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


  1. This should be read by everyone. This should be taught in every classroom and in every college in Amerikkka! I can hear the young people -- This is so BAD ASS!!! This will rock things up.

  2. There are legions of ex Catholics who should agree with you. Saint my ass:/

  3. I am acutely aware of the terrible things that happened to multiple native peoples as a result of colonization in California. Thank you for this heartfelt, passionately expressed, well researched and provocative article. I have shared it.

  4. Thank you for this well researched, thoughtful and passionately articulated article. I have shared it.


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