More from RELS 348: Empire, Colonialism, and Religion

Alan Yuhas’ story “Junipero Serra’s road to sainthood is controversial for Native Americans,” The Guardian, 25 January 2015 covers Pope Francis’ announcement of canonizing Junipero Serra into sainthood. Serra was an eighteenth century friar most famous for “evangelizing the Western United States,” and even as California’s founding father. To the descendants of the Native Americans that encountered Serra however, Serra is remembered as a violent slave master not unlike the Spanish conquistadors.

The article is divided into two halves, the first covering Serra’s history of running his nine missions up and down the Californian coast. His arrival had drastically changed the food situation for the natives as the Spanish military contingent he came with brought in foreign crops and livestock, which overwhelmed native food sources. This situation forced many native groups to move towards the missions to survive. Within the mission, converts were taught how to farm and breed livestock while living in strict communities under supervision. If they tried to escape they were captured, flogged, or sometimes brutally raped by the soldiers in local garrisons. Serra viewed the native Americans as child-like and incapable of taking care of themselves, personally making it his responsibility to set them right with corporeal punishment. A French explorer by the name of Jean Francois de Galaup de la Perouse noted that Serra’s missions resembled slave plantations, and diseases ran rampantly.

To Serra’s defense, Father Tom Elewaut states that Serra was a protectorate of the Native Americans and strongly objected to the harassment many had to endure at the hands of the Spanish militants. Serra also apparently did not have intentions to spread diseases as the conquistadors did, and in turn cared very deeply for his subjects. According to Elewaut, Serra was also very respectful to Natives that did not wish to convert and was quite genuine in his good intentions.

Regardless as to how well intentioned Junipero Serra was, the consequences of his actions made deep scars in those that were subjugated. While it is clear to see that he was far from a malevolent sort and had reasonably good intentions for the Native Americans, he still laid the groundwork to shame and erase Native American culture. Even Elewaut stated that the Catholic Church needs to address what the missions meant for the futures of California’s indigenous people in order to justify the canonization of such a widely contested figure.



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