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A Native view of Catholic missions in California

The California Missions Preservation Act allocates $10 million in federal
matching funds to be dispersed through the Department of the Interior to
the "California Missions Foundation." The monies will be used to preserve
and restore buildings on 21 Catholic missions in California that are
visited by some 5 million tourists a year. From an American Indian
viewpoint, however, this legislation is highly problematic for a couple of

First and foremost, the legislation ought to be titled "The Catholic
Missions Preservation Act." After all, the missions began as enterprises of
the Catholic Church and, with two exceptions, the lands and mission
buildings at issue are still owned today by the church. Two of the 21
Catholic missions - La Parisima in Lompoc, and San Francisco de Solano -
are owned by the state of California. The 18 other mission sites are either
owned by the diocese of the area where the mission is located, or by the
Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church.

The second problem with the California Missions Preservation Act is that it
does not cast the missions in a proper light based on a complete reading of
history. One of the reasons given by Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office for
providing federal funds to the missions is that they "serve an important
role in educating children and adults alike about the history and early
settlement in California."

Let's look at some educational information that tourists are not told about
the missions in California. For example, on May 17, 1773, an agreement was
signed by the leaders of the Dominican and Franciscan orders of the
Catholic Church in California. The two orders wrote of "finding ourselves
in this corner of Old and New California, occupied with the spiritual
conquest and the conversion of the infidels" (emphasis added). Given that
"conquest" is a concept of warfare, the idea of "spiritual conquest" can
only be viewed as a kind of warfare against the very spiritual being of
so-called "infidel" Native peoples.

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The colonizing history of the missions can also be traced back to the
so-called Age of Discovery and to documents issued by popes at the Vatican
in 1452, 1454, 1455 and 1493. These documents called for Christian monarchs
to travel to non-Christian lands throughout the world and invade, capture,
vanquish and subdue all Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ; put
their persons into perpetual slavery; and take away all their possessions
and property. Non-Christians, said Pope Alexander VI in 1493, were
"barbarous nations" to be "subjugated" for "the propagation of the
Christian empire" (imperil christiani).

In "The Missions and Missionaries of California" by Zephyrin Englehardt,
published by Mission Santa Barbara in 1929, we find: "Missions for the
conversion of pagan nations began with the very advent of Christianity in
obedience to Christ's command to His Apostles, 'Go ye into the whole world
and teach all nations and teach them to observe whatsoever I have told
you.'" Clearly, it is impossible to separate the word "missions" in the
California Missions Preservation Act from the Bible.

In many instances the missions were built with forced Indian labor, and
harsh physical punishments were used against them, such as whipping them
with a lash for running away. The missions militated against the
preservation of Native spiritual and ceremonial traditions, and against the
preservation of Indian languages. This is one significant reason why so
many Native languages in California are no longer spoken, and why so many
more are now on the verge of no longer being spoken.

The mission system helped set into motion the many causes that led to the
dispossession of Native nations and to the loss of nearly 100 million acres
of ancestral lands in California. Native peoples fought back in various
ways against the threat of Catholic "spiritual conquest" and against the
threat of losing their ancestral lands and traditional lifeways. On Nov. 4,
1775, for example, a force of some 800 Kumeyaay burned down the San Diego
Mission de Alcala and killed Father Jayme. This incident underlines the
point that, from a Native perspective, the colonizing legacy of Catholic
missions is definitely not something to celebrate.

To fund the Catholic mission legacy with federal dollars that will renovate
buildings owned by the Catholic Church violates the presumed separation of
church and state in the United States.