Canonization of Junipero Serra Alienates Native Americans

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Illustration by Tom Clary.
Illustration by Tom Clary.

On Sept. 24, Pope Francis stood in the Washington D.C. Basilica and made history by canonizing Father Junipero Serra, thus making the 18th century Franciscan friar the first saint ever declared on U.S. soil. During the mass, Francis spoke to the “misinterpreted legacy” of Serra, stating that in his lifetime (1713-1784) he “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.” At the same time of the mass, protests were held at Native American sites across the country, including the mission in Carmel, California.

Just four days later, Serra’s gravesite and memorial statue at Carmel Mission were vandalized — leaving the statue toppled, his headstone doused with red paint, and the words “saint of genocide” splattered on a rock near the scene. Carmel Police are investigating the act as a hate crime, as it “specifically [targeted] the headstones of people of European descent, and not Native American.”

This response to the canonization of Serra, while illegal, should not come to a surprise to those familiar with the legacy of missionization in the history of California. In the Roman Catholic Church, the legacy of Junipero Serra — and the narrative that Francis points to — embraces him as a figure who, to quote Pope John Paul II in 1988, “brought Gospel to the natives” and evangelized tens of thousands of Catholics during his lifetime. He is remembered by many to be a benevolent, miracle-performing man of God, but in California and specifically in Native American communities, there exists a much more gruesome legacy.

Serra’s missionization had a catastrophic impact on Native American communities and their way of life — ones that continue to linger to this day. The historical reality of America’s first-named saint is a narrative of forced labor, floggings, coerced conversion, systematic rape, and ultimately, the cultural destruction of thousands of Native Californians.

Documentation of Serra’s character doesn’t aid his glorification as a saint. As a participant in the Spanish Inquisition in 1752, Junipero Serra had a tendency for forced labor and violent punishment for dissent. In 1780, in response to Spanish King Carlos II demanding Serra to stop whippings, free “Indians” under his care and provide legal representation for them, the friar wrote “we cannot free the Indians, relinquish directing their future, or give up the authority to use punishment”.

Pope Francis’ canonization of Serra both contradicts his previous attitudes toward Native Americans and dishonors and alienates those communities. In the aftermath of his politically-progressive visit to the United States, it’s crucial to acknowledge the problematic nature of Francis’ canonization when the figure in question has such a contested and bloody history.

The widespread controversial responses to the canonization have not come without warning. When Francis announced Serra’s eventual sainthood earlier this year, national protests were launched by Native American organizations, historians and allies.

A petition on MoveOn.org against the canonization has over 10,000 signatures, calling the mission system of California “the largest ethnic cleansing in North America” — citing the 90 percent mortality rate of indigenous people during the mission period. Noting the contradiction to his attitude toward indigenous communities in his Encyclical on the environment, it states, “if Pope Francis is sincere in his intentions toward Native Peoples, he will abandon canonization of Junipero Serra now.”

Junipero Serra’s canonization has sparked controversy for Native American groups in every instance that he’s been considered for sainthood — most notably in the American Indian protests against the 1988 beatification of Serra. The response to his 2015 canonization was no different. Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, told CNN he wrote “half a dozen letters” to the Pope in protest through mid-September, all to no avail. Other such petitions went unacknowledged by the Vatican in the months prior to the Pope’s visit.

Following the canonization, responding Native American communities have the same deep hesitation to accept Serra as a saint. “We’re in disbelief,” Lopez stated, “We believe saints are supposed to be people who followed the life of Jesus Christ and the words of Jesus Christ. There was no Jesus Christ lifestyle at the missions.”

Matias Belardes, Tribal Chairman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, wrote in his statement “the process of canonization is symbolic — and Father Junipero Serra was a symbol of colonization,” noting that it is the uplifting of such a symbol that they object. Although Native American and indigenous voices from all around California — as well as around the country — have voiced the historically-rooted concerns with this decision, the Pope  has seemingly sided with the clergy in Rome without regard for Native  American histories.

The backlash against this decision, given the history, is understandable and culturally relevant given the common historical narrative in this country. With over 50 tribes condemning the sainthood of Serra prior to his visit, it’s certainly disparaging that he would come to America to emphasize equality for disenfranchised groups and appoint sainthood to a historic brutalizer of one of the most disenfranchised groups in the U.S. The canonization of Junipero Serra, in contrast to the progressive politics of Francis’s visit, should remind us that there are voices of history that continue to be unheard and underrepresented. As an effort to whitewash California’s deeply-troubling past, we must remain knowledgeable of the reality of St. Junipero Serra as he applies to Native
American communities and those aligned with historical fact.