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Newcomb: Spirit-breaking: Mission horrors

In 1769, Catholic priest Junipero Serra founded the Catholic mission system in California. In 1775, the Franciscan and Dominican orders in California made a joint statement characterizing their mission. The language they used provides insight into their way of thinking and their behavior in the missions.

In the joint statement, the two orders said that their task was the ''spiritual and temporal conquest'' of the ''vast territory'' called California. They also referred to themselves as being ''in this corner of the world of Old and New California, occupied with the spiritual conquest and conversion of the infidels.'' Infidels translates to ''not of the faith,'' or, in other words, non-Catholic.

Conquest is one aspect of the paradigm of domination that underlies the colonizing mission of the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the Americas, in keeping with papal decrees that called for the ''subjugation'' of ''barbarous nations.'' As part of this charge, one task of the church was to break the free spirit of and ''reduce'' those who were ''not of the faith.'' Spiritual conquest involved the use of spirit-breaking techniques that served as part of the arsenal that was employed against the originally free and independent Indian nations and peoples of California.

After being accused of tyranny by another priest, ''Father'' Lasuen, of Mission San Miguel, stated: ''The Indians are flogged, and wherefore not ... It is evident that a nation which is barbarous, ferocious and ignorant requires more frequent punishments than a nation which is cultured, educated and of gentle and moderate customs.'' Abuse of the Indians kept at the missions was legion, and they were kept more as prisoners than parishioners. ''The children and adults of both sexes are carefully locked up every night and the keys are delivered into the possession of the padres,'' stated one commentator.

As many Indians as possible were locked in a room with tiny windows and little circulation. The room had an open-pit latrine in the middle of the floor. Governor Borica, who inspected some empty living quarters, declared, ''So pestiferous were they that I could not endure them for even a minute.''

Such filthy conditions resulted in an extremely high death rate among the Indian people; and in some cases, the water supply came from the same place that the sewage was dumped. ''A more perfect arrangement for the spread of gastrointestinal disorders could scarcely be devised,'' said one doctor in the 1940s. By one estimate, the average life span in the missions was a mere six years. Being consigned to a Catholic mission, in other words, was likely to be a death sentence for any Indian.

One priest wrote: ''We succeeded in sending a great number of children to heaven, who died almost as soon as they were baptized.'' And after visiting a number of missions, Lt. George Peard said: ''A great mortality to which the children are particularly subject takes place amongst the Indians in the missions.'' From 1769 to 1834, when the missions closed, a mere estimated 29,100 Indians had been born and some 62,600 had died in the missions. Of course, this result was simply part of the process of ''the temporal and spiritual conquest'' of the indigenous nations of California.

''Father'' Palou, of Santa Barbara Mission, wrote: ''The missionary fathers are the foreman and the neophytes [Indians] are the workmen.'' The missions had a six-day work week, and one report from San Diego said of the Indians: ''They begin their labors at six in the morning and work almost until sunset.''

The Indians at the missions were fed very few calories in comparison with the number of calories expended during their laborious day. Malnourishment weakened their immune systems and made them much more susceptible to diseases. A report issued in 1798 at Santa Barbara stated: ''Although sufficient to sustain life, the ration cannot suffice for he who works from morning till night.''

The Catholic mission system had a devastating effect on Indian women. At Mission La Purisima, for example, an estimated nine out of 10 infants were stillborn, a rate of genocidal proportions. Father Payeras wrote: ''The majority of the pregnant women have produced stillborn babies.'' At Mission San Francisco, Father Senan stated that in 1806, more than 300 Indians had died, ''and only 23 have been born.''

Hugo Reid told of what happened to an Indian woman who had a stillborn child: ''When a woman had the misfortune to bring forth a stillborn child, she was punished. The penalty was shaving the head, flogging for 15 subsequent days, iron on the feet for three months, and having to appear every Sunday in church, on the steps of the alter, with a hideous painted [effigy] child in her arms.''

As for the beatings, Reid wrote of Mission San Gabriel: ''So as not to make a revolting picture, I will bury acts of barbarity known to me through good authority, by merely saying that Father Zalvidea must have considered whipping [to be] meat and drink to them, for they [the Indians] had it morning, noon, and night.''

To this day, the Holy See of St. Peter (the Vatican) has never publicly acknowledged the sadistic and inhumane system that the Catholic Church instituted for the temporal and spiritual conquest of Old and New California. It is long past time for it to do so under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of ''Pagans in the Promise Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery'' (Fulcrum Publishing, 2008).