation of Spanish settlement in California, and Native people were physically abused and locked in cramped and dingy quarters to prevent them from escaping to their home communities. The Franciscans justified the Natives’ imprisonment as a measure of protection for their own good, but the confinement did not shield them from rampant sexual abuse at the hands of the Spanish (Gonzalez, 1998) nor the deadly diseases whose spread was facilitated by so many people being packed in such small rooms. In the missions, the priests viewed the “neophytes” as children to be controlled, by force if necessary. Serra himself wrote, “That the spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, by blows appears to be as old as the conquest of these kingdoms, and so general, in fact, that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.” (Castillo, 2015, p.81) Control through violence was such the norm that, in 1786, French visitor to the missions Jean Francois de Laperouse described the ‘concerning’ resemblance of Mission Monterey to slave plantations in the Caribbean (Castillo, 2015). The cruel treatment of Native Californians at the missions was aimed to force them to abandon their traditional lifestyles and often led to distinctly European coping mechanisms of alcoholism and gambling (Gonzalez, 1998). Taken together, the Indigenous folks who were able to avoid physical death were subjected to cruel and various forms of cultural genocide.
Inside and outside of the missions, Native people died in horrifying numbers. This population decline was especially pronounced among Natives who were part of the mission system (Beebe & Senkewicz, 2015). Undeterred, Serra stayed the course, convinced that his policies of brutal subjugation were part of God’s plan for the heathen natives. The blood on Serra’s hands is immeasurable.
All great systems of oppression involve the participation of many people, elements, and circumstances in varying degrees, so Serra isn’t alone in his guilt. That said, he was a lead architect of a massive takeover that resulted in brutal, prolonged attacks on Native forms of governance, family relations, livelihood, land access, and spirituality that left tens of thousands of people dead and so many others—brothers, mothers, nieces, fathers, daughters— displaced and devastated.
The extent of Serra’s individual guilt and to what degree he should be condemned for it is impossible to ascertain. However, the claim that his actions in that time of genocide could recommend him for sainthood has no grounding in historical fact. And when couched in larger stories of Manifest Destiny and ‘the conquering of savage Natives as part of the inevitable progress of civilization’, his saintly narrative contributes to one of the most fundamental and crippling lies we tell ourselves and our children in the United States. Along with the denial of the time-release debilitations of chattel slavery, the lie that denies and obscures the genocidal treatment of Native peoples in what became the United States is one that keeps us both from understanding the world we live in today and achieving a more perfect union based on liberty, human rights, and democracy.
It is strange, then, that Pope Francis—in many ways a progressive force in geopolitics today—canonized Serra on his visit to the United States in September 2015. As recently as July 2015, Pope Francis expressed his regret for the Catholic Church’s role in the bloody oppression of Native Americans:
I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God...I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America (Time Staff, 2015).
As Pope Francis alluded to elsewhere in his speech, the negative impacts of the Spanish conquest of the Americas are not just a subject for the history book, but instead continue to negatively impact our species broadly, and Indigenous members of it acutely. Valentin Lopez, Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians in California, describes this history’s present impacts insightfully:
Father Serra believed that for him to successfully save the Indians, he had to suppress their culture. The result is a profound and lasting trauma stemming from the Spanish period, as well as from the Mexican and early American periods. It is an illness that persists in many of our tribal members today. Issues of alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, and poverty among our people are directly linked to this history. These conditions have hampered our people from giving their children a strong sense of identity, raising them to be optimistic, or having love for all things. (Castillo, 2015)
Junipero Serra was no saint. Furthermore, it is imperative that we challenge the notion of Serra’s sainthood and the dangerous lies it rests upon. In the name of truth, justice, and human rights, we must challenge it first within ourselves—where is has seeped in through generations of false messaging—and then challenge it in our homes, schools, and communities at large.
Beebe, R.M., & Senkewicz, R.M. (2015). Junipero serra: California, Indians, and the transformation of a missionary. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Castillo, E. (2015). A cross of thorns: the enslavement of california’s indians by the spanish missions. Fresno, CA: Craven Street Books.
Engstrand, I.H.W., (1998). Seekers of the “northern mystery”: European exploration of California and the pacific. In Gutierrez, R. & Orsi R (Eds.), Contested eden: California before the gold rush (p.78-110). Berkeley & Los Angeles, Ca: University of California Press.
Gonzalez, M.J., (1998). “The child of the wilderness weeps for the father of ourcountry”: the indian and the politics of church and state in provincial california. In Gutierrez, R. & Orsi R (Eds.), Contested eden: California before the gold rush (p.147-172). Berkeley & Los Angeles, Ca: University of California Press.
Time Staff (July 10, 2015). Read Pope Francis’ Speech on the Poor and Indigenous Peoples. Time. Retrieved from: http://time.com/3952885/pope-francis-bolivia-poverty-speech-transcript/