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Sainthood for founder of California missions angers Native American groups

Pope Francis hails Junipero Serra as a defender of indigenous people, but tribes say he devastated their culture

Tribal chairwoman Louise Miranda Ramirez of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation joined members of several Native American groups in a protest on Easter Sunday at the historic Carmel Mission in Northern California, once the headquarters of the mission system founded by Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, who is buried there.

The gathering sought to honor their ancestors buried at the landmark mission and protest plans to canonize Serra, the devout Franciscan priest who converted thousands of previously uncontacted Indians to Catholicism, forcibly stripping them of their kinship ties, culture and languages in the process.

“We lost everything” because of Serra, said Miranda Ramirez, who traces her ancestors directly to the Carmel Mission. “We were not allowed to be with our people. … We lost contact with cousins … We lost the family ties … Our language was gone.”

She is now among hundreds of tribal activists the length of California stepping up opposition to the decision by Pope Francis to canonize the Mallorca-born priest as the centerpiece of his first visit to the United States as pontiff in September.

Dubbed by Francis the “evangelizer of the West,” Serra arrived in what was then Alta California from Mexico (then New Spain) in 1769, and founded the first of 21 missions that would reach from San Diego to San Francisco.

The missions sought to spread the Catholic faith and played a key role in the push to colonize the territory for the Spanish crown. By the time of Serra’s death in 1784, the missions he founded had baptized about 6,000 Indians, rising to 80,000 for the mission system as a whole in the five decades before they were secularized in the 1830s.

In a homily earlier this month, Pope Francis hailed Serra as one of the “founding fathers of the United States” who “defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers.” He plans to make Serra the first Hispanic U.S. saint during a September visit to Washington in a gesture that is seen by the Catholic Church as key to strengthening ties with U.S. Latinos.

Attending a special conference in Rome, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said Serra “came to this New World with a burning love for the land and its people. All of his writings reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways,” he asserted, adding that Serra “should be remembered as one of the great pioneers of human rights in the Americas.”

But descendants of tribes converted by Serra and his Franciscan missionaries are crying foul. They charge that the Spanish friar decimated the population of the state's Indians, who were forced to live and work in disease-ridden missions. They were made to adopt Catholicism as well as the Spanish language and customs, while Serra himself condoned the whipping and shackling of those who resisted.

“Native people were a thriving people before Serra reached these shores. They had their own culture, their own life ways. They were able to produce food for themselves,” said Theresa Harlan, an independent curator of Native American art who took part in a recent protest at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. “The mission system dehumanized and destroyed those life ways.”

‘There’s no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native.’

Steven Hackel

Junipero Serra biographer

Native Americans voiced opposition after Serra’s beatification — a step prior to sainthood  — by Pope John Paul II in 1988. That has stepped up since January when Francis announced the priest would be canonized. Recent protests include the ceremony at the Carmel Mission on April 5 which drew about 200 people including members of the Amah Mutsun, Mono and Chumash nations and the demonstration on May 2 at Dolores Mission that attracted an estimated 80 demonstrators displaying banners that read “No sainthood for Serra” and “Native lives matter.”

Opposition is set to continue in coming weeks with a conference titled “Disrobing Junipero Serra — Saint or Monster?” planned for May 30 in the mission city of Santa Barbara. Organized by the Barbareño Chumash Tribal Council and the American Indian Movement (AIM) of Southern California, topics up for discussion include the criteria for sainthood and an evaluation of whether Serra is deserving of it.

Corine Fairbanks, director of AIM’s southern California chapter, said another resistance event is planned for Mission San Juan Batista, southeast of San Francisco, on July 11. Tribal leaders also plan to send a delegation to the East Coast in September where they hope to meet with Vatican officials ahead of Serra's canonization, which is scheduled for Sept. 23.

As the protests continue, a further challenge to Serra’s legacy and prestige in the lead-up to Francis' visit comes from the California legislature. Last month the state Senate passed a resolution with bipartisan support to replace a bronze statue of Serra in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., with one of astronaut Sally Ride, who became the first American woman to reach space in June 1983 and who has become an LGBT icon since her death in 2012.

The dispute over Serra is fueled by clashing historiographical perspectives. According to historian and Serra biographer Steven Hackel, the Franciscan missionary did defend Indians from settlers and soldiers who wanted them to work as common laborers, and also argued for leniency for Indians involved in a revolt at the Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1775, but overall he caused Native peoples great harm.

“One can point to certain moments in the historical record when Serra does protect Indians, but the larger story I think is one in which his policies and his plans led to tremendous pain and suffering, most of it unintended on his part, among Native peoples,” Hackel told Al Jazeera America.

“If one looks at the legacy of Serra's missions and what he was trying to do in California, there's no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform Native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native. He really did want to eliminate many aspects of Native culture,” he added.

Calls to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles seeking comment were not returned. Most activists doubt that they will be able to dissuade Francis from making Serra a saint during his forthcoming visit, but some felt that the opposition to his canonization had reopened a vigorous debate about the legacy of the mission system in the state.

“I think that what we are going to achieve is a lot of education of what the missions were really all about. I think that what we're going to achieve is communities getting together and addressing the historical trauma associated with the atrocities that happened and are still happening,” Fairbanks said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sally Ride was the first woman in space. She was the first American woman in space. 

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