SAN FRANCISCO - Sound familiar? A group of American Indians and religious whites gather together for a peaceful autumn festival of celebration followed by a large feast. It could be Plymouth Colony in 1620, but the event actually just took place late November in San Francisco.
Though not overtly stated, the Nov. 23 ceremony at the historic Mission Delores in San Francisco was held at least partly as a healing ceremony between the Catholic Church and the California Indian community, many of whose ancestors performed what amounted to slave labor for Spanish church officials during the years of the California Missions.
The event was hosted by the Coastanoan/Ohlone Rumsen Carmel tribe. Although it is as yet unrecognized by the federal government, its members are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the City by the Bay.
Church officials honored Tony Cerda, Sr., chairman of the tribe, by reviving the old Spanish title of Alcalde de la Communidad. The title of Alcalde, which means "mayor" in Spanish, was commonly used in Spanish and Mexican days and even in the early days of American rule for the earliest San Francisco mayors.
The largely ceremonial title will allow Cerda to have a voice on Mission Delores affairs involving California Indians.
In the old record vaults of Mission Delores are documents containing baptismal certificates of Cerda's ancestors at the Mission, including a document from 1811. The records were on display the night of the event. Cerda's family is one of only two present-day Ohlone families that can trace their lineage to Indians baptized at Mission Delores.
"I feel so good about this because the Mission (Delores) invited us right in," said a happy yet slightly fatigued Cerda, whose family restaurant in Southern California had burned down the previous morning. There were no injuries or deaths in the fire. Cerda said he decided to attend the ceremony afterwards, "because that is how important it is for me to honor my ancestors."
The tribe has staged several years of protests trying to hold a similar ceremony closer to its current home base at Mission San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel in the Monterey area, about 100 miles to the south. Church leaders in San Francisco finally granted the tribe access to perform the ceremony at Mission Delores.
"We were just shut out at (the Mission in) Carmel, by Church officials time and time again," said Chris Harris, the tribal public relations person and a partner in Delorean and Harris, a Beverly Hills public relations firm. Harris said it was just a simple matter of asking at Mission Delores. The church leaders in San Francisco, "simply said yes."
Dancers from Northern California tribes dressed in the garb of their ancestors performed several dances in the chapel while several Catholic Church officials looked on, including Mission Delores pastor Monsignor Maurice M. McCormick.
The church officials also took part in a smudging ceremony, where Indian religious leaders burned sage and blessed the church.
Many in attendance expressed pleasant surprise at seeing an American Indian ceremony held at the altar of a functioning Catholic Church.
Monsignor McCormick told Indian Country Today that making the decision to host the ceremony was easy. He pointed to the Mission graveyard and recounted the number of Indians buried there, and the memorial evidence at historical displays at various points on the Mission grounds. He said that the Coastanoan/Ohlone people had helped construct the Mission and helped it during its functioning years as a "collaborative effort."
He said the church leaders at Mission Delores "have a great affection for the heritage of this place, and by having this ceremony, we want to show how delighted we are to keep it up." Monsignor McCormick has been the chief pastor at the Mission since 1997.
Though not a member of the Catholic Church the Mission historian is an Episcopalian friar named Guire Cleary, who with his Irish name, close-cropped red hair and brown robe was often mistaken for a Catholic monk during the event. Cleary said that it was just an accident that he was chosen to be Mission Delores historian, a position that usually goes to a lay person.
Cleary said he saw no contradiction in having a Christian church hosting an American Indian ceremony. He said that since the earliest days of the spread of Christianity, its ceremonies often co-opted traditions of native peoples around the world. "It is important that people understand that having events and ceremonies of this kind follows the Christian tradition of inclusiveness," he said.
Cleary tried to walk a delicate line on the touchier subject of Indian enslavement at the California Missions. He acknowledged that there had been past abuses, but at the same time emphasized the importance of the Indian presence in early Mission life.
One prominent California Indian in attendance was Mary Ann Andreas, the former chairwoman of the Morongo tribe whose long list of accomplishments included meeting with former President Clinton on behalf of Leonard Peltier and addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
Andreas said that she had been sent to a Catholic Indian school in the 1950s and the first thing the school had done to her was to shave her head and forbid her to speak her tribe's language. She said that because of her experiences the ceremony was particularly valuable to her.
"It's nothing short of a privilege to attend this ceremony and see that things are changing for the better," said Andreas.
The event also featured several luminaries of the both the California Indian and political communities. Among the invited guests were California state Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario, former Viejas chairman Anthony Pico and Co-Director of the California Department of Justice Office of Native American Affairs Marcia Hoaglen, who is a member of the nearby Round Valley Pomo tribe.
The Ohlone/Coastanoan tribes are divided into several smaller groups, formerly spread out between the northern Los Angeles suburbs in the south and the Golden Gate in the north. Their numbers were severely reduced after centuries of Spanish, Mexican and American rule. Several smaller surviving bands have tried in recent years to gain federal recognition.
Mission Delores de San Francisco Assisi was founded in 1776, a year not coincidentally listed as San Francisco's founding. The Mission is considered a California state historical landmark. It was featured in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock classic movie "Vertigo."