Saturday, September 26, 2015

Being California Indian in a Post-Canonization World

In the aftermath of the chaos surrounding Junipero Serra’s canonization, California Indians are exhausted.  Whether we thought there was a chance of derailing Serra’s sainthood or just wanted to record our anger at the injustice of his canonization, we worked hard and pushed ourselves through an emotional hurricane the past year.  We are not beaten, though; just bone tired, heart-weary. 

But a lot of ugly words are being thrown around on the internet and in conversation about Indigenous people who attended or even participated in the ceremony. Words like “traitor,” “betrayal,” and worse are being used.  I’d like to say something about this. 

I am not Catholic, and have absolutely no loyalties to the Church or the Pope.  Yet clearly, as a woman with Esselen and Chumash Ancestors, I am angry, anguished and frustrated by Serra’s canonization.  Of the many problems I have with the canonization, one of the biggest is this:  sainthood for Serra sets up what I feel amounts to permission for Round 2 of missionization and an outright gift to genocide-deniers.  Therefore, I have invested much of my writing and energy to speaking out against the canonization. 

At the same time, I feel that other California Indians - like Vincent Medina, who read a passage from the Bible translated into Chochenyo as part of the canonization ceremony - have the right to take part in the ceremony without the scathing criticism or disrespectful jokes now being slung at him.

Why do I feel this way?  I have said many times, as survivors of genocide, every single California Indian person alive right now is a treasure.  We do not have the luxury of denouncing or expelling people because their methods of decolonization differ from ours.  Working together, creating bridges across those gaps, can only make us stronger and more vital, and give us the diversity and strength we need for this battle.  Because of this belief, I can respect Vincent's position even though I would not have chosen to make my stand in exactly same way.  This wasn’t an easy journey for me, though.

As someone who values transparency and clarity, I appreciate that Vincent has been up-front about his choice; he repeatedly spoke out regarding his anti-canonization position in the media and on his personal FB page, yet he did not renounce his Catholicism, which comes to him through a beloved and devout family network of Indigenous people.  He is also open about being gay, which is another difficult stance for a devout Catholic.  This kind of border-dwelling is not for the faint of heart, but Vincent is not keeping any secrets.

I grew up in a family plagued by secrets; secrets about violence, dysfunction, alcoholism, sexuality, mistakes, death, and fear.  I learned early and continuously that to speak my truth about the world was dangerous – people might abandon me, hurt me, take away my freedom, or even hurt themselves.  There was a time in my life when I internalized my family’s aversion to truth and dependence on lies, and I was not honest about many things.  I put up with abuse, I did not defend those who needed it most because I feared conflict.  It was easier to remain silent, to look away, or to make up a story that hid the truth. 

In short, you might say that I grew up with a missionized mind and soul.  I “feared the lash” that would come from speaking my truth, from resisting oppression.  I cowered, and in my cowering, I allowed great damage to happen, and to continue – to myself, to my little brother.  As I grew older and moved away, the scars of my early obedience to fear controlled every relationship I had, from my first spouse, to my friends, and eventually, to my own children.  The mission followed me wherever I went.

For a long time one way I avoided the truth about my life was to simply hate the ways in which both my father and mother contributed to my scars.  I blamed them in a simplistic black and white scenario in which they were bad parents, and I was a victim.  As I got older and learned more about colonization, missionization, and Historical Trauma, I was tempted to extend my hatred and righteous anger to the religious and legal institutions that stood behind those events.  I teetered on the verge of hating Catholicism, hating all of Christianity, hating every priest I saw on the street, hating just because it felt so good to have someone to blame for the blows I’d taken, the blows the people I loved had suffered.  This is what they mean by “internalized oppression”: the mission of my mind made me think that hatred was my idea.

It took years, a lot of lessons from life, and yes, a certain amount of courage, for me to learn that something as easy as hate can’t be right, or satisfying.  I still wrestle with the desire to hide from conflict, to blame others, to lash out at someone else in ways that make me appear to be the victim.  I still feel the weight of that mission wall around me.  Some days I think, seriously?  Is there no end to these adobe bricks?!

But it took so much time to be that hateful.  It took so much energy.  It ate so much of my soul.  As I began to value my writing and my creative energy, I realized that the more my hatred took over, the less generative and productive my work became. Each burst of hatred and bitterness was another adobe brick in the mission walls, locking me down.  I was becoming bitter, incapable of generosity, unpredictable in my moods, at a loss, spiritually. This was never so clear as when, in the course of writing Bad Indians, I tried to describe my father.  Initially I thought, I have to write about all the bad things he did – I have to write that truth.

Yet, my writing of those details was terrible.  Terrible to write, and terrible to read. Flat, predictable, without heart, with nowhere to go – I found myself thinking, I might as well just write, “My father - meh,” and leave it at that, since any extended attempt at writing came out shallow and pointless. In short, my writing didn’t create any goodness – for me, or in the world - when I wrote from hatred. I was building more walls, not bridges.

It was only when I finally admitted that I had loved my father – truly, madly, deeply, the way a young girl idolizes her daddy – and wrote that part out first, that I could then turn to the ugliness he had also given me.  Because my father wasn’t all good, or all bad.  He was a terrifying, beautiful mixture of both, and although talking about his alcoholism or his anger was part of the truth about him, it wasn’t ALL of the truth about him.  He also had an incredible touch with plants, understood color like an artist, could be tender and heart-broken as a child over a sick pet.  In fact …

My father was complicated.  And so was my love for him.  That was the truth I’d been trying to avoid. That was the bridge I’d been trying to burn.

So when I see people slamming Vincent Medina or other California Indians for their choice to remain Catholic, or even to participate in the ceremony, I want to say, look: it’s complicated.  There is no one way to be California Indian.  Many people think that my choices to live far away from our homeland, be active in academia, live as a Two-Spirit person, are very un-California Indian.  And I admit that there are times when even I desperately wish I were living at home, learning things I can only learn from elders and people who have been working all their lives with the materials, languages, land and peoples of our homeland.  But one thing I’ve learned in 54 years: each human being has individual talents and skills, and the trick is to figure out what yours are, and what choices you must make to put them to best use. I’ve made choices that not everyone approves of, or is comfortable with.  The choice to come out.  The choice to identify as Indigenous and commit to the work of decolonization (hey, as a mixed-blood, I could pass as vaguely ethnic and run with the unaffiliated pack).  The choice to support a woman’s right to abortion.  The choice to say, I’m not a Christian.  Some people have written me off for those choices, even in my own family. 

Here’s what I know about living in a black and white world:  Lumping people together into one group – those people are good, these people are bad - is almost always an act of fear. 

So while I would have chosen differently for myself, I respect Vincent’s choice and I acknowledge his reasons for making that choice.  

Vincent posted a statement on FB saying that by participating in the canonization ceremony, he specifically wanted to let the world know that not only did California Indians survive such a massive genocide, but that some of us are actively working to reclaim language, culture, and identity, to thrive as creative and modern people, and to speak languages that the Church worked violently to wipe out – and to speak these words in the presence of the Pope and the world. 

I have fears about what the post-canonization world is going to look like for California Indians, but I recognize that Vincent’s actions have solid reasoning behind them, a strategy that has value in any struggle against oppression.  During the Civil Rights Movement, their African heritage did not prevent a large majority of Blacks from being both Christian and opposed to racism, even though most American slave-owners were Christian and imposed Christianity on their enslaved workers.  Instead, Civil Rights activists called out Christians who did not live honestly by their own belief system and challenged them to live up to their own sacred truths.  For these activists, evolving as a people who rejected institutionalized racism did not mean a refutation of a once-foreign religion that had become theirs.

Thus, I can see the value of Vincent’s hopes that his Indigenous presence might act as a catalyst and reminder of Indigenous surviance.  Perhaps because I am a woman who lived in silence about my romantic and sexual attraction to other women for decades, I know the power of finally speaking out, and the yearning for an audience to hear my voice. In addition, I admire Vincent not just for his cultural work, his commitment to learning his language, and for his work as a Two-Spirit person, but for his courage to do all this in the face of much opposition.  To voice his truth as a contemporary California Indian man is not the easiest path he could have taken. 

I want that kind of courage – along with the courage I saw in so many California Indians during this fight – as part of our community.  Together, we have so. much. power.

We Californian Indians live now in a post-canonization world.  Canonization of Serra happened, and we must work to survive its aftermath: the disrespect done to us by the Church, by media coverage, by educational institutions and yes, by each other.  Wounds have been re-opened, and many of our learned coping responses to stress and anger have popped right up (oh hello old triggers!  I see you!).  We must ask ourselves, is this the best bridge I can help build toward what happens next?  Have I cut myself off from the possibility of diverse, rich California Indian voices in conversation?  Will I be part of a community that stretches and grows with change, or divides and diminishes? 

As I write this, I’m speaking to myself.  I’ll be fifty-four years old next month.  Some days, it feels as if there is so little time left in this life for me to learn everything I want to learn, and to accomplish all that I want to leave behind.  Some days, it feels as if I have just crawled out of the mission.  Sometimes, I think, if I have to move one more fucking adobe brick, I am going to lose my mind.

I want to have conversations with my relatives, not battles.  Let’s save our ferocity for decolonizing, and give our compassion and patience to one another.  I want to be part of a strong, deep California Indian future.  I’m not saying we can’t disagree or engage in critical thinking, even argue back and forth - but haven’t we built all the mission walls we ever want to build?  

Nimasianexelpasaleki.  Thank you for listening. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Canonization Fodder: California Indians and the Sainthood of Junipero Serra

Children's coloring book sold at a mssion gift shop.

Let kia’alpa ahik iniwa welel ta’a neku tuxus laka masianex jatan kominan efexe.  We ask that these words find the ears and hearts of all people.

California Indians who are descendants of those few survivors from the missionization of Southern California (1769-1835) have responded to the news of Junipero Serra’s canonization in many ways: on-line petitions (, gatherings at various missions for prayer honoring the Ancestors or peaceful protests, moderated debates, a mock trial, art installations, press conferences, a 650-mile walk through California visiting all 21 missions, social media, radio shows in English and Spanish, and letters to the Pope himself.  Articles in many newspapers, both online and in print, on multiple radio stations, and feature stories in newscasts, also serve to broadcast our dismay and pain over the honoring of Serra, founder of a mission system that caused huge losses – much of it irreparable - for Indians from Sonoma to San Diego.

With just a few days to go, we have made our voices heard not just in the U.S., but in many international presses as well.  We have engaged in this conversation with heart and soul, many of us giving up weeks and months of our time to educate people all over the world about what really happened to the Indigenous population of California, all the while maintaining jobs, families, community work.  Some of us truly believe that there is a chance our voices will be heard.  Others simply don’t want history to record the absence of our voices, hoping that these records will someday note our resistance to yet another form of colonization.  Either way, we have refused to allow this canonization to go forward without speaking truth to power, and that is an act of determination in the face of the overwhelming odds and great power of the Catholic Church.  It is, in fact, almost Missionization, Round II - although this time, the Indians are a bit more organized.

But I am facing the fact that Pope Francis refuses to listen: that he actively, purposely, consciously refuses to give California Indians the time of day.

For all of his seemingly heart-felt, progressive compassion for women who have sought abortions, couples who have divorced but want to return to the Church, LGBTQ folks who wish to retain their Catholic religion and traditions, and more direction about sexual abuses against children by priests than any other Pontif before him, Pope Francis has not made one public comment in reference to the situation in California.  He has not so much as glanced in our direction.

It is as if we, the very people upon whom Serra’s heroic record of evangelization was built, are no more alive to Francis than adobe bricks.

It is as if we, the very people whose lives and deaths make Serra the priest into Serra, the saint, are inconsequential footnotes in our own history.

It is as if we California Indians and our Ancestors are merely canonization fodder.

Indeed, the Pope does not appear to know that the truth is, California Indians still exist: we live and breath, walk the streets of L.A. or San Diego or Santa Barbara, have histories twisted and intertwined with Serra’s miraculous life.  We are alive:  teachers, parents, professors, carpenters, scientists, linguists, truck drivers, tribal chairs, basketweavers, abalone workers, small business owners, poets, students, scholars.

Perhaps the Pope has been kept in the dark about the fact that any California Indians survived the missions at all.  He hasn’t contacted or responded to any tribal chairwomen or chairmen; he has not made any statement about the terrible physical or mental pain our Ancestors endured and which, in too many cases, still affects us today in different forms.  He has not spoken to any California Indian of any stature, famous, infamous, or anonymous, who opposes or questions this canonization.

Of course, he’s the Pope.  He doesn’t have to speak to us.  He doesn’t have to acknowledge us, the descendants of those whose anguish and deaths paid the price for Serra's sainthood.  That’s the kind of power and privilege that 500 years of raking in the enslaved lives, gold and resources of two continents provides.  Francis doesn’t owe us anything, not even a conversation about the loss of 90% of our population in the name of evangelical fervor. We are canonization-fodder, nothing more.

Which leaves me asking myself, if pain is inflicted by a man who will one day be named a saint, does that mean the pain never existed?

If, in 1780,  my Ancestor was flogged by a filthy leather Cat o’ Nine Tails, twenty-five lashes on nine separate days and then, on nine consecutive Sundays, forty more (a special but not unusual punishment known as “The Novenario” within the missions), to the point where no amount of vinegar or poultices could heal the wounds; if that Ancestor sickened, fevered and was eaten alive by infection, died in a raging fog of pain, grief and confusion – does time miraculously work backwards at the moment when Serra is canonized?  Does my Ancestor’s suffering suddenly no longer exist? Did it never happen at all?

Now that would be some serious Saint Magic.  Maybe that could be Serra’s Second Miracle, the one Pope Francis waived on this fast-track canonization.

But Pope Francis is not concerned with my questions.  Like Serra, Francis has fallen prey to the vanity, greed and ambition so much a part of the Catholic Church’s history.  Solid gold candlesticks, expensive vestments, elaborate monuments and cathedrals – none of these are necessary to truly worship the Creator, whether that Creator is Indian or Spanish or something else altogether.  Jesus Christ spoke pityingly and sternly of those at the mercy of such belief systems.  The Franciscans themselves were under orders to dress simply, give up all worldly goods, and serve the poor.  This vow of poverty was also meant to curb other excesses like desire for fame, self-importance, acclaim.

Somewhere along the line, those instructions were lost.  Someone decided that even if priests couldn’t possess gold, God would like gold communion cups, marble in His church, the finest cloth money could buy on His altar.  Someone decided that a tally of souls “saved” by baptism functioned like notches on the belt of a great warrior -  my own 5x great-grandfather, Cholom, was noted in the San Carlos Mission baptismal records as “the 1000th Indian baptized here” as if he were prized not for his soul, but as a symbol of conquest.

And Francis, for all of his lip service to kindness and compassion, seems to have forsaken California Indians as well as the hope of any real change within the Catholic Church.

This moment in history could have been an opportunity for Francis to address the blind, unthinking ambition that is the steamroller approach to spreading the Gospel.  The Church doesn’t burn people at the stake as witches anymore, and we don’t seek to excuse those who did; but we shouldn’t canonize them, either.

The truth is, my families came through the brutality of Carmel, Soledad and Santa Ynez missions in 1835 and we, like other survivors, have lived ever since in a world profoundly warped by the on-going injustices and consequences of the missions founded by Junipero Serra.  In many ways, I consider myself fortunate: while I was baptized by a Catholic priest as a baby, it was purely a part of what little ritual remnant remained in my father’s rag-tag cultural baggage, and I did not engage with the Church at all after about the age of four, and never as an adult.  As a non-Catholic, neither Pope Francis’s decision, nor Serra’s canonization, matters the least bit to my spirituality.  This canonization is not even a blip on the radar of my relationship with the Creator.  Catholicism is someone else’s religion, and for that I am deeply grateful.

Those of my relatives who still practice Catholicism in some form are suffering far, far more pain over this canonization than I am.  Deep rifts have opened up between family members, but also within the hearts and souls of individuals who find themselves torn by loyalty to their Church, and loyalty to their tribe and Ancestors.

However, all of my relatives and I live in a secular world that is pocked by the scars of everything that happened in the California missions, including the devastation that Mission Mythology spreads among Natives and non-Natives alike.

In this secular world, California Indians are quite alive, and the legacy of lies perpetuated by missionization makes our daily lives profoundly difficult to negotiate.  Daily, we fight lack of land or federal recognition, struggle over water rights, our economic, mental and physical health issues, high rates of incarceration, substance abuse and suicide, educational deficits, environmental pollution and cultural losses. State and federal administrators and institutional racism in the educational system continue to teach the world that California tribes were (and are) primitive, godless, stupid, lazy, weak and fearful creatures who desperately needed to be “civilized” in the past and still can’t manage our own lives in the present.  This month, a young Maidu/Navajo student at Cal State Sacramento University was humiliated and dismissed from her history class for correcting her professor – with research, notes, and records – about the decimation and genocide of California Indians during missionization and the Gold Rush.  In 2015, dis-information and lies about Indigenous Californians so instrumental to Serra’s missionization legacy are still savage weapons used against us to deny our humanity.

I’ve been told that the traditional 4th grade curriculum in California, which teaches both missionization and Serra as heroic and progressive, will be given a more realistic slant in the post-canonization era.  I don’t know if this is true or not.  We’ve been asking and working for this kind of reform for decades – yet even if it happens, the canonization of Serra will cancel out whatever good such corrections might do.  Fourth graders will be told on one hand that missionization was bad for the Indians, many died ugly deaths, and – if they are lucky – will hear that California Indians were already civilized when the Spanish encountered them.  Then they will hear that the Catholic Church made Serra a saint.  A saint.  Students will hear that the Pope apologized for crimes and sins committed during colonization.  Then they will learn that Junipero Serra committed those crimes and sins, yet was honored for dishonoring the Ancestors of the California Indigenous peoples.  The cognitive dissonance is stunning.

This, too, is what we inherit from missionization: a complicated dance around the truth to protect the perpetrators of a massive crime and cover-up.  Is it any surprise that we oppose sainthood for the man who founded those missions, and in whose name so much damage continues to be done?

This week a delegation of Californians, Native and non-Native, will hold two press conferences – one in New York, one in D.C., both major stopping points for Pope Francis - to explain our opposition to the canonization.  I’ll join the group in Washington D.C. as the Esselen Nation representative.

1.   Monday September 21, 10:00 am-noon at St Peter's Church (Balcony Room): 619 Lexington Avenue. NY, NY 10022.  Speakers include Norma Flores, aka Toypurina Carac, (Kizh Nation); Val Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band; Dr. Donna Schlindler (psychiatrist who specializes in Historical Trauma), Dr. Christine Grabowski (anthropologist), Antonio Gonzales (AIM WEST Director and UN Liaison), and surprise guests.
2.  Tuesday September 22, 11:00a.m.-1:00 p.m. at  Plymouth United Church of Christ, Washington D.C.; 5301 North Capitol St NE, Washington, DC 20011.  Speakers include all of the above, as well as Dr. Deborah A. Miranda, author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, and representative of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of the Greater Monterey Bay Area.

History will record our righteous anger. And if the Pope won’t hear us, our Ancestors will.

Cha'a!  We exist.

Deborah A. Miranda

Friday, September 11, 2015

Beth Brant: May Her Memory Be a Blessing

Beth Brant // Degonwadonti // May 6, 1941 - August 6, 2015

When I was a struggling young mother trying to reconcile my indigenous identity with my romantic and sexual attraction to other women, there was a very short list of Native lesbian writers to whom I could turn for emotional and psychic sustenance:  Chrystos (Menominee), Janice Gould (Koyangk'auwi Maidu), and Beth Brant (Mohawk).  Published Indigenous lesbian writers were few and far between in the early 1990s.  I was lucky, in fact, to hear of any of them; I was just barely beginning to write again after a long period of disconnect from both my Indigenous roots and deeply buried lesbian desires.

Each of these writers had significant impact on my ability to survive the conflagrations in my life at that moment, but only Beth Brant could speak to me as one mother to another.  In particular, her piece “A Long Story” about Indigenous mothers losing their children (to residential schools and to patriarchal custody battles based on the mother’s female lover) opened my heart in a way that was at once painfully familiar, and deeply reassuring. 

When my then-husband learned of my love for another Native woman, the first words out of his mouth were the only words in the world that could have kept me from leaving him:  “You’ll never see those kids again.”

I remember the brown, gold and cream linoleum on the floor.  I remember the shock that ran through my body like a whip.  I remember being devoured by a fear inside my own body, a fear so old and cavernous that it had no bottom.  “You would really prefer to have me live here, like this – you would really take away the kids?” I asked.  I don’t know how I asked, I didn’t have a breath in my body – but I know I got those words out in a voice raw with disbelief.

“Yes.” he said. “I would.  I’ll find a lawyer who'll do it.  It won’t be hard.”

Terror swallowed me, so easily.  It took me five more years to fight my way back up from the belly of that beast.  In that moment, and for years afterwards, I thought I had lost my mind and my soul. It didn't matter then, and it doesn't matter now, whether this man really would have gone through with his threat.  I believed that he would go through with it.

Perhaps I believed so easily, without doubt, because in my family, mothers did lose their children.  Children did lose their mothers.  When I was three years old, my own mother lost my two older siblings when she ran into her own demons and disappeared for a year.  My brother and sister were put into foster care.  I went to live with an aunt and uncle, separated from the people most dear to me (my father had been sent to prison).  When my mother returned, she believed she had lost custody of all her children but me, and it wasn’t until some years later that she learned she hadn’t – people just let her believe it, so she would give up trying. 

That’s what happens to “bad mothers.” 

I had lived through the kind of devastation my then-husband was threatening.  I was the child whose bad mother had abandoned her.  And even though my mother eventually came back for me, in her own way (alcoholism continued to create huge absences even when her body was present), I was never quite certain that the abyss I’d fallen into wouldn’t come back again.  Disappearances were not something that only happened on TV or in books.  I loved people; those people abandoned me.  Left me.  Disappeared.

I didn’t know it at that moment, but my then-husband had hit upon my weak spot, my Achille’s heel.  In the days and months that followed, I had no name for the terror I felt, no explanation for my inability to eat or keep food down, the swift loss of 40 pounds, a sudden thyroid problem that made my hair fall out, my heart palpitate, my skin grow grey and dry.  My Chicana friends would have told me I’d suffered a susto, a sudden fright, a shock to the system.  All I knew was that my children were being held hostage, and only my “good behavior” could save them.  I had to be a “good mother.”  Bad mothers lost their babies.

It wasn’t a pretty time.  I did what I had to do.  I became a tiny, tiny soul inside a body more like a robot than a human being. 

But I knew about Beth Brant’s writing.  I had tracked down copies of her books.  Perhaps my Indian lover had given me a copy before the end.  I hung onto those stories of Indian mothers surviving the loss of their children; I hung onto the knowledge that love was stronger than absence.  Not sure whether I believed in my ability to love that much, I simply held on to my life even as it frayed like a rope bearing too much weight. 

Beth Brant’s stories were the strands that filled in my own torn fibers.

I never met Beth. Despite the fact that I somehow, slowly, clumsily crawled out of my fear, applied for loans, went to grad school, studied Native American women’s poetry – all the while whispering to myself, “If I can’t have her, I want everything else” – even though I began attending conferences and readings where I met many other Native scholars and authors, Beth and I were never in the same place at the same time.  By the time I finally did leave my marriage, a year before receiving my Ph.D., (when my children were old enough to make their own decisions about who they wanted to live with), I was still mostly closeted, swearing close friends to secrecy, afraid to start a new relationship until that moment when I was gainfully employed, a respectable professor, a woman who could stand up in court if necessary, a woman who could claim that yes, I could support my children, and yes, my lover might be a woman, but that did not make me less of a mother.

When that moment came, it was a tremendous triumph.  I had survived.  I had a Ph.D., a new job as a tenure-track professor at a university in my own town.  I could afford to rent an actual home rather than a tiny apartment above a meth lab, and my children could walk between my place and their father’s.  I had a paycheck, health insurance and a lifetime of student loans waiting to be repaid. 

But I didn’t get there by myself.  I had my two fiercely loving children.  I had the assistance of many angels, many friends, many helpers who came to me in dreams or as generous souls.  I had the dear woman, finally, who would become my wife. 

And I had Beth Brant’s stories.

Tonight, sitting down to dinner with my wife, we received a message that Beth Brant had walked on.

I hope that Beth is at peace, and my thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and loved ones.  I hope that she had some idea of how many women’s lives she saved by sharing her own courage.  I hope she knew she was loved.  I hope she knows how incredibly beautifully her spirit still shines for those of us she left behind -- in her words, stories and creations – and how many women out there are still gaining strength from her willingness to write about what is hard and painful.

Thank you, Beth Brant.  Nimasianexelpasaleki, and may your memory be a blessing.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Still Not Feelin' the Love: An Open Letter to Pope Francis

Dear Pope Francis:

So the Vatican has launched its canonization PR machine for your big visit to the U.S. later this month, and of all the offensive, insensitive, I-can't-hear-you-la-la-la-la-fingers-in-the-ear slogans, they chose this:

Now, Pope Francis, I admit that I cannot bear the word 'mission' even in a normal, non-missionization context.  As a professor, I work hard to use other words in conversation, like "Our FOCUS here is to get students writing," or "My real INTENT with this assignment is to ..." - substituting just about anything so that I don't have to say, "My mission today is to teach you First Years how to write a decent essay."

Heck, if I could, I'd re-write Mission Impossible so that the infamous taped warning reads, "Your task, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it..." - simply because the word MISSION makes the postcolonial fillings in my Indian teeth cringe like a nice big chomp of tin foil.

But this little line drawing with the back of your slightly chunky, grandfatherly figure raising one benevolent hand in graceful blessing and the words LOVE and MISSION together in peaceful blue sans serif font is much, much worse than tin foil shudders.

And that cute word play on "mission" (get it?) makes me go just a touch crazy.

Okay.  I'm pausing for a few deep breaths here, fighting the urge to shout at you like this:  THE WORDS LOVE AND MISSION TOGETHER IN PEACEFUL BLUE SANS SERIF FONT AND THAT CUTE WORD PLAY MAKES ME GO A LOT CRAZY.

But there, I did it, and I feel a teeny bit better.  Just a teeny bit, though.  Trust me, Francis, shouting is only a temporary outlet.

This PR image makes me want to pull my hair out because I am on the other side of the mirror.  As a California Indian whose Ancestors were the subjects of missionization, I can tell you that the Spanish missions were not about love.

As the population graph above shows, the missions - for California Indians - were about death.

Death from the murder, disease, starvation, European-spread syphilis and rape directly brought about by the missions founded by Catholic missionaries.

Deaths that were brought about by one thing:  greed.  Rapacious, self-serving, unmitigated greed - the acquisitive desires of Spanish royalty, military and yes, Catholic priests.

Francis, I know this might be hard for you to hear.  Clearly, a petition asking you to cancel the canonization has gone unheeded, as have multiple news stories, interviews with California Indian peoples, and letters such as this.  But with the Catholic Church's immense power (financial as well as world-wide scope) comes great responsibility.  Does that sound familiar?  Perhaps you know it better as "To those who much is given much is required" (Jesus Christ; Luke 12:48).

Francis, you've been busy proclaiming a 'mercy year' for Catholic women who have had abortions so that they can confess, be forgiven, and rejoin the Church; you've encouraged your priests to welcome divorced Catholics back.  You've recently spoken mercifully of LGBTQ individuals, saying, "A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being."  This past June, you even announced "a specific process by which the Vatican can deal with bishops who are negligent in handling cases of abuse in their territories," speaking to the decades-long sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests that has been covered up by the Church itself.

Of course, all of these actions on your part have yet to play out fully, given the centuries of punishment dealt by the Church to women who had abortions, divorced people, LGBTQ Catholics, and victims of abuse by priests.  And many of these announcements by you are phrased as spiritual expressions rather than outright changes in Catholic dogma; "we enter into the mystery of the human being" is one of those phrases that doesn't, really, pin you down to any actual change. 

Still, Francis, you seem to have no fear of voicing a kinder, gentler Church for the 21st century, despite more conservative pressures from within the Vatican. 

Yet you can't quite seem to bring yourself to apply this kind of clarity and perspective to Serra's canonization. 

People are not born saints, and in fact the Church has (or had) an elaborate process in place to scrutinize the lives of people nominated for sainthood.  However, as the linked Catholic website above notes, Popes are free to waive some of those steps, including the number of years before being canonized, or even - in the case of Serra - one of the two required miracles. 

Unfortunately, the waiving of Serra's second miracle means that his canonization can be pushed through with an incomplete investigation.  I've speculated before (see earlier link to previous post) that you might be looking to use the Serra canonization as a way to celebrate the Church, rather than constantly apologizing for its failures.  Forgive me, Francis, but your organization would benefit from some good PR these days.

Hence, "Love is Our Mission"?

Let me tell you why that phrase and your campaign to canonize Junipero Serra doesn't work for the very people Juniper Serra was tasked with 'saving.'  Let me tell you why many California Indians (and our allies) are protesting this celebration.  Let me help you see our perspective.

You see, we know that everyone wanted (not needed) something from California's indigenous peoples: if not gold, if not some weird tally of Spanish God-points for 'saving' Native souls from Hell, then slave labor to defend land claimed by Spain from other invaders like Russia, France, and the United States of America.

We know that that land, those souls, those lives, were taken, not given freely.

We know that makes missionization a crime.

Yes, I'll say it.  Missionization is a crime against humanity by humanity.  No human being should have to defend him or herself against someone else's religious aggression.  Not in 1770, when Junipero Serra showed up in the homelands of my Ancestors near what is now the greater Monterey Bay area, and not in 2015, on Indian reservations in the U.S. or in impoverished Indigenous communities South America.  Religion is a deeply personal, often culturally-based belief system that means nothing if it is not freely accepted or chosen.  Sure, human beings have the right to offer their religious beliefs to others for consideration.  But human beings also have the right to decline participation in any religion, as well.

To be missionized - i.e., forcibly 'converted' - at gunpoint, by physical beatings, rape, murder of one's families or community members, by psychological coercion, lies, trickery - is a moral, ethical, spiritual crime.

Any religious figure who uses force to benefit a religious organization is not a religious figure.

Yes, I do have high standards - thanks for pointing that out.  Yes, I do realize that the Franciscan priests who missionized California lived in a different time period where missionizing was a European norm.  But no, I do not believe in honoring anyone who participated in that kind of colonization simply because they worked really really hard at forcibly beating religion into Indigenous people.  Or simply because "everyone else was doing it, too."  You know what?  Even if that argument (voiced by every teenager since time began) were valid, the truth is that everyone else was NOT doing it.  Not even all priests were doing it.

To quote myself in an earlier post,

Serra, many of his his supporters have argued, 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.
As it turns out, Padre Horra asked to be sent home because he knew that his Franciscan brethren had it in for him and he feared for his life after blowing the whistle on their Spanish Inquisition conversion techniques.

History of California. 1884-90  By Hubert Howe Bancroft

[Many other Europeans of the time also left behind records stating the over-the-top cruelty of California missionaries and, as Cutcha Risling Baldy points out, Spanish records contain thousands of accounts showing that Native people thought it was wrong, too - by fleeing, fighting back, setting fire to missions, even killing priests in an effort to defend themselves.  Those accounts, of course, are written by the missionaries themselves about bad, bad Indians who wouldn't listen unless flogged, imprisoned, starved, or otherwise 'persuaded' to accept their enslavement.]

Oh, and speaking of the Spanish Inquisition, Francis, surely you know that Padre Junipero Serra actually was an agent for the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico?  The LA Times reports on this fact:
Even by 18th century standards, Serra's religious fanaticism was over the top. With beliefs grounded in doctrines inherited from the Middle Ages, he took pleasure in extreme self-mortification and worked as a loyal comisario, or field agent, for the Inquisition, tracking down witches, heretics and practitioners of “cryptojudaism” in Mexico City. According to UC Riverside historian Steven Hackel's biography of Serra, he was “a calculating and unrelenting interrogator of those he thought had committed crimes against the Church.”
Just what does "calculating and unrelenting interrogator" mean?

As Steven Hackel writes in his biography of Serra, "Only two full records of [Serra's] actions as a comisario have come to light, but it is unlikely that these reflect his full involvement with the Holly Office in New Spain, given the secrecy that always surrounded the Inquisition" (124).

(Hmmm, interesting.  If there are more records rattling around in the Vatican's archives, Francis, would you consider sharing?)

In one of the two cases Hackel was able to find, he reports that Serra's investigation gathered enough incriminating evidence against a "mulata" or "loba natural" (part Indian and part African) woman named Maria Pasquala to have her sent to Mexico City.  There, she spent five and a half months imprisoned in a filthy, dark dungeon while the judges of the Inquisition 'examined' her further.  The day after she was finally judged guilty of witchcraft, guards 'found' Maria outside her cell, beaten nearly to death (it was called "a grave accident" in Spanish records).  She lingered a few hours, then died, and was buried in an unmarked grave.  Hackel concludes,

"Maria Pasquala's fate was tragic, and Serra as an agent of the Inquisition played a major role in it.  ... Serra knew that Maria Pasquala would most likely be punished severely when he sent her to Mexico City.  But he saw her as a witch and could not have done otherwise.  Nothing in the historical record suggests that Serra knew of her death.  Yet he would not have been surprised to learn that one who had gone so far astray had suffered such a gruesome end" (136, emphasis added).

In other words, when Serra ordered Maria Pasquala sent to Mexico City, he knew that she would be found guilty based on his inquisition testimony, and furthermore, that while the punishment for this was a severe flogging and banishment, Serra knew that her murder by guards with the implicit permission of Church authorities was also just as likely.  

That's 'our Blessed Serra'?  Well, Francis, maybe he's yours, but he's not ours.

That's your Blessed Serra, the man who - four years later - would be given complete control over the lives of thousands of California Indians.

That's your "Mission of Love."

Let me quote Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes, 

Institutional saint-terrorists believe that their religious conviction justifies them in mind-washing, enslaving, torturing, and murdering anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe. 
So long as religions use such believers to enforce their control over minds and extend their worldly dominion, the saint-terrorist will exist and will be canonized. 
Self-sacrificial saints differ from saint-terrorists in choosing to mindwash, enslave, torture, or kill themselves instead of others.

What she is saying, Francis, is that Serra had a choice.  He had a choice between serving to better the lives and needs of California's Indigenous population in the wake of 'discovery' by Europeans, and serving the political and economic desires of the Vatican and the Crown.  Other Europeans of his time chose to protest mistreatment of Indians, and made efforts to protect them.  Serra's choices reveal him to be an ambitious, greedy man whose longing for glory was, in fact, a vice.  There is much more evidence that Serra does not deserve to be honored by anyone, but I can only guess that you have ignored that too, since you have yet to respond to any of these points.

Prove me wrong, Francis.

Canonization of Junipero Serra means:

A) religious violence, aka terrorism, is okay, and

B) the rape of California's people and land - which we are testifying to - was not rape, so we must be deluded, or liars, or both! and

C) violence today is okay tomorrow, because by tomorrow it will all be in the past and that excuses everything.

For all these reasons and more, here is my response to that poster at the head of this post. Here is a glimpse into the Indigenous California side of the strange mirror we call history.