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Newcomb: Justifying a legacy of dehumanization

In 1912, when my Delaware grandfather, Bushyhead Spybuck Newcomb, was a teenager, Franciscan priest Zephyrin Engelhardt published a multi-volume set of books entitled, “The Missions and Missionaries of California.” Now 90 years old, the work vividly illustrates the way that a Catholic scholar tried to justify the history of the church’s oppressive mission system by misrepresenting Indian peoples and their cultures.

Wikipedia says that Engelhardt’s work is “considered the standard authority regarding California mission history.” This is unfortunate because of the shocking degree of ignorance and racism that is reflected in Engelhardt’s writings.

Regarding Native spirituality, Father Engelhardt wrote: “It may be said that, before the advent of the missionaries, the California savages had no Religion whatever. … As he [the Indian], brutelike, only aimed at fulfilling himself and gratifying his animal instincts, the subject of Religion did not interest him until the missionaries raised him up and made him realize that he was something more than an animal and that he existed for something higher than eating, drinking, sleeping and amusing himself.”

Part of Engelhardt’s work was written in response to open criticism of the legacy of the Catholic mission system. For example, he said that “if historians and other authors would judge the early California missionaries and their efforts fairly they must divest themselves of the foolish notion that the first duty of the missionary is to impress [on the Indians] the necessity of reading and writing.”


 A Catholic scholar tried to justify the history of the church’s oppressive mission system by misrepresenting

Indian peoples.


After all, said Engelhardt, “the friars” had to work “among an entirely naked, brutish people who had no conception of human dignity. … the habits of the [Native] Californians was scarcely above those of the lowest wild beasts.” He further said: “The savages had first of all to be taught that they were incomparably superior to brutes; they had to be shown how to live worthy of human beings; and they had to be led to see that they were amenable to both divine and human laws.” Engelhardt summed up by saying that “the missionaries had not only to make [the Indians into] good Christians,” but they also had to turn into “law-abiding subjects” “a people who till then had neither recognized nor practiced any restraint whatsoever.”

Engelhardt traced the mission system back to a memorial written by the Franciscan Right Reverend Juan de Quevedo to King Ferdinand. Quevedo, who was the first Catholic bishop on the North American continent, said the Indians were “a race of men whom it would be impossible to instruct or improve, unless they were collected in villages and kept under continual supervision.” He should have said “continual, colonial supervision.”

From this information, Engelhardt concluded: “Thus, as early as twenty-seven years after the Discovery of America, a Franciscan proposed the essential features of the system employed to Christianize and civilize the natives on the western coast. The experience of all missionaries from Canada to Patagonia, and from Florida to the Pacific Coast, has demonstrated the truth of Bishop Quevedo’s statement; for scarcely any lasting impression could ever be made on the Indians as long as they roamed about at will [free].”

Father Engelhardt was concise in his view of the overall goal of the Catholic system: “The missionaries established the missions in order to transform savages into Christians and [into] law-abiding subjects of the State.” An example of this paradigm is found in a letter written by Viceroy Bucareli on May 25, 1774. The letter, says Engelhardt, “is evidence of the harmony of interests that existed between him [the Viceroy who represented the Spanish king] and the missionaries. …”

Intermixed with pious priestly language of religion and faith were grand visions of territorial expansion and conquest. Father Serra, in a letter to Viceroy Francisco Carlos de Croix, made explicit the more sweeping territorial aim of the Spanish Catholic missions. “I hope,” wrote Serra, “that. … by way of these said new missions. … we will see, before long, new and immense territories gathered into the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church, and subjected to the Crown of Spain.”

In a letter to Father Palou, another Spanish Viceroy, Antonio Bucarelli said that information contained in a report written by Palou “gratifies me exceedingly by reason of the thorough knowledge which it affords of the fertility and suitability of the land for erecting other missions, by reason of the well-founded hopes which we may foster of the spiritual and temporal progress of the conquest. …” (emphasis added).

In 2009, it seems strange indeed that fourth grade school children throughout California are still required to make replica missions in a celebration of an invading and colonizing Catholic mission heritage that was dehumanizing, brutal, and resulted in the deaths of some 60,000 Indians from 1769 – 1834. With a total of 21 missions, that’s more than 2,500 deaths per mission.

Historical truth ought to be taught at the Catholic missions and in the public schools in California. Futhermore, the State of California ought to change its curriculum so Indian and non-Indian children alike will have the option of making a replica Indian village in celebration of the indigenous peoples that have been existing in California for thousands of years, and who have survived what esteemed Cahuilla scholar Rupert Costo termed, “a legacy of genocide.”

Steven Newcomb is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (2008, Fulcrum).