Junipero Serra Backlash America's first Hispanic saint orig_00023325.jpg
Backlash against America's first Hispanic saint
02:39 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Simon Moya-Smith is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and culture editor at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter @Simonmoyasmith. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Pope Francis this week expected to canonize Junipero Serra

Simon Moya-Smith: Time to open our eyes about him

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“I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God,” he said. “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

Simon Moya-Smith

So why is he set to canonize someone whose actions would seem to fly in the face of such encouraging words?

This week, during his first visit to the United States, the Pope is expected to canonize 18th-century Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra, who arrived in 1769 and founded nine of California’s 21 Spanish Catholic missions.

The problem is that Serra is also documented as being an extreme and unapologetic abuser of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Coast.

Indeed, according to Elias Castillo, author of “A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions,” Serra would brutally beat and whip men, women and children in order to force obedience among the Indians. Castillo also writes that Serra celebrated the demise of Indian children, referring to their deaths as a “harvest.”

That’s not all. Castillo says that Indians who did not voluntarily enter Serra’s missions were kidnapped and then held captive within the mission’s parapets, where they were subjected to an “unforgiving regimen that would ultimately claim the lives of 62,000 Indians and devastate their civilizations, including the extinction of a number of small tribes.”

Clearly, these are not the actions of a saint. Unfortunately, though, this form of exaltation is nothing new. Indeed, the celebration of aggressive Christian conquest by religious zealots is evident the world over, especially here in the United States.

Just look at how every October 12, the U.S. celebrates Columbus Day – a federal holiday glorifying a man who it is said once had 13 Indians hanged, one for each of the 12 Apostles and one more for Jesus Christ.

Like the defenders of Columbus’ legacy, Serra’s champions defend his actions with the banal argument that Serra was “a man of his time.”

This defense is wildly false.

Castillo has found, for example, that Spanish Governor Felipe de Neve expressed to Serra that he believed his methods of punishment were exceedingly harsh, to which Serra responded that they were tried-and-true techniques of the Catholic Church.

But as Steven Newcomb, co-founder of the Indigenous Law Institute, notes, the popular man-of-his-time defense doesn’t ring true for another reason.

“When people say (Serra was a man of his time) they only have a European standard in mind,” he says. That is to say, just because coercion by punishment in the name of God was the norm for European Christians does not mean that such actions were not fundamentally wrong, especially among indigenous societies.

Newcomb, co-producer of “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” is Shawnee and Lenape. He argues that the Native American protest against Serra’s canonization is not only about his inexcusable actions, but also about the Christian system of domination that justified the dehumanization and enslavement of indigenous peoples.

“The thing that needs to be focused on is not just Serra as an individual, but the overall system that was unleashed on the planet by the Popes and the Vatican and the documents (papal bulls) that led to that entire system,” he says.

So far, there is no indication that Pope Francis is reconsidering his decision over Serra. Yet this doesn’t mean that Native Americans and our fellow conscientious objectors should excuse the behavior of a man responsible for the deaths of thousands of people who had for generations enjoyed things they lost when the Christians invaded: freedom of religion and inalienable rights.

We are not asking the papacy for an apology. We ask for the repeal of the papal edicts that justified the theft of Native American lands and the persecution of our people. Soothing words just aren’t enough.

(And while we’re talking about taking practical steps toward justice, we continue to ask the United States to repeal Columbus Day as a federal holiday. It is high time that the United States and Christians cease their celebration of bloodthirsty religious despots at the expense of Native Americans – and the facts).

Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra should not be considered examples of piety and deliverance. It is time we all opened our eyes to what they really were – religious extremists who were the antithesis of Christ-like and saintly.

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