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Pope declares Junípero Serra, who enslaved Indians, a saint

Growing up in California, history students have learned for generations that Junípero Serra, the architect of the California mission system in which tens of thousands of Native Americans were converted to Christianity, was a humble Franciscan monk who did his best to protect Indians from the worst excesses of the cruel conquistadores.

But to many Native Americans, Serra is an oppressive conqueror who forced their ancestors to build the idyllic looking missions along the California coast in which the Indians were enslaved and those who tried to escape were shackled and brutally beaten.

The former is the Serra honored by Pope Francis in a canonization ceremony in Washington, DC on Wednesday, the first time that such an event has been held in the United States.

“Junípero Serra left his native land and its way of life,” Francis told the more than 25,000 people gathered for the historic event at the Mass at Catholic University. “He was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life.”

The Pope praised Serra’s treatment of indigenous Californians, saying he “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

But critics, including many Native Americans, bristle at such statements, noting that their ancestors never asked to be forcefully converted to worship the ‘god’ of the very people who were enslaving, sickening, and exterminating them.

“I believe that Junípero Serra actually created and brought genocide to the California Indian people,” Corrina Gould, co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change and an Ohlone tribal member, told The Huffington Post. “In less than 100 years, our way of life, our language, our foods—everything—was destroyed.”

Upon arriving in what was then called New Spain in 1749, Serra earnestly set to carrying out his duties as a leading official of the Spanish Inquisition. He targeted natives who refused to convert to Christianity and was a staunch advocate of beating Indians into submission. Although he is often cited as a man who treated his conquered and converted charges compassionately, historian and author Carey McWilliams noted that another governor filed a complaint against him for his brutality.

“With the best theological intentions in the world,” McWilliams wrote, “the Franciscan padres eliminated Indians with the effectiveness of Nazis operating concentration camps. So far as the Indian was concerned, contact with the missions meant death.”

Indeed, diseases introduced by the conquering Christians, including syphilis spread by marauding, sex-starved Spanish soldiers, devastated the indigenous population. Some 60,000 Indians died in the missions during the period of Spanish rule. In addition to being ravaged by diseases brought and spread by Spaniards, Indians were worked and starved to death. Serra relied upon forced labor of converted indigenous people to build the string of missions along California’s coast.

Effectively enslaved, these Indians were separated from their families, forced to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and disease-infested quarters, and fed horrible food. There were an estimated 300,000 to 1 million indigenous Californians at the time of first contact with the Spanish. By 1910, fewer than 16,000 remained.

There were numerous protests leading up to Serra’s canonization. At one May demonstration outside Mission Dolores in San Francisco, Gould told ThinkProgress how her ancestors were “directly enslaved” there, and at Mission San José in Fremont.

“I want to make sure that the Vatican knows that we, and Native people allies, do not agree with the canonization of Junípero Serra,” said Gould.

The Pope’s canonization of Serra seems to fly in the face of his apology earlier this year for the Catholic Church’s appalling treatment of Native Americans and, some critics charge, seeks to legitimize the European conquest, ethnic cleansing, and destruction of indigenous Americans.

“Many grave sins were committed against the Native people of America in the name of God,” Francis told a gathering in Bolivia in July. “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.”

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