Serra’s Paternalism as a Form of Violence: Why the Statues Must Come Down
by Deborah A. Miranda
Delivered at the Toppling Mission Mythologies Conference, July 15 2020, sponsored by the Critical Mission Studies Project. The Conference Roundtable Response from Jalane Schmidt and Amy Lonetree is posted separately here.
Saleki Atsa, Haku. Thank you everyone, especially to our organizers and to the participants and our audience. This is a huge occasion and I’m really, really honored to be part of it. I come to you from a place currently called Lexington, Virginia. I also sometimes, in my more bitter moments, call it Confederatlandia, but we’re taking care of that. I want to give acknowledgement to the land I’m on right now, which is Monacan land here in Virginia.
This conference, in a lot of ways, is about voices that haven’t been heard – as the Assemblyman was just telling us. In Bad Indians, I tried to create a space for those voices, and pull those voices out of the archives. This is one voice, and I thought it was appropriate for today’s topic. It’s from a section called “My Very Late 4th Grade Mission Project: Glossary definition: Padre.”
“The neophyte community was like one great family, at the head of which stood the padre . . . To him the Indians looked for everything concerning their bodies as well as their souls. He was their guide and their protector …” (Zephyrin Englehardt).
The Padre baptized us, gave us names and godparents; he taught us our catechism, officiated at our first communion, posted our marriage banns, he performed our weddings, baptized our babies, administered last rites, listened to our confessions; he punished us when we prayed to the wrong god or tired of our wives or husbands. He taught us to sing (our own songs were ugly), he taught us to speak (our own languages were nonsensical), he made us wear clothes (our bodies were shameful), he gave us wheat and the plow (our seeds and acorns fit only for animals).
Yes, that Padre, he was everything to us Indians. At the giving end of a whip, he taught us to care for and kill the cattle whose hides were called “mission dollars,” worked us in the fields of wheat and corn and barley, instructed us in the building of adobe to make the Church, the monjerio, storerooms – promised it all to us if we would just grow up, pray hard enough, forget enough.
But it all went to Spain, to Rome, to Mexico, into the pockets of merchants, smugglers, priests, dishonest administrators and finally the cruel Americans. Nothing left for the children the Padre had worked so hard to civilize, poor savages pulled from the fires of certain Hell. He was our shepherd, we were his beloved and abused flock; now the fields are eaten down to the earth, we claw the earth yet even the roots are withered, and the shepherd has gone away.
But we are pagans no more! Now we are Christian vaqueros, Christian housekeepers, Christian blacksmiths and shoemakers and laundry women and wet nurses and handymen – none of us paid with more than a meal or a shirt or a pair of discarded boots – but Christians, poor Christians, drunken Christians, meek targets for 49’ers crazed by goldlust or ranchers hungry for land. We are homeless Christians, starving Christians, diseased and landless Christians; we are Christian slaves bought and sold in newspapers, on the auction blocks, San Francisco, Los Angeles, one hundred dollars for a likely young girl, fifty dollars for an able-bodied young boy, free to whoever bails the old men out of jail: every one of us baptized by the Padre, our primitive souls snatched from this Hell our bodies cannot escape, we are Christian, we are Catholic, we are saved by the Padres and for that, Jesus Christ, we must be grateful.
I chose that piece to read because we are told that Junipero Serra brought Christianity to California Indigenous peoples – with the implication being, we Indians lived in a deficit of spirituality, of self-governance, and of an understanding of relationship with higher powers. If Serra had brought us the choice of Christianity – with no punishment for choosing to remain faithful to our own religions and ways of knowing the world – perhaps that would have been different. But Serra did not just “bring” us Christianity; he imposed it, he forced it, he violated us with it, giving us no choice in the matter. About this, Serra famously wrote that he was doing no more than a father would do with his children. Paternalism, as he used it, is a term that comes with overtones of wise fatherly responsibility and guidance. But the paternalism that Serra claimed as his right to impose was much more sinister; under any label, the paternalism practiced during the missionization of California was a form of violence – particularly when those being subsumed already live in cultures rich with religion, languages, literatures, governance, family structures, and social traditions that have served them well for thousands of years. We were living in a wealth of spirituality – not a deficit.
Missionization, for California Indians, was more like indoctrination in an abusive cult than spiritual grace. Natives who resisted or refused conversion were beaten, imprisoned, starved, exiled from their homelands – usually by soldiers, at the behest of priests. Religion was the stealth weapon of Spanish colonization; a “moral” reason for conquest, to protect lands Spain wanted for itself. In addition to Catholicism, the Spaniards brought disease, including their own special brand of syphilis that not only sterilized Native women but caused birth defects, blindness and death. We lost 90% of our population in missionized territories, in 70 years. In other historical contexts, this is called genocide, a crime against humanity. Violently enforced religion is not missionization, it is terrorism.
The missionaries’ efforts directly caused generations of trauma to California Indians from which we are still recovering. But we are recovering. As Athabascan scholar Dian Million writes, “We are not our trauma. We can work at healing without being victims. We can be damaged and still be sovereign.”
Why, then, should Indigenous peoples – and anyone aware of or interested in actual history – welcome the monuments to Serra that are everywhere in California?
Serra, many argue, was simply "a man of his times." In other words, colonization happens, and we should not blame those caught up in it. But that has a flip side to it: if Serra was, in fact, “a man of his times” in 1769 when he founded the first California mission in San Diego, he should have known better: Bartolome de las Casas knew better in 1552 when he published "A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies," and spent his entire life working for the freedom of Indians and return of their lands (a wealthy man, a priest, and former Indian slave-holder); a document Serra and all priests in training would have read and debated. Padre Antonio Horra knew better in 1799 when he protested soldiers' rapes and beatings of Indian converts at his California mission. The Church officials in California and Mexico sent poor Padre Horra home saying he had gone insane from the stress of missionization and his inability to deal with the hardships of The New World. Horra, however, told a different story: “The treatment shown to the Indians is the most cruel … 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.” Horra added that charges of insanity were false and brought against him because of his serious charges of cruelty by priests and soldiers, and mismanagement of Church resources (Bancroft 587). In closing, Horra asked to be sent back to Spain because he feared for his life – not because of savage Indians, but due to his own Franciscan brethren.
Many many other letters, diaries and records of others traveling in California during Serra’s tenure and afterwards left behind testimonies of the brutality brought on by the missions. In 1786, French explorer Jean-François de la Pérouse observed that during his visit to Mission Carmel a mere three years after Serra’s death, “Everything reminded us of a habitation in Saint Domingo, or any other West Indian slave colony. The men and women are assembled by the sound of the bell, one of the religious conducts them to their work, to church, and to all other exercises. We mention it with pain, the resemblance to a slave colony is so perfect, that we saw men and women loaded with irons, others in the stocks; and at length the noise of the strokes of a whip struck our ears.” Other visitors in the same era noted that Indians were even beaten with a whip or cane when they did not “attend [to] a worship ceremony.”
These people saw through “the eyes of their time” and what they saw disturbed them deeply.
I feel strongly that as one of the few descendants of the Indians who survived the missions, I have a responsibility to my Ancestors and to my own descendants to speak up and try to create a clearer understand about why Junipero Serra’s statues and monuments are another historical flogging of California Indians; these honorings of Serra work to erase, silence, and discredit California Indian lives and histories just as much as the original missions. No, Serra was not the only one involved. Yes, he was part of an intricate machine run by the Spanish Crown’s political desires, the Spanish military’s might, and the Vatican’s multiple ambitions to convert and acquire both souls and wealth. But Serra was also a man who, like many before him, was faced with a choice: go along with the program, achieve his own personal goals, and ignore the larger crimes – or take a stand against inherently inhumane and unChristian acts against a people who were obviously vulnerable to diseases and technologies far different from his own.
Serra made his choice. It was a choice that we California Indian peoples have suffered for. Economic, psychological and intergenerational trauma continue. But that choice does not make him a saint, or worthy of a statue valorizing him as a leader of any kind. Those of us alive now have a choice, as well; in fact, we have the same choice: do we remain silent, frozen with old fears and mythologies, or speak out, take action, finally assert that other, more complete histories that we know, histories that reveals the Indigenous figure is not kneeling, and the missionary has no halo?
I’d like to finish up with a very short poem.
for my sister Louise, and The Breath of Life Language Conference
Eni micha elpa mishmaxanano
I feel you in my blood,
nishiyano nishiti’anaxno, nishahurno.
in my bones, my gut, my teeth.
Name sikosura niche a’kxi,
You rise all around,
kolopisik xulin opa.
return like a lover.
Nishkuuh, niche lahake.
my basket, carry me.
nishimila, niche lasapke.
my ocean, bathe me.
I am your hummingbird
name hi’iyatan neku masianehk.
you are a flower of the heart.
Name cha’a nishkxatasaxno,
I feel you in my head,
my hands, my feet.
Uxarat kai pire.
We dance on the cliff of the world.
Name cha’a nishchawisaxno,
I feel you in my spine,
my throat, my womb.
Namesanaxkak opa, eni inamkak opa.
You are a river, I am the rain.
It is true, it is true,
it is true, it is true.
My language, our language:
breath of life.
Nimasianexelpasaleki. Thank you.