California Tribes Denounce Catholic Church’s “Fraud” and “Blatant Fabrication” on Serra Sainthood

Several representatives of California tribes held a press conference Tuesday at Washington D.C.’s Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ to proclaim the opposition of more than 50 tribes to the canonization of Junipero Serra, which is set to take place just down the road on Wednesday afternoon. One speaker called the canonization mass that Pope Francis will conduct “a disastrous celebration of slavery and cultural termination.” [Read: Why Serra Should Not Be a Saint, by scholar Jacqueline Hidalgo.]

At the heart of their objection is Serra’s role in creating and overseeing a system of missions that they say enslaved and brutalized Indians, forced religious conversions, and destroyed communities and culture in ways that continues to harm Native people today. Donna Schindler, a psychiatrist specializing in “historical trauma” said she is a lifelong practicing Catholic who has left the church due to the Serra canonization, the result of which will be the “re-wounding” of the descendants of mission Indians, who struggle with depression, domestic violence, substance abuse, and teen suicide rates that are triple the national average.

The Catholic Church, of course, has been telling a much different story in which Serra, a man of his time, was a protector of Indians who evidenced concern for both their physical and spiritual well-being. In June, the Wall Street Journal’s Allysia Finley quoted a church official claiming that the Vatican spent 72 years studying Serra’s writings, which reflect his love for the natives.

That official line on Serra was denounced as a “fraud” by Antonio Gonzales, Director and United Nations Liaison for American Indian Movement West. Another speaker called the Church’s claims about Serra “a blatant fabrication.”

The activists have essentially been ignored by the church. Gonzales read a statement by Valentin Lopzez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band recounting the multiple letters and petitions tribes have sent in the nine months since Francis announced the canonization plans. Deborah Miranda, an English professor at Washington and Lee University and author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, said that California Indians had responded “with on-line petitions, prayers, moderated debates, a mock trial, art installations, press conferences, a 650-mile walk through all 21 missions, social media, radio shows, letters to the Pope himself.”

But Francis, she said, has not made a single public comment about Indians in California. “It is as if we, the very people whose lives and deaths make Serra, the priest, into Serra, the saint, are inconsequential footnotes in history,” she said. “It is as if we—California Indians and our Ancestors—are merely canonization fodder.”

Several of the speakers contrasted the pope’s push to make Serra a saint with his public concern for oppressed people, and particularly the apology he offered while in Bolivia for the abuses that took place during the so-called conquest of the Americas. A letter from activist Suzan Harjo called it “incomprehensible” that Francis could make that apology and then confer sainthood on “a leading perpetrator of those very crimes.”

“There is a yawning disconnect between what Pope Francis says about defending the poor and what he is actually doing to Indians in the United States by canonizing Junipero Serra,” said Christine Grabowski, an anthropologist and author of Serra-gate: The Fabrication of a Saint.

News reports suggest that Francis’s determination to make Serra a saint—requiring a waiver of the normally required two miracles attributed to him—reflects the Pope’s commitment to evangelization and his recognition of the importance of Hispanic Catholics to the future of the church in the U.S. In May, the pope said Serra ushered in “a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California.”

A recent Fernanda Santos story in the New York Times reported that the Spanish-speaking Serra has spiritual and cultural importance to some Latinos/as. In April, Vatican official Guzman Carriquiry, who is from Uruguay, said canonization would help overcome lingering anti-Catholic and anti-Hispanic sentiments in America.

But speakers at today’s press conference suggested the church has better options. “Surely Archbishop Oscar Romero is a more worthy candidate for the Hispanic peoples of the Americas,” said Norma Louise Flores, author of a petition opposing the canonization.

Steven Newcomb, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, connected Serra’s work to papal edicts going back to the 15th century calling for the subjugation of “barbarous nations” and the building of Christian empire. Newcomb is co-producer of a new documentary, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code.

Also distributed at the press conference were excerpts from A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California Indians by the Spanish Missions, by Elias Castillo, which include Serra ordering whippings for Indians who fled the mission.

The statement by Amah Mutsun Tribal Band chairman Lopez concluded:

The Catholic Church will someday realize that canonization of Serra has seriously damaged their right to claim moral authority on issue of poverty, social justice, and indigenous rights. The Church’s treatment of California Indians clearly sends the message that they believe that evangelizing is saintly behavior even if it means the destruction, domination and the stealing of land of indigenous people.

Speakers had no expectation that the canonization mass would not go forward, but they suggested it would backfire on the church by stoking continued outrage among indigenous people and draw closer scrutiny to church doctrines and practices that amounted to a “violent evangelism.” Activists vowed to continue to push for the release of sealed church documents about Serra.


  •' apotropoxy says:

    Serra created and oversaw “… a system of missions that they say enslaved and brutalized Indians, forced religious conversions, and destroyed communities and culture in ways that continues to harm Native people today.”

    Roman Catholics think that the ends (bringing heathen “souls” to the worship altar of their deity) justify the horrible means used. If these people want to think that souls go to “heaven” if certain particulars are followed, you can’t really stop them from thinking that. If they want to create a special category of heavenly souls who have a little influence with the three-headed deity, you can’t stop them from doing that too. They are free to make up the rules of their club just as you are.
    Feel free to ignore them.

  •' Janice Best says:

    Feel free to ignore people who are making light of your suffering? Not the best advice ever offered.

  •' Don says:

    I’m not sure he should be canonized, personally, but then I’m not a Catholic. I’m also not sure what bad he actually did that makes him special among all the other missionaries working in that time and place (is there more specific info in the links? I haven’t looked at them). Perhaps he was one of the better among them? How can I know? What’s the real history? That I don’t get in this article. And if missionizing has a miserable history, it surely isn’t over yet. Look what they are doing in places like Mongolia and Nepal today, under the guise of handicrafts promotion, fair trade and so on. Interesting & ironic that many of these missionaries are now Korean!

  •' apotropoxy says:

    They can stop re-traumatizing themselves any time they choose by ignoring the superstitions of others. They might also want to reflect on the nature of many tribal interactions that routinely happened before Christianism introduced its own brand of chaos.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    It might be best if they handle this the same as they would for anyone else. If he can work two miracles after he dies, then make him a saint.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Our local Monterey Bay TV coverage and interviews with RC clergy (bishop?) had their answer about Serra and treatment of indigenous tribes (no guessing here), and a response from Indian representatives very outraged over sainthood. What was disconcerting, and the last word, came from the Bishop of Monterey (I believe) was that this could be a time of healing due to Serra’s sainthood. Are we kidding here? What was glaringly apparent to me is that its a bit late for healing. An opportunity for a serious and heartfelt conversation with tribal leaders and spokespeople never really happened – and should have. My prejudice is the RC upper leaders never listening to the unwashed. I do know there has been a struggle and a lot of hurt parishes as a result. Dare I add: Santa Cruz is one of them. I’m not RC, but in relationship because of organized churches and Temple justice work together here.

  •' DavidHarley says:

    Bartolomé de las Casas.

    A man of his times, like all of us, but a man who risked his life and reputation for the Indians. Subsequent Spanish historians have spent centuries denouncing him as a madman for supporting the rights of the Indians and as a liar in his reports of atrocities he had seen.

  •' markday says:

    You are so right, Judith. As a former Franciscan friar, I have been following
    this closely. The friars and the bishops are mouthing words like “healing”
    and “reconciliation,” but reconciling with what? with whom? Historical
    intergenerational trauma (the “soul wound”) is only exacerbated by this
    clerical triumphalism. They don’t want healing, what they want is
    exoneration so they don’t have to take any responsibility for what happened
    and what needs to be done right now. — Mark Day

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Thank you so much. I feel I took a risk to say this because I have friends who were hurt enough to question staying in the RC church. Was I exposing too much here.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Perhaps some day when the child molesting scandal is in the past, ultimate healing for the church can come through sainthood for one of the bishops caught in the cover-up.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Did you ever hear of T. Roosevelt’s saying, “Don’t fight with pigs. You’l role in the mud, end up very dirty, and besides they like it”. !!!!!!!! We all need to grow up.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Where I grew up, Junipero Serra was a highway up on the ridge heading down toward Santa Cruz. There was also a giant Serra theatre back before the multiplexes. I don’t want to get dirty.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Then join the conversation for real and add to the conversation.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    What is the problem? Is this about Roman Catholic American Indians who are trying to make a point? If so, I think they have made their point. There was even a question raised of if the pope should skip the part about Serra working 2 miracles after he died, and making him a saint anyway. If these Indians are Catholics, it is probably best if they could just wake up and see how foolish the whole Catholic saint thing is to start with. If they are not Catholics, then they have made their point, and they will ultimately just have to let the pope do his thing.

  •' Judith Maxfield says:

    Jim: Good question. Its complicated. I am not an expert on this, can only somewhat guess.
    However, it seems to me that what African-Americans (I prefer this to the word “black”), experienced here is very similar. Here, Indigenous people are more connected to the Earth and have their beliefs that teach them who they are in this life. There is a shared communal memory of this for those, of those who died, and for today’s families and communities. North American Indian people are recovering their own identity these days. This is true of where I live. I believe that humans are naturally spiritual until oppressed and maybe unable to recover from the harm done.
    So: Look at the healing process in So. Africa led by Bishop Tutu. Owning up to what one did and hearing the witness of the victim can set one free from the past. The process probably needs guidance from those who know how to lead the process. The same was used in N. Ireland, in N.Z. for the Maori.
    Like it or not, there is a need for people to have a “story or legend of their human identity and existence. I assume in this case you mentioned these people are both RC and not RC. Stay or not stay in the church is for them to decide. The same for women, LGBT people.
    I am Irish American and also have memory of my people being killed of by starvation and indignity suffered transferred to me. It present in how I am shaped and the attitudes I have. At least I can also be very proud of my legacy. So maybe there is a question here for you too and your story. We can have a good conversation.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    No healing here, just opening old wounds, pouring salt and vinegar in it and sealing it with hot plastic pronouncing it done. When was the last time a canonized “saint” been removed as one?

  •' cgosling says:

    None of the priests that accompanied the Spanish soldiers had the good of the indians in mind. Their first mission was to subdue and convert the native population by any means including force and slavery. The priests acted on the orders of the Conquistadors. Proof? The Indians lost everything and the Spanish settlers gained everything. Where was the Church in protecting native human rights?

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    Your comment presumes that any priests who were there had the power to overcome the combined forces of soldiers, secular authorities, settlers and, probably most destructive of all, any commercial interests which came with them.

    I wonder how much of the online commentary on this comes from an actual reading of any of the primary documentary material relevant to the issue, I would guess probably less than a percent of it. The great revelation of reading lots of commentary online has been how little of it is based on that information, the “age of” which we were all told the internet was going to bring but on the prejudices of those commenting. Availability of information is no guarantee that it is going to be used to inform.

    I think it’s a mistake to canonize Serra though that’s not on the basis of judging his, specific life and actions, about which I know little, it’s because of the use this canonization is being put to, making Serra, not who he might have been but as a proxy for all kinds of other motives. If Serra is a saint nothing is lost to him by his not being canonized.

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    Get back to me when organized atheism in the United States comes clean about Vern Bullough and his promotion of legalizing child rape.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Atheists don’t know anything about organized atheism, so you will need to answer that question for yourself.

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    CSI(COP), “Secular Humanists”, American Atheists, “Freedom From Religion” Center for Inquiry, the contra-logically named “Freethought” blogs, etc. all show that your characterization of atheism is a lie. Vern Bullough was a fixture of a number of those organized efforts, he was named a “Humanist” of the Year, as I recall, and honored by a number of them EVEN AS THEY LISTED HIS PROMOTION OF LEGALIZED CHILD RAPE THROUGH PAIDIKA IN HIS CV. Though the 1970s, 80s, 90s and into this millennium they not only harbored a PUBLIC, ACADEMIC proponent of child rape, they cited his promotion of it as part of why he had credibility.

    There is nothing in atheism that you can point to that says why raping children, or anyone else, is wrong. Where do you find that in atheism?

  •' Jim Reed says:

    We don’t need those organizations. The important thing is to understand the problems caused by humans joining groups that tell them what to believe. Groups were important when we came down from the trees, and picked up pointy sticks, and formed a circle to protect ourselves from the lions. By the time the concept had become religious we had carried it too far.

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    I will bet you that the neo-atheist fad would disappear without them.

    Your folk-anthropological presentation of this is ridiculous, did you just make that up for your comment? I’d love to hear what the membership and, more so, the leadership of such groups would say to the contention that they are “not needed”. I can guarantee you that the appeals they send out to me don’t take that line. the CSI(COP) and its related, Paul Kurtz originated groups don’t present themselves that way.

    You haven’t told me what in atheism says it’s wrong to rape children. The Gospels are quite explicit, they say it would be better if you had a millstone tied around your neck if you do something like that to children, any priest who raped children was violating that prohibition and others contained in scriptures and in the teachings of Christian churches, they were violating nothing about atheism. You have to borrow a Jewish-Christian-Islamic moral stand to even make your accusation.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    To me this is not a question of Atheism vs. Christianity, and that is why those organizations don’t matter. This is a question of Christianity. It is a false religion. It doesn’t work, and the world would be better without it. As long as you have Christianity, there will be lots of competing threads tying things in knots, and you won’t get very far tugging on those threads. End Christianity and the Gordian Knot will disappear.

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    You’re just full of aphoristic wisdom, aren’t you. I’d give out the quote from Jurgen Habermas which the atheist blogosphere – that literate enough to know who Habermas is – freaked out over and which they claimed was “misquoted” even as Habermas didn’t claim it was a misquote (mistranslation, is what is really alleged) and even as he repeated the substance of it. I’d give that but your fantasy presentation of reality would skate by it or turn it into something congenial to your bigotry.

    You’re the kind of person Bertrand Russell was talking about when he gave out his little aphorism, “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.” of which there is no better present day example of than the neo-atheists.

    Christianity is the basis of liberalism, if Christianity and Judaism disappeared, it would also disappear, that’s the price of placating the atheists on the left, suicide.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    What we need is truth, and the truth is there was no Jesus. Christianity can’t win by hating everything else to a higher degree. It is time for the world to face the reality, the Bible shows there is no actual Jesus because the Bible is a record of the life of Jesus written in the last third of the first century, and backdated to the first third of the century, but the record of Christianity in the middle of the century shows a Christianity of a Christ Jesus found in old testament scriptures, and in visions. Christianity was developing from different strands of Jewish and non-Jewish religious thought of the day. Then later it evolved into the story of a man describe in the gospels. The pre-gospel record of Christianity shows gospels were making this story up. I know Christianity will try hard to keep the faith going, but in the end, there is no actual Jesus to base it on, so it is just a religion of the church, and not a religion of God.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Serra is not qualified to be a saint unless he works a couple miracles from the grave.

  •' Camera Obscura says:

    You can consider it a miracle that I’m still talking to you.

  •' cgosling says:

    Thanks for your informative reply. It is difficult for me to imagine any priest standing up to the atrocities of Spanish soldiers and government. Those priests, and the Pope during WW2, apparently did not call on their great, most powerful deity to change what man has done and is doing. Is this god of theirs impotent or powerless. Have they no faith in their god. Gods of the past have had no limits in their power. I wonder why he is silent when humans need him.
    You spent most of your post talking about the uninformed commentary of those who think sainthood is imaginary and holy men cannot be expected to elicit miracles from their deity. Any religious person will insist that their god performs miracles all the time. They seem to ignore the times when their gods do not respond to their pleas.
    Religions should have the right to believe whatever they want. People should also have the right to select the religion they want. Children, on the other hand, might do better if they were given the opportunity to choose a religion after they had some education. Sorry about the rant.

  •' cgosling says:

    Well said. The two miracles that are required to be a saint are always pure bunk because all said miracles contrary to natural laws are impossible. Extraordinary events or unexplained events are classified as being miracles by default.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The system of saints is about praying to the dead to perform a miracle. Without this 2 miracle requirement the whole system might break down because you want to make sure those who are granted sainthood can actually deliver the goods.

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