Since Pope Francis first proposed canonizing Father Junípero Serra earlier this year, American Indians have been outraged, especially in California. On September 23, as the pontiff performed the ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Native peoples protested all across Turtle Island.
In what they knew was a vain attempt to stop the process, numerous tribes and groups had registered their opposition to the move to canonize the Spanish friar, who built the first nine of what would eventually grow to a 21-mission system across California. Tens of thousands of people died in those missions, which opponents say were designed to “destroy the culture of the Native Americans,” as Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, put it to National Catholic Reporter. Below are some tribes and other groups who have come out publicly against the canonization.
Amah Mutsun Tribal Band
Spearheading the effort was the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, whose leaders not only wrote letters but also launched a campaign to raise public awareness of Serra’s misdeeds, which included widespread abuse. Among the resources is a web page compiling media reports about the issue. The band also wrote a half dozen letters to Pope Francis, the latest in mid-September, outlining once again the numerous reasons against sainthood and requesting a meeting with the pontiff.
"We're stunned and we're in disbelief," Lopez told CNN after the canonization. "We believe saints are supposed to be people who followed in the life of Jesus Christ and the words of Jesus Christ. There was no Jesus Christ lifestyle at the missions.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, Morningstar Institute
The Medal of Freedom winner wrote an open letter to the pope last week, telling him outright not to go through with the canonization and to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, the documents issued by the church in the 1500s that gave justification for the subjugation of non-Christians, including Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island.
“It defies understanding that Pope Francis would apologize for past destruction of Native Peoples caused by the Catholic Church, yet leave in place the very documents that justify and make it possible for criminal assaults to continue against Native Peoples today,” Harjo wrote. “We entreat Pope Francis to rescind the anti-Indian Papal Bulls and Doctrine of Discovery, and to reverse the canonization of Father Junipero Serra.”
Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation
Earlier this month the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, passed a resolution opposing the canonization and stipulating that the Pope rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. The band went a step beyond that to call for the Pope’s support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The tribe “formally opposes the Canonization of Junipero Serra due to his association with, uplifting of, and support for Church and State doctrinal policies aimed at the eradication of Indigenous cultural, linguistic, and spiritual beliefs and practices and the far reaching and long lasting negative impacts on the Indigenous Peoples of this hemisphere and around the world as a result of such policies and practices,” read part of the resolution, according to a media release from the band.
“The process of sainthood and canonization is symbolic—and Father Junipero Serra was a symbol of colonization. It is the uplifting of this symbol, particularly in light of Pope Francis’ recent apology to Indigenous peoples, to which we object,” said Tribal Chairman Matias Belardes in the statement. “Serra was a man of his time, and that time was a period during which the very humanity of our Ancestors was called into question by the legal and religious doctrines espoused by the Church and State. We do not believe that such a man, nor such a time period should be celebrated.”
Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians (Pecháangayam Payómkawichum)
On September 22 the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians (Pecháangayam Payómkawichum) wrote an open letter to Pope Francis stating their opposition to Serra’s sainthood.
“In just one generation, the total population of all Payómkawichum (Luiseño) villages suffered a greater than 90 percent population loss through disease and abuse brought by Fr. Serra’s missionization,” the tribe stated. “Fr. Serra’s mission system killed between 9,000 and 13,500 of our ancestors. This rapid population loss in such a compressed time frame triggered a collapse of our indigenous societal structure and way of life and set into motion the atrocities and hardships that our people endured for nearly two centuries.”
The Pechanga are therefore “opposed to the canonization and glorification of Father Junipero Serra for the genocide, inhumane treatment and various crimes that Fr. Serra and his Spanish mission system committed against the ancestors of the Pechanga people,” the band said in their letter.