Pictured: San Buenaventura Mission. 

by Kimberly Rivers

Indigenous people across the United States have been demanding that the truth of their ancestors’ lived experiences be included in the conversation around history curriculum in schools, place names in communities and municipally sponsored memorials and statues. For Native Californians, this means an honest exploration of the mission era. The need for truthtelling persists, as many have clung to the clouded version, perpetuated by the Catholic Church, of the missionaries’ history with the state’s indigenous people — despite original source evidence to the contrary,

Last year, as Ventura grappled with the movement to take down the statue of St. Junipero Serra from city property, those in support of leaving the statue in place repeated again and again that Serra was a “protector” of the indigenous people who were compelled to leave their way of life to build the missions, and that any violence or negative experiences of the California Indians had to be viewed in the context of the era. 

But what if the stories they have been told, and thus the things they believe about this man, are simply not true? 

Warping history and attempting to wipe away the experience of indigenous people is a way to perpetuate a modern white supremacist system. Historians, writers, activists, educators, artists and people in many lines of work are striving to bring the truth of history, the lived experience of it, into focus. 

Perpetuating a “fantasy narrative”

In 1906, Adelaide Comstock, who lived in Santa Barbara, travelled by train to visit the San Buenaventura Mission to write an article for Sunset Magazine. She described the building and the artwork, attributed to the “Indian hands with the crude tools of the early period the padres have ever affirmed with pride.” 

She was shown the old Spanish robes of the first missionaries and called them “relics of Spanish grandeur that in an early day had dazzled the eyes of the native Indians and aided in subduing him by their overawing splendor.”

San Buenaventura Mission, 1900. Photo in San Buenaventura Mission. Adelaide Comstock, 1906, Museum of Ventura County.

Comstock was given access to mission archives, including records of baptisms and libro de defuntos (“book of deaths”) covering the years 1782-1824. She wrote of the “conversion of innumerable savages.” But as of 1809, the records showed 2,648 baptisms had occurred. She did not report the number of deaths, but did attest to the dedicated Indians carrying “timbers over 40 miles” for the mission buildings, including some oak wood from Ojai. 

The reader can almost see Comstock dreamily exhaling as she jaunts away from the mission property to catch her train back to Santa Barbara, writing, “and the old type native has almost passed from sight except as traceable in his posterity, but growing dimmer, with each succeeding generation. But the same sunny skies and genial atmosphere is with us still, that smiled in the faces and shed a benign influence over the inhabitants of this heaven-favored land in the remote past and gives promise to extend the same blessing to future generations of our descendants, a boon inexpressible, a heritage invaluable!” (1). 

Dr. Jonathan Cordero. Photo submitted.

The thinking common at that time, and pervasive today, is what Jonathan Cordero, Ph.D., calls “a fantasy narrative” that is based on a romanticized story of the mission era and the effects of that period on the California Indian.

Cordero is a principal investigator with a team called Critical Mission Studies that has been awarded a million dollar grant by the University of California system to rewrite the history of the mission period. He is currently an assistant professor of sociology at California Lutheran University and holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is an ethno-historian of Native Californian history, particularly during the mission era. Cordero is Chumash and Ramaytush Ohlone (the original peoples of the San Francisco Peninsula). 

He calls the common mission era narrative a romanticization of reality. History books are filled with words like “savage” or “barbarous” used to describe how the Spanish missionaries saw the California Indians. The stories tell of a people being rescued through the salvation of the Catholic faith and enjoying the work of building the mission under the protective eyes of the benevolent padres. 

The documented reality of this period shows people who had lived on the land for thousands of years subjected to violence, pushed off the land where they made their homes, beaten, raped, given new names and separated from their families. The result was genocide, couched in evangelism. 

Romanticized myths perpetuate violence

Serra led the effort to establish and build the missions. One message reported in Catholic media prior to Serra being named a saint in 2015 (and repeated last year in Ventura by Serra defenders) was that Serra walked all the way to Mexico to advocate to the Spanish government for a bill of rights for the California Indians. 

“It is entirely false.There was no bill of rights for California Indians,” stated Cordero, who said the document never did and doesn’t exist. 

A Ventura County resident at the statue of St. Junipero Serra during the protests seeking its removal. Ventura City Hall, June 20, 2020. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

Cordero cites historical Spanish government documents from that era that lay out the agreement Serra obtained from the government on his trek to Mexico, which he says was in fact made “to fight for the rights of Franciscan missionaries,” to maintain “full control of the missions and over the Californian Indians.” 

According to Cordero, Serra felt the power of the missionaries was being “wrestled away” by the Spanish governor of California at the time. “Serra went down to get control back . . . and Serra rode on a mule.” He also took a boat for one portion of the trek, belying the common belief that Serra’s journey was on foot. 

In combating the traditional way the mission era history is conveyed, Cordero said the first thing both the public and scholars need to come to terms with is to “first acknowledge that the account of the California Indians and Spanish relations during the mission period are conveyed in a way that we refer to as supporting a fantasy narrative.” 

“We are still confronting the fantasy heritage in all literature . . . showing a Christian bias, European bias,” said Cordero. The framing of the period in this way “defends the Spanish over and against the California Indian… and is written to make the Franciscan Missionary look good, and Indians look grateful.” This way of framing the experience of the California Indian is “severely flawed because it privileges the evangelization narrative over and above the colonization narrative.”

The evangelizing is used to “justify, and legitimizes everything else that happened.” He said today it’s explained away that the Franciscans, including Serra, could do as they wished to the Indians. “If you intend to save that person’s soul to Christ,”  anything is allowed. 

This romanticization of the missionaries’ relationship with the California Indians is further evidenced by a statement from Monsignor Francis J. Weber, an archivist emeritus for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Prior to Serra being named a saint, Weber stated that the colonization of California’s indigenous people was “inevitable” and admitted that missionaries knew of the mistreatment they suffered. At the time, abuse was considered an acceptable way to correct behavior. Weber touts the church’s messaging that the aim of the abuse was to change and “improve” the Indians. 

“The attitude of the friars toward corporal punishment can only be properly understood within their overall relationship as ‘guardians’ of the natives. Serra understood this in terms of education within a family, recognizing that a friar was to treat the Indians ‘as a tender and prudent father,’” stated Weber. (2)

Agents of colonization

This system has roots going back far into church history, to a translated document dating from 1493 accessible on the Catholic Church digital archive. The document signed by then Pope Alexander VI created the “Doctrine of Discovery,” in which the church told the Spanish crown that it had a holy duty from God to find these people living without God, and “bring them the word of God.” In return, the church would give the crown the right to claim the land of those new converts. (3) 

“What’s been missing” from the telling of history is the “emphasis on colonization,” explained Cordero. “The California missions were the primary vehicle for colonizing [Alta California and] the missionaries were the primary people responsible. They were the primary agents of the colonization of the California Indian. No one wants to talk about it.” 

The voyages of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and others, taught to schoolchildren as journeys of exploration, were in fact colonization expeditions. 

Cordero explained that the primary colonizing objective was to “reduce the native population” by “converting them to Christianity, Hispanicize them,” and ultimately establish a self-governing community in service to the Spanish Empire. “That is exactly what colonization is.” 

“Missionaries are responsible for accomplishing this goal. It’s a fundamental problem of the defense of Serra: He was responsible for implementing the California mission system, he founded it. It’s his legacy, a legacy of colonization, of the destruction of California Indians.” 

“Missionization, the act of converting Native Americans through cultural and religious instruction, was central to the Spanish colonial strategy,” reports the California Mission Foundation. (4) Called the “Sacred Expedition,” the military effort ordered by the Spanish crown was led by Captain Gaspar de Portolá and Serra.

Denying abuse

West Ventura resident Liz Campos worked for the Franciscans prior to Serra’s sainthood and was responsible for “purging” reports of violence under Serra’s eye from the records. She understood an earlier purge had occurred a few decades before and wondered at what was filtered out then if what she was seeing was allowed to remain. But after seeing reports from the clergy members themselves of rapes, beatings, hangings and more, she could not stomach the work and resigned from her post. 

In a 1986 article in the Los Angeles Times, two researchers on Serra noted that evidence showed the padre did “uphold the custom of whipping” and one researcher stated they had “no doubt Serra condoned whipping.” (5)

In June 2020, a statement released by the California Catholic Conference of Bishops stated that Serra’s actions can’t be viewed “by today’s standards.”

Protestors seeking the removal of the St. Junipero Serra statue at Ventura City Hall, June 20, 2020. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

This statement echoed a common thread coming from the Catholic Church attempting to explain away the atrocities of the mission era by saying Serra was a man of his time and that the system he oversaw has to be viewed in the context of that era. By this logic, so long as the California Indians were being converted, the violence inflicted upon them can be excused. 

Cordero, however, said that even if one believes the mistreatment in the service of salvation is justified (itself a problematic concept), his research disproves any logic in that position. The “vast majority of data,” from the Franciscans’ own records, “proved the vast majority of California Indians were not genuinely converted.” 

Cordero’s research found that in the area of land spanned by all the missions from Sonoma to San Diego, approximately 85,000 Indians were baptized at the missions. By the time the missions were secularized in 1834, only 15,000 remained. By 1910 less than 1% of the missionized Indians remained in most areas. 

Map showing the location of the Spanish Missions up the California coastline. Source: California Mission Foundation.

Cordero said he received a direct response to this from one clergy member questioning how one can know the “true nature” of a man’s mind, heart or soul. Cordero says that is exactly the point, and lays bare the fallacy of the notion that the Californian Indians were successfully and willingly converted to Christianity when the missions were founded, particularly in light of the coercive methods used.

“They lost their lives, were displaced from their homeland, their culture and their language, they lost everything,” said Cordero. “The Catholic Church is responsible and they don’t want to own up to it.” 

The messaging being repeated by local archbishops and other members of the church are just the “party lines”; they are not actually “educated on this topic,” Cordero noted. “They are just repeating to the public what they have been fed, [by the church]. It’s like propaganda.” 

Multiple reports from descendants of the Mission Indians were reported in advance of the canonization of Serra in 2015 in a publication titled Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, edited by Rupert Costo and Jeannette Henry Costo (Indian Historian Press, 1987). 

Firsthand reports of the slavery and violence experienced at various mission sites in California are reported in the book. The introduction states, “The best theological intentions of the ‘kindly’ Father Serra fade quickly when placed within the Western paradigm whereby rationalization leads quickly to dehumanization of objectified others . . . It is obvious that a people cannot be consistently attacked, their history distorted, their sufferings ignored and the fact of their slavery denied recognition, unless it is the result of a deliberate and purposeful policy. The genocide that was missionization by the Spanish and the terror of manifest destiny of the Americans flows from the assumed superiority of the white race over all others.” 

In addition to trying to wipe away the fact that the missionaries were an agent of colonization for Spain, many members of the church call the reports of rape, murder, beating and other violence in the missions falsehoods.

Today, local indigenous people report experiencing generational trauma as they learn and remember the stories of their family members and ancestors. Hearing people say those memories didn’t happen perpetuates the trauma, extending the experience of it. 

Cordero also found in his research that about one out of every 10 missionaries were sent back to Spain for being “unfit to serve, being abusive” and another one in 10 were “sexually abusing native women.” 

“They won’t admit it was slavery,” said Cordero about the Catholic Church’s response to this evidence. “They were enslaved. The [Church] will say it’s not true based on a narrow definition of slavery, that [the Church] didn’t own the California Indians. The Jews in Egypt weren’t owned, either, but they were slaves.” 

Even as Pope Francis issued this statement in 2015, “I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the Native people of American in the name of God,” lay persons, scholars and members of the church will not concede these sins were committed. 

Photo titled “Basket Weavers” of Chumash residents on or about 1900 in San Buenaventura. Source: San Buenaventura Mission, Adelaide Comstock, 1906.

Cordero emphasized that “two things we need to understand, the fantasy is historically inaccurate and the adverse effects haven’t been fully revealed yet. California Indians (today) are working on doing that. 

“One question that I have never received a satisfactory answer to is, how did the California Missions of the Spanish Missionaries benefit the California Indians? They weren’t saved. Almost 80% died in the missions. They lost their language, their culture, their communities, their land. Well, they learned the mechanical arts, to weave, plow and things like that. And they became subjugated at the bottom rung of society. Nothing they did was for the benefit of the California Indians.” 

He pointed to the Mexican Secularization Act of 1833, which technically “transferred back the land taken. We never got it back. The land that all of these missions sit on is ours.” 

Cordero said he doesn’t personally want the land back, although some are seeking a way toward reparations. Cordero wants something more basic. 

“I want them to tell the truth, to make the effort to understand the truth.” 

  1. San Buenaventura Mission, Adelaide Comstock, 1906.
  2. www.ncronline.org/news/justice/controversial-jun-pero-serra-supported-some-indigenous-catholics-california-mission
  3. www.papalencyclicals.net/Alex06/alex06inter.htm
  4. California Mission Foundation, californiamissionsfoundation.org/california-indians/
  5. “Father Serra–Doicese Answers Critics of Potential Saint,” by Mark I. Pinsky, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 24, 1986: www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-11-24-mn-12917-story.html