The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions

By Edd Doerr | 7 September 2015
Americans for Religious Liberty journal, Voice of Reason

The Catholic church has experimented with almost every kind of extermination, genocide, torture, mutilation, execution, enslavement, cruelty and abuse known to humankind. (Source: For Pope Francis the liberal, this promises to be a very bloody Sunday / The Guardian) (Credit: Burkhard Mücke / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, by Elias Castillo. Craven Street Books, 2015, 249 pp. $19.95. A review by Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty.

With the impending visit of Pope Francis to the US and Vatican canonization of Junipero Serra, this five-star book is timely and important. But before reviewing it, let me quote from my column in the current issue of Free Inquiry magazine, written weeks before I received a review copy of this book on September 4:

“When he visits the US in September, Pope Francis is expected to ‘canonize’ Junipero Serra, who founded a chain of Spanish missions in California between 1769 and 1782. It’s perfectly okay for a religious organization to honor anyone it pleases, but there is a problem when government gets involved. Each state is allowed two statues in the Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, and one of California’s is of Serra. Many Native Americans and others, on hearing of the impending canonization, expressed dismay, pointing out that Serra’s missions seriously mistreated California’s Indians. As Carol Pogash reported in the New York Times on January 22, ‘Indian historians and authors blame Father Serra for the suppression of their culture and the premature deaths at the missions of thousands of their ancestors.’

“‘Some of Serra’s sharpest critics,’ Religion News Service reporter David Gibson wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in February, ‘say he was part of an imperial conquest that beat and enslaved Native Americans, raped their women, and destroyed their culture by forcing them to abandon their traditional language, diet, dress, and other customs and rights.

“At California’s behest, the statue of Serra was placed in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 1931, along with one of Thomas Starr King (1824-1864), the Unitarian minister, writer, and orator who worked tirelessly to keep California in the Union during our Civil War. Lincoln credited Starr King with being the most important activist in that effort. Starr King was also the founder of the US Sanitary Commission, the predecessor of the Red Cross. A number of schools, streets, and mountains in California are named after him.

“In 2009 Starr King’s statue was replaced by one of Ronald Reagan. Many Californians now would like to replace Serra’s statue. It would only be fitting to replace it with the original one of Starr King, a real American hero. Serra, after all, died before the US Constitution was written and can hardly be regarded as a champion of the best American values.”

Elias Castillo’s remarkable book starts with a concise history of Spain’s brutal conquest/colonization of the Americas, followed by a detailed, well-researched, documented account of the chain of Franciscan missions in California started by Spanish friar Junipero Serra in 1769. Under Serra’s leadership California’s numerous small Indian tribes (“tribelets”) were induced or herded into 21 missions. There they were forcibly converted, brutalized, and essentially enslaved, their native cultures wiped out. The missions differed from the Soviet Gulag or Nazi work camps only in that the Indians were forced to attend religious services conducted in a language they could not understand, Latin. Attempts by Indians to resist were put down by force. And the missionaries were even more harsh than the Spanish civil and military authorities. Serra himself comes across as a masochistic, sadistic, fanatic psychopath.

Castillo notes that California’s civil governor from 1775 to 1782, Felipe de Neve, opposed Serra’s regressive actions. He writes that Neve “believed that all human beings, including Indians, had basic rights that could not be denied. One of those rights was personal freedom, something that Serra simply could not condone. Men like Neve believed that religion was neither sacrosanct nor necessary to guarantee a moral society. Serra, in contrast, was mired in church dogma, which he had twisted into a terrible, dark benevolence. He maintained that the baptism of Indians granted him the responsibility to deny them liberty, based on his belief that only by shielding the baptized Indians from what he considered the coarseness of normal human life would they ascend to heaven upon their deaths – which was a tragically frequent outcome.”

Not long after Mexico’s independence was won in the 1820s, the missions were finally abolished in the 1830s, 65 years after their beginning. But the damage to the Indians was nearly complete and irreversible, their numbers decimated by both Spanish brutality and their lack of immunity to European diseases. Mexican rule was not much better than Spanish rule. And when California was incorporated into the US at the end of the Mexican War conditions for what remained of the Indians were not much better. To this day California’s Indians have yet to see anything resembling justice.

Castillo notes Washington Irving’s criticism of Mexico’s treatment of the Indians and then concludes: “For California’s Indians, ravaged first by the Spanish and Franciscan friars, life was a never-ending nightmare. Even into the early twentieth century, the coastal Indians were denigrated and considered subhuman. The suffering they endured for more than 100 years was a legacy of the religious fanaticism, cruelty, and arrogance that began in 1769, directed by Franciscan friar Junipero Serra.”

Pope Francis should put Serra’s canonization on indefinite hold and offer some sort of apology for his church’s crimes against Native Americans, from California to Tierra del Fuego. And California’s politicians should avoid further embarrassment by quickly removing Serra’s statue from the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Edd Doerr was president of the American Humanist Association from 1995 to 2003, serving previously as vice-president and board chair under Isaac Asimov from 1985 to 1991. He has been executive director and then president of Americans for Religious Liberty since 1982. A former teacher of history and Spanish, he is the author, co-author, editor, or translator of twenty books, mostly on religious liberty and reproductive rights. He served on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice from 1973 until 2004 and on the boards of NARAL, the ACLU of Maryland, and the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. More than 3,000 of his articles, columns, reviews, and letters have been published in The Humanist and many other publications. For over ten years he has been writing a column in the journal Free Inquiry from the Council for Secular Humanism.

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