Junipero Serra is an infamous historical figure whom we look upon with either disgust or admiration. Pope Francis, the leader of one of the largest organized Christian religious groups in the world, will canonize Serra. But at whose expense?
The indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere are paying for a genocide and holocaust brought in part by the soon-to-be-sainted Serra. Through expropriation, exploitation, oppression, and, in one word, colonialism, we live today, the descendants of survivors of a past marked with violence, torture, and terror. The feeling of cold, lonely nights, starving bodies, hearts, and souls, bleeding from sadness, sorrow, and shame. Loss of family and a way of life that had been safe, pure with meaning, and taken away from native Indians because of these invaders from Europe.
The Catholic Church created this “golden era,” civilizing the Indians. This has been the myth behind the iconic California missions systems. The state’s public schools and many other of our institutions have promoted and even defended that false notion over the years.
But the missions weren’t built and run by the missionaries exclusively. The padres and military used force against the California Indians to raise the church structures and then breathe life into the missions, forcing the Indians into chattel slavery to live within mission walls and around the mission sites. These padres and officers sucked the life from the Indians and their beautiful land and sea.
The mission and Spanish systems initiated the genocide of all the coastal indigenous peoples, including the Chumash, and created a system of exploitation and oppression in what is now called California.
David Stannard, a professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii, asserts that the missions were equivalent to what the Nazi concentration camps did to the Jewish people. And in Elias Castillo’s recent book, Cross of Thorns, he states:
“The utter devastation caused by the white man was literally incredible, and not until the population figures are examined does the extent of the havoc become evident. From an estimated 300,000 coastal Indians in 1769, their numbers dwindled to 16,624 in 1890.”
No quantitative measurement can show the sorrow of a people who are said to be long gone. But like the returning sunrise, it, too, shows itself as light with memories of truths. These calamities have now been illuminated recently here in California, in the form of rallies, discussions, and prayers.
For example, on April 5, June 30 and 31, and on July 11 this year, the Indigenous Peoples of California gathered and protested throughout California. At the missions in Carmel, Santa Barbara, and San Juan Bautista, all spoke out against the canonization of Junipero Serra. Many silently continue to pray and express their outrage against this canonization, both indigenous people and others.
Here in Santa Barbara, the Barbareno Chumash Tribal Council, Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation, the American Indian Movement, Southern California, the Fund for Santa Barbara, and Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples created a panel and held community discussions, a cultural music night, and later a prayer for our ancestors at the mass gravesite at Santa Barbara Mission. The response was overwhelmingly positive, exposing the lies and excuses of the California missions and the Vatican. This is a massive response against Serra. Conclusion: He ain’t no saint.
The Vatican’s move to make Junipero Serra a saint solidifies the church’s “ownership” of and lies about the atrocities Serra and the Spanish inflicted on California’s indigenous peoples.
Our new landscape to tell the historical truth is here. Just ask the California Indians. Restorative justice is the next step to be discussed and implemented.
Pope Francis must publicly repudiate and rescind the Papal Bulls (Caetera 1492 and Diversas 1493), and meet with the California Indians. California Indians are in the process of establishing a new baseline from which to go forward for our Indigenous Nations. This will take courage.
Marcus V. Lopez is cochair of the Barbareno Chumash Council of Santa Barbara and senior producer of American Indian Airwaves/Coyote Radio.