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Costanoans want recognition from Catholic mission


CARMEL, Calif. - The Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe is seeking official recognition of their culture at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in this popular seaside hamlet. The controversy has implications that dig deep into the history of the Golden State.

The tribe says they want proper recognition for the role their ancestors played in building and maintaining the mission. They say the Catholic Church, which owns the facility, has refused.

"We're not asking for much, only that our people are properly represented, that's all," says Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Chief Tony Cerda.

Cerda acknowledges the mission does make mention of the Indians of the area but says the representations are grossly misleading. Among the causes of concern are the use of tipis, which were never used by the Costanoans, generic representation in mission literature that only refers to the "Indians of the area," and not the Costanoan tribe.

Additionally there is the issue of the Indian graveyard, separate from the Spanish and marked only by the word "Indian," while Spanish grave sites contain names and dates of individuals interred.

Calls to both the church and its attorney, Albert Ham of Monterey were not returned. However, in previous press reports, the church said it could not give into demands to let the tribe have a say in running the mission which contains an active Catholic parish.

The Costanoans claim they never asked the church to let them participate in administration of the mission. Cerda says the tribe only asked for a more accurate historic and cultural representation as well as placing a bronze plaque honoring the Costanoans who forcibly participated in mission life.

Additionally the tribe says it would like to participate in mission festivals by bringing aspects of the culture, such as traditional dancing.

Last year the tribe approached the administration at the mission with a proposal. Tribal leaders say the mission administrators told them at the time they had no problem with their demands, provided they could produce adequate documentation. The Costanoans received a $60,000 federal grant to gather what they thought was adequate information. When the information was produced, the problems began.

"They (the church) didn't think we could do it, but we did and that's when they started to back off," says Cerda.

When the church backed off, the tribe hired a public relations firm, Harris-DeLorean of Beverly Hills. The firm took matters into its own hands and, with the press in tow, descended on the small mission, catching the mission administration by surprise.

"They were just shocked to see this group of white people advocating for the Indians," says Chris Harris a managing partner in the firm.

Harris says he tried to explain things to the monsignor on duty but was not able to reach an agreement. He plans to take his case to a higher authority, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo in Washington D.C. Montalvo is the highest-ranking Catholic authority in the United States and communicates directly with Pope John Paul II.

If their appeal to Archbishop Montalvo is fruitless, Harris says the tribe will file a lawsuit.

Questioned about the basis of the lawsuit, Harris and Cerda give a history lesson that spans Indian policy under three flags. The original goal of the missions was to make Spanish citizens of the Indians and, when that task was done, to return control of the missions to the Indians.

Later, when Mexico seceded from Spain in the early 1820s, the Mexican government secularized the missions. They made the Indians Mexican citizens and held all Spanish legal actions to be valid.

Still later, when the United States took possession of California after the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo affirmed that all Mexican land claims at that time were valid.

The tribe says that while it may have the legal right to take control of the mission, it recognizes this is not feasible and only wants recognition.

Earlier press reports stated the church believes the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe was involved in the early life of the mission but says several other tribes were as well. The church says its is currently conducting its own research into the matter.

The mission is a further source of controversy as it is the final resting-place of Father Junipero Serra, who many believe exploited California Indians. Recent attempts by the Catholic Church to grant sainthood to Father Serra have sparked loud protests from California tribes.

The Costanoans feel that because of this, it is especially important that they are properly represented at the mission.

The Mission San Carlos Borromeo has the added importance of being appointed a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII in 1960 which means the Vatican considers it historically important. Pope John Paul II visited and prayed at the Mission in 1987.

As all California school children learn, in 1771 Father Serra landed in nearby Monterey Harbor and celebrated mass under a giant coast live oak. A year later he established the mission at its present site. With looming threats from the English and Russians along the California coast, the mission became a military outpost and enslaved several local Indian tribes, including the Costanoans, to help build and maintain the facility.