Junípero Serra's road to sainthood is
controversial for Native Americans
As Pope Francis plans to canonize ‘the evangeliser of the west’, descendants of
those who first encountered the missionary recall a culture lost to violence
A 2015 Father Serra calendar is on sale in the gift shop of
the San Buenavista Mission, the last of the nine missions founded by
Junípero Serra in California. Photograph: Brian Cahn/ZUMA
A story about conquest, religion and the Americas, central
to a founding myth of California, will end this year with the pope bestowing
sainthood on a man many see as guilty of “slavery” and “violent evangelism”.
Pope Francis announced last week that he plans to canonize Junípero Serra, “the
evangelizer of west in the United States”, in a ceremony in Washington this
fall. The 18th-century missionary would officially become a saint.
Yet many of the people descended from those who first encountered Serra have a
starkly different view of the Spanish friar. Sainthood for the friar would honor
the actions of a brutal colonizer, many Native Americans protest.
Ron Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles
City/County Native American Indian Commission, compared Serra to Hitler and the
Spanish conquistadors who subjugated South America. Andrade, a Luiseño, said
Serra “decimated 90% of the Indian population”. “Why doesn’t the pope canonize
Pizarro or Cortez? It’s dumb.”
“Everywhere they put a mission the majority of Indians are gone,” Andrade said,
“and Serra knew what they were doing: they were taking the land, taking the
crops, he knew the soldiers were raping women, and he turned his head.”
Many tribes, including the Luiseños, Juaneño and Gabrielino-Tongva, survived the
mission era through partial integration with each other and Spanish culture, but
others fled inland or lost their culture completely, Andrade said.
“Serra was not the face of evil”, says Deborah Miranda, a professor of
literature at Washington and Lee University and an Ohlone Costanoan Esselen
Indian. “But there were so many atrocities happening and he closed his eyes,”
she said. “I don’t think he should be rewarded for that.”
For Miranda, Serra’s complicity outweighs whatever
intentions he had. He was driven by ambition, she said, and in his desire to
produce results for Spain he “laid the groundwork to erase our cultures and
impose this burden of shame on Indians about being Indian”.
Serra came to the American territories in 1749 as an accomplished Franciscan,
and after two decades of mission work the Spanish crown sent him with an army
excursion to found settlements along the Pacific coast – before the Russians or
British were able. In 1769 he founded the Mission of San Diego, the first of
nine missions, and traveled as far north as San Francisco Bay.
Those missions irrevocably altered life for the people along the coast, whom
Serra tried to convert as the army built fortresses nearby. “It was a very
difficult time for California Indians,” says professor Steven Hackel of the
University of California, Riverside and the author of Junípero Serra:
California’s Founding Father.
went to missions because they had few other options,” he said, since diseases
devastated the tribes and the invasive plants and animals brought by the Spanish
for agriculture overwhelmed native food sources.
Missions appeared to be “a place for them to rebuild their communities”, Hackel
Yet, according to Miranda, as populations grew they became “disease factories”.
Historians estimate that hundreds of thousands of Native Americans died in the
decades after Europeans arrived, mostly killed by diseases.
Converts were taught to farm, breed livestock and live in regimented
communities. They were flogged for disobedience, captured if they tried to flee,
and sometimes raped by soldiers of the local garrisons.
French explorer Jean François de Galaup de la Pérouse, Serra’s contemporary,
wrote that the missions treated “too much a child, too much a slave, too little
a man” and were akin to slave plantations. On several occasions tribes tried to
revolt, until eventually new settlers took over the missions.
“Serra didn’t believe you could beat Catholicism into an Indian,” Hackel said,
“but he saw them as children, and in the early modern period good fathers
corrected their kids through corporal punishment.
“I’m not trying to let Serra off the hook, but we need to understand how he
understood the world.” Hackel said no matter what, “the Catholic church needs to
do more work” to hear Native Americans’ concerns.
David McLaughlin, historian and executive director of the California Missions
Resources Center, said that Serra should be said as a talented but flawed man of
his time. He “lived an exemplary religious life by the terms of his day”,
McLaughlin said, and the missions could be perceived as a“modification” that
tried to reform the strategies that had devastated Central America and Peru.
Father Tom Elewaut, a priest at San Buenaventura Mission – the last of Serra’s
missions – defended the friar against criticism while acknowledging that
colonization “was a tragedy” for its consequences. “Serra was a protectorate of
the Native Americans,” Elewaut argued, saying that the friar never intended the
spread of disease and cared deeply for Native Americans.
Serra prevented yet more garrisons from springing up near missions, McLaughlin
and Elewaut noted, saying that he effectively guarded Native Americans from
soldiers even if he had political considerations to do so.
“Times change” was Elewaut’s ultimate defense of Serra. “We had corporeal
punishment in schools when I was a child, and it wasn’t devastating.” But Serra
was “very respectful” to Native Americans who refused to convert, Elewaut
protested, though he admitted the church should try to reconcile Native
Americans’ “real hurt”. Elewaut said the best thing for the church and native
people may be to embrace Serra’s own motto: “‘Siempre adelante, nunca atras’ –
always forward, never back.”
For Miranda and others, the consequences of Serra’s brand of colonialism live on
today. “Treating Indians as less than human, or as children who could never grow
up, created a sort of psychological trauma,” she said. “I don’t deny that
cultures evolve, but more agency in the evolution could not have been bad.”