Why the Catholic Church owes reparations to California’s Indigenous peoples

The Chumash Revolt of 1824 was part of a long history of Indigenous resistance to colonialism in California.

On July 1, 1769, Father Junípero Serra reached the top of a bluff overlooking what is now San Diego Harbor and declared the area “San Diego” (Saint Didacus) for the Spanish colonists. Serra had a burning obsession with Native people. His goal was to baptize as many “savages” as he could and force them to assimilate to European colonialist norms and culture.

The educational system established in California by the Spanish colonists, and later adopted by the U.S., enforced the myth of Serra as a devout Jesuit who loved and cared for the Indigenous people of the land. In Spain he was thought of as the savior of California. The King of Spain wanted California, and Serra had promised him success. The Catholic Church was a major weapon used by the colonizers to achieve their ends.

In 2015, Pope Francis made Serra a saint, despite the outcry of Native peoples and their allies.  The Pope who promised to be progressive turned a man responsible for cultural genocide and countless deaths into an official figure of veneration in the 21st century.

Brutal colonizer

Fr. Serra’s first California mission was created on July 16, 1769. A cross was raised facing the harbor where the San Diego Presidio stands, and a makeshift altar was constructed. The Spaniards didn’t have an organ, so they discharged their firearms instead. The smoke from muskets acted as incense as the first mass was performed.

Serra somehow convinced a Native couple to allow their new baby to be baptized. According to “The Life and Times of Father Junípero Serra” by Francis J. Webber, the ceremony went smoothly at first. But when Serra raised his hand to sprinkle water on the baby’s head, the parents grabbed the child and ran off. The child’s father was so devastated, it was said that he cried whenever the ceremony was mentioned.

Serra was a brutal colonizer who ordered the Spanish army to kill many Natives who refused to convert and assimilate. Those who did convert were enslaved.

Six thousand Native people were baptized, then forced to live at the missions and become slave laborers. When slaves tried to escape, they were caught, brought back and executed as examples.

If a Catholic teaching wasn’t followed correctly, the accused Native person was deemed “immoral.” The victim was whipped and beaten in the same manner as Black slaves.

Serra and the Church did not build the missions, as it says in our children’s history books. No! Six thousand Native American slaves built the mission system.

Genocidal system

Historians have studied the birth and death records kept by the Spanish colonizers. Under Serra, more Natives died than were born. If the people were not murdered or enslaved, they were killed off by diseases that the Spanish colonizers brought with them.

There are records of “Indian uprisings” from 1769 to 1882. The Natives continually fought Serra and the other colonizers. Native blood drenched the land that the I-8 Freeway now passes through.

To this day, Native peoples in California live with the consequences of Catholic Spanish colonialism. Native people suffered genocide under the Catholic Church: a colonial genocide of human lives and a cultural genocide of Native ways and languages. This was on top of the theft of their land that did not and does not belong to the colonizers.

The Catholic Church owes reparations to all Native tribes, bands and nations along the California coast. History books need to be rewritten to tell the truth of Saint Junípero Serra. He was not a hero of California, nor was he the “Radical” of Spain. He was a brutal colonizer, slaver and murderer.

The Catholic Church is a vastly wealthy capitalist institution. If it can make reparations to the victims of priests that sexually abused children, then surely it can pay up and make reparations to the Native peoples of California.

Zola Fish is a member of the Choctaw Nation.