By Elisabetta Silvestro
Pope Francis announced on Jan. 15 plans to canonize Junipero Serra during a scheduled trip to the United States in September.
The decision to honor the 18th Century friar—who founded California’s first missions—came as blasphemous news to the Native American community.
Even though it had been discussed since 1988 when then-Pope John Paul II beatified Serra, the news was disappointing to many.
“I was devastated,” said Ann Marie Sayers, tribal chair of Indian Canyon in Hollister. “[Serra] robbed the Indian people of their culture, of their language, of their name. He basically converted them into slaves.”
Pope Francis plans to canonize Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., saying he wished he had time to travel to California for the canonization, but he probably won’t.
“[Serra’s canonization] is incredibly insulting to native people,” said Tony Platt, an affiliated scholar at University of California, Berkeley.
“I think it’s very disgraceful,” she said.
The Evangelizer of the West
Born in Majorca, Spain, in 1713, Serra became a friar around the age of 25. About a decade later, he set foot in the Americas—first in Mexico, then, in 1769, he was sent to Alta, California to establish settlements.
There, Serra founded the first Spanish mission of California in San Diego. He founded eight more missions during the following years, including Mission San Francisco De Asís, also known as Mission Dolores, in San Francisco.
“Junipero Serra played a huge role in California history,” said Steven Hackel, a professor of history at University of California, Riverside, and an expert on Junipero Serra and Native American history. “He was first and most responsible in establishing the first missions.”
The missions were created as colonial outposts designed to establish Spanish rule and to convert the native populations toward Catholicism. They were also about recruiting a labor force to work for the Spanish empire. As more missions were constructed, the need for labor increased.
“Life was pretty brutal on a daily basis,” Platt explained
The Native Americans were ripped of their cultural traditions, subjected to an abrupt change in diet, exposed to new diseases, coerced to convert to a new religion and work in labor camps. When they disobeyed or tried to escape, they were severely punished.
“Things just didn’t work out,” Hackel said, citing that tens of thousands of Native Americans died prematurely, and that one-third of children died before their first year of age. “Disease became a problem.”
Their immune systems and their psyches didn’t endure on the missions. Sixty thousand deaths were recorded just in the California missions during the 65 years of their operation, according to the Oakland Museum of California.
The other history of California
“This is an opportunity to tell people the California Indian history,” said Tony Gonzales, director of American Indian Movement West.
Though saddened by the news, Gonzales sees it as an opportunity to teach people about Native American history.
“In California over 100 nations are not recognized,” he said. The Federal Government has yet to recognize the Ohlone people in San Francisco as a “tribe.” Yet Gonzales refutes the term “tribe,” as it carries a western, derogatory connotation.
After the missions were disestablished, the U.S. Government considered approving treaties for the Native Americans, giving them land. But such treaties were stealthily disregarded.
“At the very least we will talk about the treaties,” Gonzales said. “We want to bring that up now.”
Gonzales and Sayers agree that history has been sanitized of its native aspects.
“You go into any mission, [and Native Americans] are not represented at all,” Sayers said.
Hackel said it’s important for the church to reconcile with the Native Americans and that the opportunity is at hand to discuss and acknowledge the past.
“I believe there should be an official apology from the pope,” Sayers said.