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The Canonization of Junípero Serra and The Race for Innocence

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Junípero Serra
Photo credit: US Embassy Madrid

In 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified Junípero Serra, the first step to canonization. In the wake of the Red Power movement of the 1970s and the International Indigenous Movement that followed, there was a strong outcry from California Indigenous descendants of those who perished of overwork, starvation, and outright killing in the Franciscan missions that the hands-on Serra created. The Franciscans, not the Spanish state, were the actual first colonizers of California Indians, by forcibly relocating them from their traditional territories and villages to labor for the Franciscans in the missions, making the order wealthy from the products produced there. Indigenous peoples’ who are involved in UN human rights work raised a ruckus in the UN system, and friendly Human Rights NGOs and formerly colonized member-states and liberation movements lobbied the Vatican at the UN to not canonize a notorious colonizer. That was twenty-seven years ago, and Serra was not brought up for sainthood, such a notion being clearly unacceptable. Then, to the shock of the California descendants, in May 2015, the new and admired Pope Francis took Serra off the shelf where he was meant to stay, gathering dust, and announced canonization, trying to pass him off as a Latin American, or US American, apparently not having received the memo that the Spanish empire was overthrown by the Mexican people in a ten-year war to drive them out. California was a part of Mexico. One of the first acts of the independent Mexican government was to secularize society, sending the Franciscans packing, closing all the missions.

Twenty-one Franciscan missions were established along the Pacific Coast of California between 1769 and 1823. The establishment of the missions and Spanish army bases (presidios) from San Diego and Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to Carmel, San Francisco, and Sonoma, traces the initial colonization of a large region of California’s Indigenous peoples. The five-hundred-mile road that connected the missions from San Francisco to San Diego was called, and is still called today, El Camino Real, the Royal Highway.

The Spanish military in California was divided into four districts, each with Franciscan missions and strategically located army bases. The 1769 establishment of the first army base in San Diego coincided with the establishment of the first Franciscan mission in California, a pattern that continued.

These California Franciscan missions and their founder, Junípero Serra, are extravagantly romanticized by modern California settlers and remain popular tourist sites. Very few visitors notice, however, that in the middle of the plaza of each mission is a whipping post. The history symbolized by that artifact is not dead and buried with the generations of Indigenous bodies buried under the California crust. The scars and trauma have been passed on from generation to generation. Putting salt in the wound, as it were, Pope Francis canonized Serra in Washington, DC on Wednesday, September 23, 2015, not quietly, rather in the context of a rock star reception publicized around the world, with masses of people and US government officials present, announcing to all that the Doctrine of Discovery continues to guide Vatican, European, and US imperialism.

An Indigenous Peoples History of the United StatesCalifornia Indigenous peoples are insulted and bereaved by this act that celebrates genocide; they have long organized to prevent the sanctification of an actor who is an exponent of rape, torture, death, starvation, and humiliation of their ancestors and the attempted destruction of their cultures. Everyone who abhors colonialism, slavery and the slave trade, racism, and genocide should be equally insulted. Fifty California Indian Nations and Indigenous Peoples across the country and around the world have rightly condemned the canonization of Serra.

In principle, it does not matter whether Serra was, as the pope erroneously describes him, a gentle protector of the Indians, or the fact that he was a brutal colonizer; it’s Spanish colonization per se, or any European colonization of the past five hundred years, that should not be celebrated, just as Columbus should not be celebrated, or King Leopold or Andrew Jackson. However, Serra was known to be the architect of the colonizing project, with the army at his bidding. He accompanied the soldiers, randomly kidnapping Indigenous individuals and families, particularly children, recording these captures in his diaries. With the Franciscan mission system, the Native population of the Central Valley and coastal areas was reduced by half, and disease was only one factor, itself the result of malnutrition and filthy living conditions.

California Indigenous peoples resisted Serra’s colonialist totalitarian order. These insurgent actions are also recorded in official records and diaries, but they seem to have interested few historians until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, when California Indigenous peoples began to do their own research. They found that no mission escaped uprisings from within or attacks from outside by communities of the imprisoned along with escapees. Indigenous guerrilla forces of up to two thousand formed. Without this resistance, there would be no descendants of the California Native peoples of the area colonized by the Spanish. Let us celebrate that resistance, not the oppressor.

With mass exodus from the Catholic Church, the Vatican under Pope Francis has ramped up its missionization project in light of the sex abuse scandals and its continued contempt for women’s autonomy and rights, undermining the righteous goals of Vatican II to support Indigenous Peoples struggles for liberation rather than proselytizing. He argues that the Catholic church and the Franciscan order were somehow separate from Spanish colonization, when, in fact, the Vatican, a nation-state then and now, initiated and validated the Atlantic slave trade (Papal Bull of 1455 that allowed the Portuguese monarchy to occupy and enslave West Africans) and the violent occupation and enslavement of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas (Papal Bulls of 1493-1494, blessing Columbus’s continued colonization of the Caribbean, granting the western hemisphere to the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies for colonization and forced conversion of the colonized), this comprising the Doctrine of Discovery, which was and is Christian canon law and is the law of the settler states of the Americas that still controls Native nations, including the United States.


About the Author 

Roxanne Dunbar-OrtizRoxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @rdunbaro.