Junipero Serra’s Canonization and Continuing Colonization


Sarah Augustine is an assistant professor of sociology at Heritage University. She is also the co-founder of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund. Sarah led a team of Indigenous and church leaders to draft the World Council of Churches (WCC) Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery and its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted in 2012, and organized an international coalition to deepen institutional commitment to an Indigenous-led Program at the WCC. Sarah is working within an international ecumenical movement to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery and to build a solidarity movement promoting dialogue with resource extractive industries among people of faith. She is a member of Seattle Mennonite Church.

Controversy surrounded Pope Francis’ announcement that he planned to canonize Junipero Serra in September of this year.  Some parties claim that Father Serra was a shepherd and protector of Indigenous Peoples. Others argue he was paternalistic and even tyrannical, a symbol of the injustice of colonization in North America.

The controversy reminds me of annual commemorations that take place each year where I live, on the Yakama Indian Reservation, where Indigenous Peoples and descendants of settlers separately celebrate a shared history. The Yakama nation celebrates “Treaty Days” each June to commemorate the 1855 agreement with the federal government that brought an end to the conflict between the First Peoples of the region and the U.S. military.  Each May or June, history buffs hold “Military Days” at Fort Simcoe State Park on the Yakama reservation to celebrate the military accomplishments in the region.  Military Days events are billed as educational experiences for children and families. Each year as I watch these celebrations unfold in isolation from one another, I question what is the lesson when the celebration of peaceful negotiation is followed by re-enactment of military domination by force?

When the Yakama chief, Kamiakin, signed the treaty that still defines life for the Yakama people today, it was with an understanding that the reservation would be put aside for the exclusive use of the Yakama people.  But Isaac Stevens, governor of Washington Territory, immediately advertised free acreage on reservation land in newspapers nationwide.  He knew the treaty would not become federal law until ratified by Congress and President Buchanan, and this would not occur until 1859.  Any homestead possessed by settlers would be excluded from the treaty and defended by the U.S. Army.  Thus, thousands of farmers flooded to the valley that was already graded by surveyors as prime agricultural land.

When what appeared to be an invasion of settlers took possession of Yakama lands, cattle, sheep, horses, fisheries, timber, and waterways, Kamiakin and a band of followers made a desperate attempt to defend their people in what is now called the Yakima war of 1855.  This act of desperation resulted in the establishment of Fort Simcoe garrison, and the Territory’s justification for invoking the full force of the U.S. military to defend settlers on the Yakima reservation.  Much of the lands on the reservation moved out of Indigenous control at this time and are privately held by the descendants of settlers today.

By 1859, the “Indian rebellion” was quelled, and the U.S. Army handed Fort Simcoe over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the federal agency created as guardian and administrator of all Indian assets. The BIA converted Fort Simcoe into a boarding school for Yakama children. After the humiliating defeat of the Yakama nation, Native children of school age were forcibly removed from the custody of their parents and enrolled in this school.  Many children died in custody from diseases their immune systems had never encountered, and many others experienced corporal punishment and forced labor. These children were punished for speaking their own language and denied the right to visit their parents.

Fort Simcoe is now a state park, a bucolic family destination with acres of rolling lawns shaded by the same giant oaks that stood watch during the Yakama war.  Restored and recreated buildings provide historically accurate representation of officer quarters, soldier billets, and the general essence of military life during the three years of war.

Regardless of their intentions, those who celebrate Military Days glorify a historic site that symbolizes violence and violation for Indigenous Peoples.  Likewise, those who would venerate Junipero Serra. Celebrating the canonization of Dather Serra is a similar gesture that recalls the dominion of the colonizer over Native American Peoples today.

Junípero Serra established the first nine of the 21 Spanish missions in California, from San Diego to San Francisco. Regardless of his intentions, or who he may have been personally, Father Serra symbolizes the Doctrine of Discovery, a body of law and policy deployed by the Catholic Church in the 15th Century that articulates theological justification for the removal of Indigenous Peoples from the their lands throughout the “discovered” world.  This body of law and policy remains in effect today, and as recently as 2005 was cited by the Supreme Court as the basis for denying land rights to an Indigenous Nation.

The Doctrine of Discovery is based on the principle of terra nullius, or “empty land,” and grew out of the church’s conviction that “discovered” lands were devoid of human beings if the original people who had lived there, defined as “heathens, pagans and infidels,” were not ruled by a Christian ruler. This doctrine ensured land titles for Christian/European states who would assume sovereignty over “discovered” lands.

The basic theological premise for the Doctrine of Discovery comes from the book of Exodus, where God sanctions genocide enacted by God’s chosen people, and fruitful lands are claimed by the chosen. With the coming of Christ, the Church is the beneficiary of a new covenant as God’s chosen people.  European rulers were thus empowered to claim and subdue lands as the beneficiaries of God. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 empowered them to go unto all lands, and Romans 13 established the principle of “divine mandate,” where to oppose the State is to oppose God, who established all earthly leaders. Thus a religious and moral framework was constructed, its language used to shape institutions and structures in the “discovered” world. Although our society is secular today, the legal structure set in motion by the Church is still in effect, where colonial powers and their descendants inherited all lands and natural resources, while Indigenous Peoples remain dispossessed.

Was Serra kind, protective and forgiving of the Indigenous Peoples he attempted to convert?  Was he cruel, employing segregation between believing and non-believing Indigenous people, and corporal punishment for those who resisted working in the mission enterprises that produced cattle and grain to the few thousand Spanish colonists in California, as well as to Spain?

Perhaps it is incumbent upon the Vatican to discern Serra’s political realities, his personal convictions, and his behavior within his cultural and historical context.  To many of the descendants of those colonized, these things don’t really matter.  What matters is the reality we live with now.  To justify and glamorize the suppression of Indigenous Peoples is to reinforce oppression that is ongoing these past 500 years.  To canonize Serra is to validate colonization itself and to uplift a theology and a history that remains destructive to Indigenous Peoples today. What Father Serra symbolizes matters in a system of ongoing oppression.