Sep 24 2015

The Pope’s Blind Spot on the US’s Genocidal Past

Published by on September 24, 2015

Pope Francis’ canonization of Junipero Serra is a slap in the face of Native tribes in California, who see his legacy as one of brutality, not heroism.

Pope Francis has done much to please progressives during his historic visit to the United States, including calling attention to poverty and climate change. But on September 23, he angered Native Americans, especially in California, by canonizing the Spanish priest Junípero Serra.

Father Serra made his name converting California’s Indigenous communities to Catholicism during his time at the Missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz in the second half of the 18th century.

Serra is the first priest to have been canonized in the United States. Latino American Catholics in particular are thrilled at the move. Archbishop José Horacio Gómez, based in Southern California, was excited about the prospect of Serra’s canonization. Speaking at a recent conference he said, "The first Hispanic pope is coming to America to give us the first Hispanic saint." He added that it was a "historic moment in the life of the Hispanic people."

Pope Francis was just as glowing in his commendations, saying during the canonization mass in Washington DC, "Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life … He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life."

But many members of Native American tribes in California have an entirely different view. Louise Miranda Ramirez, tribal chairwoman for the Ohlone Costanoan-Esselen Nation in Monterey, California said, “I hear people saying, ‘Oh, he loved the Indians.’ I don’t think so … His goal was to remove our culture. ‘You have to beat ‘em, torture ‘em, remove them from their homeland.’”

Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, has led protests against Serra’s canonization. In a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown, he wrote, "Serra’s especially coercive and cruel methods in California are not a sound basis for sainthood." Lopez expanded on these "cruel methods" in an interview on Uprising, saying it was Serra who "developed the tactics of the Mission system," to convert American Indians to Catholicism.

"Those tactics included the brutal capture of Indians, and their enslavement," said Lopez. He explained, "Once they came into the Mission compound, they could not leave. The men were separated from the children, and from the women. They were kept in separate compounds."

Serra’s tactics allowed for rape as a weapon of war. According to Lopez, "At night the [Spanish] soldiers would go in an repeatedly and continuously rape the women." He paraphrased Serra, who apparently said, "The only way the Indians can be controlled is with blows." While there is some historical documentation of the genocide of Native Americans in the United States, Lopez asserted, "The truth of the California Indians has never been told."

The history that Serra represents is part of the broad project of colonization and genocide of Native Americans in the United States. California’s coastal Indian communities were the most densely populated native lands north of Mexico City. According to Lopez, "California’s Monterey Bay once had 30,000 Indians living there. At the end of the mission period, there were less than 100." Bizarrely Catholics who are celebrating Serra’s sainthood don’t seem to see anything wrong with this wiping out of a huge number of human beings. A Catholic mission in San Diego has proudly called Serra a "Hero of Evangelization," and a "courageous friar," on its website.

Donna Schindler, a "cross cultural psychiatrist" who works with the Amah Mutsun, wrote a letter to the Pope earlier this year. According to her, "Father Mariano Payeras, the last Spanish Padre Presidente of the [California] missions, wrote to his superior in 1820 saying ‘All we have done to the Indians is consecrate them, baptize them and bury them.’" The quote was apparently in response to the embarrassing question of where all of California’s Indians had gone.

Pope Francis and many Catholics seems to be relying on the historical amnesia over what was done to California’s native populations. A Jesuit priest named Father Thomas Reese, told PRI, "I wouldn’t agree with those who say that [Serra] practiced genocide or didn’t love the Indians. I think he actually did love the Indians. Things would have been much worse if he had come with the Spanish. I think the Spanish soldiers and the ranchers would have just totally exploited the Indians. He tried to protect the Indians."

Lopez took great issue with this sentiment. "There’s a lot of people that are apologizing and making excuses for Father Serra to justify the canonization," he said. Serra was from the order of Saint Francis of Assisi, and Lopez cited Francis’ approach saying, "when he evangelized, he used compassion, love, words, and deeds. He never used force, or whips, or enslavement, or rape, or torture. We don’t know where Serra gets that from."

When Pope Francis visited Bolivia on a recent trip, he apologized to Indigenous communities: "Some may rightly say, ‘When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church.’ I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God." Lopez found the Pope’s apology insincere in light of Serra’s canonization. "What they did in the Americas, is exactly what they did in California," contended Lopez. "So how can it be a sin in all the Latin American countries, but not a sin in California?"

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The Pope’s Blind Spot on the US’s Genocidal Past”

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