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‘By Their Fruit They Will Be Known’: Junipero Serra as Indian Killer

Junipero Serra made Russell Means's list of the 'Dirty Dozen' Indian killers; his co-author and writing partner explains why.

In 1992, Russell Means came to Hollywood with his first movie role in Last of the Mohicans. Russell was looking for a writing partner, someone who could help communicate his people’s culture and experiences and stories across the vast gulf that seems to separate American Indians and nearly everybody else. Russell got me to look at many things I hadn’t looked at closely before. We began working together, and for the next 20 years we collaborated on books, movies, theater, a rock ‘n’ roll album.

Courtesy Charles Lopez Sr.

Original Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee members, from left, are: Lee Sprague Potowatomi), Millie Ketcheshawno Muscogee Creek), Mark Gorrell, and John Curl.

In one of our final collaborations Russell and I co-authored the book If You’ve Forgotten the Names of the Clouds, You’ve Lost Your Way: An Introduction to American Indian Thought & Philosophy. Russell was concerned that if we didn’t write this knowledge down in book form, it would be lost forever.

As a follow-up to the Clouds book, Russell invited me to co-author a second book together—Indian Killers. This would be based on an art series Russell created, by the same name, which illuminates how 12 iconic heroes of Western civilization created their famous reputations by murdering Indians. Columbus, Cortes, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and so on. Russell walked on before we had a chance to write Indian Killers. I did, however get a chance to do a little fact-checking on number 3 of Russell’s “dirty dozen”—Junipero Serra, recently canonized by Pope Francis I during his visit to the United States, despite vociferous and steady outcry from Natives from many nations.

By Their Fruit They Will Be Known

It makes sense, in a way, to evaluate both Serra and Francis on their own terms—Biblically. Many are familiar with the passage in the Book of Matthew about identifying what type of plant you’re dealing with by its fruit. As the Bible says, “By their fruit they will be known.” You’re not going to get fruit from a thorn bush, or thorns from a fruit tree. It is by the fruit that you know what kind of plant it truly is.

The idea is that this standard holds true for people as well. It doesn’t matter what Francis says, or how many photo ops he gets with orphans, or sit-down meals with homeless crews—the only real important question is: “What did he do?” How did Church policy change? If at all?

“By their fruit they will be known.” According to this idea, no good man is going to commit evil deeds, and evil men are not going to do good. So in looking at Serra’s history, it’s vital to determine whether his actions were good or evil, and, by extension, whether elevating him to sainthood was an evil act, or a good deed. We can draw our conclusions about Francis and the true intentions of the Catholic Church from there.

Father Junipero Serra was canonized—that is, elevated to sainthood—in September with little or no opportunity for public discussion. Some might argue that there was plenty of time for public discussion after 1988, when Serra was “beatified” by Pope John Paul II. Beatification is the third of four steps in the Catholic Church’s elaborate and arcane process of declaring somebody a saint. The 1988 ceremony sparked a storm of protest from Indians, Chicanos and many others from across the spectrum of humanity. There was an expectation among nearly all those who opposed sainthood for Serra that there would be a chance to expose this question to much more public debate before any final decision would be made by the Catholics. This expectation was certainly naïve. The Catholic Church is not a public organization or governmental body. Why would they welcome any public debate at all? The Church is going to go ahead and do what it perceives to be in its best interest. It’s our challenge to try to figure out what that is, and why.

What is a saint exactly? The concept of saintliness is common to societies around the world, and refers to a person who deserves to be honored and venerated due to their extreme holiness, that is, their association with some divine power. A saint tends to be an exemplary model of how to live your life, a great teacher, a miracle worker or healer, a source of benevolence—someone who can intercede with God in order to obtain cures or other special favors (always for others, of course). Typically, a saint leans toward asceticism and the rejection of materialism, and possesses a special relationship with the divine that allows him or her to see things that, ordinarily, only a homeless person would see.

The Catholic Church is careful to explain that they don’t create saints, they merely recognize them through the canonization process. Technically, every Catholic who has died and is currently in Heaven is a saint. The Church utilizes the practice of canonization in order to publicly recognize and honor certain individuals who were exceptionally holy. So, it’s fair to ask, was Serra exceptionally holy?

A Man of His Times?

Serra’s biographical facts are well documented. Born poor in Mallorca, the largest of Spain’s Balaeric islands in the Mediterranean, in 1713, Serra joined the Franciscan Order at 17. He was ordained as a priest and assigned to the university in Mallorca, where he was a respected professor until 1749, when at age 35 he signed up to become a missionary to the New World. He was accompanied by one of his students, Francisco Palóu, also a priest.

Serra and Palóu were close friends and lifetime companions, first in Mexico and then in California, where they are recognized as founders of the California mission system. Palóu became Serra’s biographer, author of the only contemporary account of Serra’s life.

Serra was passionate about his beliefs. On the trans-Atlantic crossing, the English ship captain was an Episcopal “heretic” (in Serra’s words). Serra argued so vehemently with the Englishman, condemning his heresies, that the captain threatened to throw the priest overboard and allegedly held a knife to Serra’s throat, threatening to cut him from ear to ear if the priest wouldn’t stop arguing.

Serra’s sermonizing style was extremely theatrical. He beat himself with a chain while in the pulpit with such violence that he sometimes collapsed, and churchgoers were worried he might kill himself. He held a torch to his bare chest until the stench of burned flesh wafted across the congregation.

While in Mexico, Serra worked part time as an agent of the Spanish Inquisition. As such, his duties included ferreting out witches, heretics and crypto-Jews (those secretly practicing Judaism—a crime punishable by death throughout Mexico and all other Spanish “possessions”).

Most people think the Inquisition ended with the Dark Ages, but in fact it wasn’t until 1834 that the Inquisition was finally abolished, by royal decree. In Serra’s homeland of Majorca the Inquisition was alive and well, extremely active, and viciously cruel—in 1691, just 22 years before Serra’s birth, the Inquisition tortured and publicly burned 40 men and women accused of practicing Judaism in secret.

In Mexico, one of Serra’s cases involved an Indian woman accused of witchcraft and sorcery. After interrogating her twice, Serra concluded that further investigation was needed. He handed her over to authorities of the Inquisition in Mexico City, where the woman was beaten to death in prison.

Serra was a very determined man, who walked thousands of miles on a chronically injured foot in his travels in Mexico and north to California, where he was sent at age 55 to establish the mission system. There is a great deal of disagreement and controversy surrounding the true objectives of the mission system, as well as its effects.

It may be a surprise to some that the new saint’s legacy in California includes introducing the Inquisition to California, where it continued to operate long after his death. Even more unexpected is the fact that the Spanish Inquisition continued its brutal operations in California at least as late as 1815, when Franciscan friars in San Francisco tortured and killed (by disembowelment) a 15 year-old Aleut seal hunter who refused to convert from the Russian Orthodox faith to Roman Catholicism. This murdered boy, Peter the Aleut, a Christian, was later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, and became known as the Saint of San Francisco. In other words, a Russian Orthodox Saint—a Christian—was brutally murdered by other Christians, namely, the followers of the freshly anointed “Saint Serra.”

So who’s the real saint here? The Russian Orthodox Aleut, or the Franciscan whose followers murdered him? Both? Neither? It depends on the tradition you’re trying to honor when you exalt someone in this way. If what you’re really celebrating is the Spanish theft of vast tracts of someone else’s country, and the determination to hold it against other European (in this case, Russian) claimants by whatever means necessary, then maybe Serra really should be a saint.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to blame Serra for a murder that happened 31 years after his death. To condemn Serra for the crimes of his followers would be like blaming Jesus for all the atrocities committed against humankind, Grandmother Earth, and even other Christians by the multitude of warring sects among the “followers” of Christ.

But the torture and evisceration of Peter the Aleut, Saint of San Francisco, does give us a reality check on what conditions were really like in the mission system Serra founded and designed. Was this a benevolent, loving, Christ-like atmosphere of generosity and education and sharing? Not, apparently, if you didn’t worship in the manner dictated by Serra’s Franciscan brothers. If an Aleut who refused to convert was tortured by having all his fingers cut off one joint at a time, and then his hands, and then had his intestines cut out while still alive, how would one presume Serra’s Franciscan brothers treated local Indians who refused to convert? Fortunately there’s no need to presume, because Serra himself left a written account of how he believed Indians should be treated.

From a letter Serra wrote to the governor of California, defending himself against accusations of cruelty to Indians: “That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of these kingdoms [the Americas]: so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule...In the life of Saint Francis Solano...we read that, while he had a special gift from God to soften the ferocity of the most barbarous by the sweetness of his presence and his words, nevertheless, in the running of his mission in the Province of Tucuman in Peru...when they failed to carry out his orders, he gave directions for his Indians to be whipped.” To resolve this conflict with the governor over treatment of Indians, Serra traveled to Mexico City, where he used his powerful connections to have the governor replaced.

Mission of No Mercy

Other historical records give additional clues. Were the missionaries welcomed by the Indians with open arms? No. Within a few days of Serra’s arrival at Mission San Diego, the Indians attacked in a determined attempt to drive the aliens from their country. Several Spaniards were wounded, and one was killed. But the Spanish wouldn’t leave. They didn’t care if California was filled with people who didn’t want them there. The Spanish were here for good. It took Serra two years to find an Indian in California who was willing to be baptized.

Before long, California wasn’t as populated as when the missionaries arrived. As elsewhere, the filthy, unwashed Europeans brought diseases that wiped out whole populations. Survival rates at the missions, where Indians slept in close quarters and were subjected to hard labor on an unhealthy diet, were much worse than Indian survival rates outside the missions. During one period, the Franciscans recorded 60,000 Indian deaths and 30,000 births within their draconian forced-labor system.

Much of the land in California was carefully managed by Indian nations to produce year-round food supplies without any sector of society having to live a life of grueling manual labor. The Spaniards had no understanding of the Indian system of managing the ecosystem, and they disrupted it with their every ignorant move. Introduction of foreign crops and European farming techniques decimated the food supply. Alien weeds overwhelmed native species, creating ecological disaster and starvation for the dwindling Indian nations that managed to hold on to some vestige of freedom.

Indians who didn’t like mission life were not allowed to leave. Deserters were run down, lassoed, dragged back to the mission and flogged. Some were confined in stocks, others locked in irons. Of all the missions in California, the desertion rate was highest at Carmel Mission, near Monterey—which Serra ran personally.

Defenders of Serra point out that there’s no evidence he ever personally struck an Indian. This may be true. Hitler never operated a gas chamber, and Bush never visited Guantanamo—but does this mean they’re not responsible for crimes they instigated or, at the very least, which occurred during their watch, with their knowledge and approval?

When Indians attacked San Diego on Serra’s first arrival in their country, Serra hid inside a shed, praying, while other men fought and died outside. Serra’s supporters cite this as proof of his holiness, claiming Serra wouldn’t fight because he was unwilling to send an unbaptized Indian to eternal damnation.

Papal Bull Crap

Upon reviewing the qualities that saints are supposed to embody, the question of Serra’s canonization becomes almost an absurd joke. While his defenders invoke the tired “standards of his day” argument to explain away beatings, whippings, torture, imprisonment, forced labor and Serra’s work for the Spanish Inquisition, they seem to forget that Jesus was considered notable because he refused to go along with the standards of his day—in fact, he was killed for not agreeing with the “standards of his day.” So this defense can easily be thrown out.

What exactly is it that Serra did that the Church finds so honorable, so worthy of veneration? For this we must go back hundreds of years—50 years before Columbus collided with America—and examine the underlying principles that were used to justify the European policy of invading someone else’s country and taking over. Land, people, treasure—the Europeans took it all.

RELATED: Pope Francis’s Careful Side-Step

[Editor's Note: ICTMN columnist and scholar Steven Newcomb has written extensively on the Doctrine of Discovery. Newcomb's columns can be read at length on ICTMN. The new documentary based on his work, "The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code," directed by Sheldon Wolfchild, is available at 38 Plus 2 Productions.]

The common explanation for why the Europeans committed these atrocities is, “Because they could.” This explanation fails to tell the entire story. Throughout history, many civilizations have used ships for trade, raiding and/or war. But in 1452, a document issued by the Vatican radically shifted the focus of seagoing operations for European fleets.

Dum Diversas is a “Papal Bull,” a statement of policy issued by the Pope that has great authority. The English translation of Dum Diversas is “Until Different”—that is, carry on until told to do otherwise. Here’s what the Pope had to say in 1452: “We grant you [Catholic Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property ... and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.”

What this means is that all non-Christians throughout the world were legal prey. Spain and Portugal had the “right” to enslave non-Christians wherever they could find them. The Christians had a right to steal all their property. They had a right to move in, take over, and kill everyone. Genocide endorsed by God, according to the Catholic Church.

When the English saw how well this was working for the Catholics, they made proclamations of their own in the same vein. The Dutch and French got in on the business of looting foreign lands as well. These proclamations, which in aggregate became known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” were put into practice around the world. The United States Supreme Court incorporated the Doctrine of Discovery into American Indian law in 1823, ignoring the supposed separation of church and state, and essentially justifying U.S. policy on the basis of a Papal Bull. Tellingly, the original document that started it all—the Dum Diversas—has never been revoked or repudiated by the Catholic Church. “Until Different” … in other words, it’s still in effect.

So this is Serra’s great virtue—as a champion and propagator of 1452’s Dum Diversas, the chilling statement of policy that has been the how-to guide to genocide for Christian nations around the world for over 500 years.

Other factors come into play as well. The unpopularity of Pope Benedict, especially in the United States, has cost the Catholic Church a fortune in donations from American Catholics. Will giving them their own “home-grown” North American saint pry open their pocketbooks? Pope Francis, photo-opping with orphans and dining with the homeless, is certainly putting a kinder and gentler public face on the Catholic religion. But have any policies actually changed? If the canonization of Serra is any indication, the Church’s actual movement is in the wrong direction.

Also telling is the way the developing story is “covered” in the so-called news—less than one week after Serra’s canonization, the Los Angeles Times ran the headline, “Shock After Junipero Serra Statue Vandalized Days After Sainthood Declared.” Shock? I don’t know anybody who is shocked that the California Indians and their allies have attacked the Carmel Mission in the wake of this insulting and imperious decision. I’m surprised they didn’t burn it to the ground. I grew up around mostly white people, in Seattle and Alaska—they’re way more violent than any Indians I know, and probably would’ve burned down the Carmel Mission long ago, if Serra were a personal insult to them.

And who chose the word “vandalized” for the headline? Somebody’s pretending that Serra and his sainthood have nothing to do with the genocide of Indian people. This is a lie. The Los Angeles Times needs to print an apology to the California Indians, and should also condemn the shady sainthood of Serra in print. American Catholics should do the same.