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 MoveOn.org 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.