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Local Indian Tribes Reflect on Mission Life, Serra Canonization

July 3, 2015

By Mark R. Day

Carrie Lopez of the San Luis Rey band of Luiseno Indians opposes the Serra canonization. Photo by Mark R. Day

Carrie Lopez of the San Luis Rey band of Luiseno Indians opposes the Serra canonization. Photo by Mark R. Day

The aroma of ceremonial sage brush and the sound of Indian drums and chants mingled with the cool ocean breeze blowing over Mission San Luis Rey recently at the 19th annual Inter-Tribal Pow Wow, described as a “celebration of history, culture and spirit.”

Scores of visitors gathered in front of the picturesque mission. The main attraction was a large ceremonial circle where Indians from throughout the U.S. chanted and danced in colorful native dress.

Around the circle tribal members from the Apaches, Kiowas, Navajos, Senecas, and other nations mingled with local Luiseno bands and Kumeyaahs, shared stories and compared experiences and family memories.

The upcoming canonization of Fray Junipero Serra was not a hot topic at the gathering, but most of the Indians La Prensa San Diego spoke with opposed it.

Carrie Lopez of the San Luis Rey Band of Luisenos sat near an information booth and explained that many tribal members had mixed feelings. “It’s very sad,” she said. “We are very sophisticated Catholics. We want to respect the Pope, but we can’t condone that shameful part of our history and the atrocities committed against our people.”

Lopez, a special consultant to her tribe, suggested that it would be healthy if the church made amends and acknowledged what happed at the missions. “There would be a great healing. Whatever they say won’t change our sense of what happened. But at least an acknowledgment would be less stinging.”

Lopez said that because of those hard feelings, it took many years to celebrate the pow wows at San Luis Rey mission.

“Neighboring tribes boycotted this event at first, but later joined us. I don’t think the anger and pain over the atrocities ever goes away. We now have a different relationship with our local missions, but we can’t hold them accountable for what happened in the past.”

The Serra canonization has given the tribes a chance to revisit their history, said Lopez. “We know a lot more now than we did 50 years ago. We have more facts and less folklore.”

Later, at a dinner for the local tribes in the mission quadrangle, Linda Foussat said that her family is strongly opposed to the canonization. “But many of us are Catholics and it divides us. It upsets me,” she said, as tears welled up in her eyes. “I think of the beatings, and later on, after the mission period, how the Anglo settlers offered five dollars for the scalp of an Indian.”

Nearby, another Luiseno tribal member asked not to be identified. She said her family had long ago abandoned Catholicism. “The church never did anything for our people,” she said. “They destroyed our culture, our religion, and our way of life. And now they want us to thank them for this and canonize Serra? What’s up with that?”

Bobi Fisher sat with her sister, Norma Bavier, eating salad and fried chicken. They consider themselves devout Catholics, but both opposed the canonization of Serra. “Put yourself in our place,” said Fisher. They took away our language and our land. They put us to work. Serra was like a slave owner in the south. It wasn’t about grace or charity. It was about the almighty dollar—how much money they could make.”

Bavier added: “When you look at the mission archives, you don’t find out about the lives of the Indians, but about how many barrels of wine were produced in a year.”

Edward Gonzalez, also a Luiseno, said the canonization was purely political. “The Catholic Church wants more members,” he said. “As for Serra, he believed everything he did was for the good of the church. Our people believed in mother earth, the sun, and the moon, yet everything was taken away from them. Who gave them the right to do this? We had our own religion.”

Rupert Costo

Testimonies of Indians who lived at the missions are barely mentioned in most scholarly works. But in 1987 Rupert Costco (1906-1989) of the Cahuila tribe included many such testimonies in his book, “The Missions of California: a Legacy of Genocide”.

The book served as a rebuttal to a report issued by Bishop Thaddeus Shubsda, of the Monterey/Fresno Diocese, promoting Serra’s beatification, the first step toward canonization.

Costo included the testimony of more than a dozen Indians, mostly from San Diego County. Oral histories handed down through generations through tribal elders told of forced labor when Indians were compelled to cut timbers from Mt. Palomar and carry them to build the Pala mission.

“What my elders passed on to me was how our people were treated a slaves and punished,” said Maurice Magante of the Pala band of Luiseno Indians. “It was a terrible part of our history.”

Tony Pinto, also a Luiseno, commented on Serra: “He probably did not beat the Indians with his own hands, but he sure ordered such things. Wasn’t he a disciple of the Spanish Inquisition? That such a man could become a saint is ridiculous.”

The Costo book, though well documented, was dismissed as poorly researched, “too emotional,” and historically unreliable by eight scholars appointed by Bishop Shubsda. Instead, these historians defended the Franciscans, claimed that the treatment of the Indians was benign, and supported Serra’s canonization.

The Shubsda report is included in the Costo book. It was submitted to the Vatican’s Congregation for Causes of Saints, and Pope John Paul II beatified Serra on Sept. 26, 1988, calling him “a shining example of Christian virtue and the missionary spirit.”

But even as plans for Pope Francis to canonize Serra this September in Washington D.C. have been confirmed, Carrie Lopez said that tribes throughout the state are taking votes against the move. “There is also an online petition against it, as well as strong editorials in Indian newspapers,” she said.

There have also been a number of protests against the canonization planned in recent months at Mission San Carlos near Monterey, Mission San Juan Bautista near Hollister, Mission Santa Barbara and at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles.

On July 9, the San Diego Historical Society will host a presentation of the book: “Junipero Serra: A Man on a Mission” by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz at the Junipero Serra Museum. The authors are promoting the Serra canonization. Spanish paella “prepared on site by the Casa de Espana” will be served to the guests.

Mark R. Day is a former Franciscan friar. He is a journalist, filmmaker and labor activist. mday700@yahoo.com

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