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Sainting Serra Deepens the Soul Wound

After two centuries of struggling to heal since being enslaved by Franciscan priests, California mission tribes are being hit with another damaging blow in the form of the upcoming canonization of Junipero Serra. As the founder of the California missions, Fr. Serra is responsible for a legacy of cruelty to native people– a legacy that has been covered up for 250 years with the consequence of continued psychological trauma for descendants of the California Mission Indians.

Serra was born in Marjorca, Spain in 1739. He attended a college of the Roman Catholic Inquisition. He later taught as a professor at the college and became a Franciscan priest. Serra founded the first mission in Alta California in 1767. In following years, he established twenty more missions. California natives were taken into the missions, often against their wills, and used as the workforce. Even those who came to the missions willingly were not allowed to leave. While Serra’s stated plan was to convert the “savages” to Christianity, the Native people were taught very little Spanish and thus didn’t even understand the prayers they were made to say. Under Serra’s guidance, the Indians were subjected to extreme forms of torture, and tens of thousands died during the mission period. Each mission usually kept 1000 Indians, and each year half the population would die. Serra himself was recorded asking the padres if they needed more iron shackles or suggesting they might give more lashes with the whip to the natives.

Many people living in California today don’t know the true history of the missions. I encountered a seemingly well-educated white tourist at the mission in San Diego a year ago who commented that the Indians’ main complaint about the missions was that they had to wear shoes. Contrast this with the words of the late Rosalie Robertson, Kumayaay tribe, “There were lots of things done to the people. One way they had was to get to the people was through the children. They would take the children up on the cliff and drop them down the cliff and kill them… …Where they threw the children down and killed them, they call that place the ‘Crying Rock’ today.”

Or take the words of Eva Kolb, Luiseno tribe. “They were flogged when they were too sick to work, and for any other reason. If they didn’t want to do something, they were flogged again. They had very little to eat, and many of the younger children died of starvation.”

Even a fellow Franciscan, Fr. Antonio de la Conception Horra wrote in 1799 that “The treatment of the Indians is the most cruel I have ever read in history. For the slightest things they receive heavy floggings, are shackled, and put in the stocks, and treated with so much cruelty that they are kept whole days without a drink of water.”

To this day the Catholic Church has not acknowledged its role in this shameful history. According to Rupert Costo, co-editor of “The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide” which was published in 1987, Serra was referred to as “venerable” and saintly by his Catholic disciples and colleagues even while he was alive. “Through the centuries, as the Inquistion waned and the Roman Catholic Church gained apostolic apologists, Serra has become a lodestone for the imperial guard of academic professionals, and the superstar of California’s dominant class history.” Serra’s longtime friend, Francisco Palou, wrote a biography of Serra which seemed designed to ‘procure the beatification of his revered brother Franciscan…..the book was “replete with miraculous happenings.”

The legacy of not letting the truth be told was foreshadowed by the banning in Spain and most of Europe the book called “The Tears of the Indians”. It was by Fr. Bartalome de las Casas(1474-1566), and it depicts horrific massacres of native people and killing of native women and children by the Spaniards in the West Indies, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba and Peru during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Casas fought to keep natives in the New World from being enslaved. He was beatified about 15 years ago. There are readily available accounts of people who witnessed the treatment of Native people in the California missions speaking to the horror of the tortures the natives endured. Elias Castillo’s writes in his soon to be released book “Cross of Thorns” that Father Mariano Payeras, the last Spanish Padre Presidente of the missions, wrote to his superior in 1820 saying “All we have done to the Indians is consecrate them, baptize them and bury them”. Payeras indicated an effort must be made to cover up what they have done to the Indians.

Today descendants of California mission Indians still endure the consequences of what happened to their ancestors. The term ‘historical trauma’, also called the ‘soul wound’ by some native elders refers to the phenomenon that those undergoing the hardships of the missions passed the suffering down to their children, grandchildren, and so forth. Epidemic rates of domestic violence, suicide, substance abuse and illnesses such as diabetes in Native people are linked to the traumas their ancestors endured. Treating historical trauma is very difficult. In the last twenty years or so the concept of historical trauma has become better understood and work is being done to try to undo its effects. But it is a slow process, and many lives are lost each year to suicide or destroyed by substance abuse (self-medicating). Families are destroyed due to domestic violence, which is linked to lateral oppression. For California mission Indians, these issues can be directly related to the treatment of their ancestors in the missions, under the guidance of the soon-to-be St. Serra.

For beloved Pope Francis, hero to the underprivileged, to deepen the severe wounding wrought by the missions by proclaiming Junipero Serra a saint is unfathomable. Twice in the last two years we sent the Holy Father letters describing what really happened in the missions. Included in the letters sent by Valentin Lopez, Chairperson of the Amah Mutsun tribe, and myself, were letters by Bishop Francis Quinn, a highly revered bishop now retired in Sacramento, who made an apology in 2007 to the Native Americans from Mission San Rafael Arcangel for the treatment their ancestors received in the mission. Each time we received a note from Angelo Becciu, Substitute for the Pope, saying that our concerns were noted and he would remember our intentions in his prayers. We also had meetings with various bishops in California, hoping to be invited to attend the annual Catholic Bishops Conference so we could talk about the need for healing to occur in regards to the missions. We were never invited to attend the meeting.

I guess it’s not so surprising that our efforts failed. According to the book, “The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide”, in the 1980’s in Southern California where most Indians were Catholic at the time, some priests threatened “sanctions” against members of the church who spoke up against the canonization of Serra. Bishop Thaddeus Shubsda of the Monterrey Diocese arranged for eight scholars who were known to be Serra supporters to be interviewed by a publicist. Bishop Shubsda then released the information in a nationwide media campaign. “The eight who were interviewed engaged in a classic example of slander, libel, and vilification of the Indian people. The years of accumulated evidence by distinguished scholars detailing the truth about the missions in many volumes of documents and data were ignored. The truth lay dormant at the feet of the bishop and his cohorts.”

As someone who has worked on historical trauma issues with indigenous people for about twenty years, I believe acknowledging that the missions treated the Indians cruelly and acknowledging Junipero Serra’s role in it would be helpful to the healing process of not only California mission Indians, but also of the Catholic church. How much better it would be for the animas mundi (soul of the world) and the soul of the Catholic Church for an apology to be made to the California mission Indians, and reparation made. Putting information in the missions about what really happened would definitely be a step in the right direction. To make Serra a saint is a travesty.

The Vatican has made their decision, but the fight for truth will continue. The Pope will be receiving a copy of Mr. Castillo’s book in the mail soon. California Indians have been fighting for many years for the truth to be told, and the fight will continue.

Donna Schindler M.D.