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Blasphemy: Turning a Killer Into a Saint

Father Junipero Serra was the founder of the mission system in California, which enslaved and abused Indians of California, 75 percent died.

Pope Francis has decided to do something very controversial in the Catholic Church. He has declared that an alleged murderer should be a saint.

In the state of California, the Spanish missions, during the first part of the encomienda system, reached from south of San Diego to as far north as present Sonoma County, where the most northern Spanish mission was located. Each mission was designed to be 30 miles, or one day’s ride by horseback, from the next one. There were a total of 21 Spanish missions in California. The Spanish never settled the rich valley of California and the mountainous eastern side.

Father Junipero Serra was the founder of the mission system in California. A native of the island of Majorca off of Spain, he was born in 1713. Serra had earned a doctorate and became a university lecturer in Spain before he decided to Christianize the Indians of the New World. After spending 18 years in Mexico, in 1769, seven years before the start of the Revolutionary War in the U.S., he founded the first of the Spanish missions for the California Indians. It was the Mission San Diego de Alcala.

RELATED: Father Serra’s Sainthood: Sanctifying a Legacy of Domination

He personally founded a total of nine missions. Later, other Jesuits would found another 12. The missions used the Indians as forced laborers. While the missions were ostensibly there to help the Indians by making them Christians, their language expressed their vile views of the Natives.

The Spanish regarded the Indians as depraved, degraded, savage, superstitious, wild, devil worshipers, and pagans. Indians could no longer pick their spouses; the Spanish overlords decided this. Choice was taken away; attendance at church was mandatory. Also mandatory was the cruel labor and punishment the Spanish meted out.

The Spanish kidnapped Indians by the thousands. They had a paternalistic attitude toward the Indians, making the men work at hard labor to build the missions, grow the crops, make articles for sale, and herd the mission cattle. They made bricks, candles, tiles, saddles, shoes, soap, and other things.

San Juan Capistrano Historical Society

The Indian women were required to do all the housework and cooking. The Spanish did not call the Indians slaves, but the Indians were no longer free. Every mission had a military garrison. If Indians fled the missions, the soldiers from the garrison would hunt them down and kill them or bring them back.

The Spanish have been treated by history as being more enlightened than the later Americans in their treatment of Indians. And there is much to be said in support of this argument. But both systems, Spanish and Anglo, were cruel and deadly. During the three-quarters of a century the Spanish ran the state of California, a third of the California Indians were killed or died. The Indian population went from around 310,000 in 1769 to only 100,000 in 1848. This was a death rate of over 75 percent.

RELATED: Serra the Saint: Why Not?

At Mission San Juan, for instance, in 1812 there was a population of 1,981 Indians. But that same year a total of 1,159 Indians died—that’s 59 percent. The Indians died from diseases to which they had no immunity, from brutality, from murder, and from suicide. By 1834 there had been 4,073 baptisms at the mission and 3,125 deaths, a death rate of 77 percent. Life for Indians in the missions was brutal and deadly.

The gold rush happened in California and Oregon in 1848. The emigrants from the eastern part of the U.S. totaled over 100,000 within five years. All the early American governors—Peter Burnett, John McDougall, John Bigler, Neely Johnson, Milton Latham, John Downey, Leland Stanford—were in favor of killing all the Indians in the state. Burnett said, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.”

Within a few years of the discovery of gold in 1848, the Indian population had dropped from 100,000 to only 50,000. By 1900, under the Anglo settlers from the east, the population declined even further to only 15,000—a death rate of more than 95 percent in a century and a half.

More than 5,700 Indians are buried at the Mission San Francisco de Assis, the most northern of the nine missions that Serra founded. Many of the California tribes were killed off or devastated by the actions of the missions. Included in this destruction were Gabrieleno, Ohlone, Kumeyaay, Juaneno, Chumash, Chimariko (completely killed off), Lassik (completely gone), Nongatl, Tubatulabl, Yokuts, and many other California tribes.

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Indians who escaped the Spanish missions could be legally hunted down and imprisoned or killed. They were literally prisoners of the missions, which were there to save their souls. Once they were captured by the mission troops and brought under force to live at the mission, their life expectancy was less than 10 years.

The missions justified their existence by saying they taught the Indian men how to be farmers and ranchers, and the Indian women how to be cooks and housekeepers. But since both men and women were kept as prisoners in the missions, later history has looked at them as more like slaves than students. In fact, anyone who would today refer to them as students would be laughed down as a fool. They were slaves in everything but name.

San Juan Capistrano Historical Society

Native Americans do not think Junipero Serra should be canonized because of his treatment of their ancestors.

Only God knows how many Indians Serra personally killed, but it was in the hundreds, if not the thousands. He had men garroted, hanged, shot, jailed, and whipped. The Indian women were treated almost as cruelly—they were raped, enslaved and abused. The women were restricted to the houses of the ranchos, and slept in prisons at night.

The first person to expose Serra was the late, great Rupert Costo. A full-blooded Cahuilla Indian, Rupert and his wife Jeanette Henry founded the American Indian Historical Society in 1950. They also wrote numerous books on Indians, founded the first national Indian newspaper (“Wassaja”), and published dozens of books on Indians.

For years he was the leader of the Cahuilla Tribe of Palm Springs. Jeanette and Rupert’s book,Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, was the first to expose the inhumane treatment of the Indians by the Spanish missions. It was published in 1987, but did not receive kind reviews in the mainstream press like it did in the Indian press.

Recently an unidentified man vandalized two of the statues in the San Gabriel Mission in California. Both of them depicted Jesus. Monica Rocha wrote an article about it for the Los Angeles Times. He broke the arms and head off one of the statues using a huge rock.

The police officer who took the report, J. A. Leach, said it was disgusting. The San Gabriel police chief, David A. Lawton, said it was tragic and despicable. They obviously have no clue what the missions did to Indians or care about it. San Gabriel was the second mission that Serra called home.

The attack during the third week of January 2015 is similar to the attack on the murderer and first Spanish governor of New Mexico, Juan de Onate. In a massacre at the Pueblo of Acoma in 1598, he massacred 800 people. Then he cut the left foot off all the males over the age of 25. For this the king of Spain had him recalled to Spain and punished him.

RELATED: 5 More Monuments Guaranteed to Drive Natives Nuts

After a statue was erected of Onate in El Paso in 2007, Indians cut off the left foot of the statue in protest. When one of the Hispanic leaders in Albuquerque was pushing for a similar statue at the same time, I went to my friend the mayor, Martin Chavez, and told him we would not like such a statue. He went along with it, and shut up the person pushing it.

The person who desecrated the San Gabriel Mission may have been motivated in a similar fashion. Fr. Tony Diaz, the San Gabriel priest, is not sure if the person was Indian or not. It happened about the same time that the Pope visited the U.S. had raised Serra to sainthood.

One of my non-Indian friends said to me recently, “I don’t know how any Indians could become Christians, after the way the Christians treated them.” It tore at my heart.

The genocide of Indians in California and other states is history. But it is a sad and mournful history. The massacre of Indians in California, starting while the Spanish still ruled it, was massive and brutal. California was the leading state for Indian massacres. No one who participated should be worshipped, canonized, raised to sainthood, or praised. This is just blasphemy.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. His next book is “The American Indian Dropout.” Contact him at to inquire about scholarships.