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Dispute Still Rages About Father Serra's Treatment of Indians : Pope Will Beatify Missionary Who Critics Say Helped Destroy a Culture

September 22, 1988|MIKE WYMA

Sunday looms as a big day for Msgr. Francis J. Weber, director of the San Fernando Mission in Mission Hills.

Weber, who is also the archivist for the Catholic Church's Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has lobbied long and hard for elevation of Father Junipero Serra to sainthood, and on Sunday, he will be in Rome as Serra is beatified by Pope John Paul II. The ceremony will leave the famous 18th-Century California missionary just one step away from sainthood.

Eventual canonization of Serra is assured, Weber said, and will prove valuable to the church's work in the San Fernando Valley.

"We're holding him up as a role model for young people today, a model of what you can do for other people," Weber said. "He was a university professor of very great promise and he gave that up in order to work among people who had nothing."

Not everyone agrees, however, that Father Serra was saintly, or that the California Indians "had nothing" before his arrival. In a controversy that won't go away, some Indians and scholars say that Serra was part of an inhumane system of forced labor and cruel punishment.

Culture Obliterated

They contend that even if the "Apostle of California" at times protected Indians from Spanish military authorities, he nonetheless was a driving force behind a self-righteous invasion that pronounced a long-established culture inferior and obliterated it.

Although San Fernando Mission was founded in 1797, 10 years after Serra's death, critics say it was merely an extension of his fervent work. (Serra established the first nine of the 21 California missions.) Last year, a band of Indians visited the San Fernando Mission as part of a march that protested the Serra sainthood drive.

"There are quite a few California Indians who think he shouldn't be a saint," said Vera Rocha, chairwoman of the organized Southern California Indians, Gabrielano Band. The Baldwin Park woman said that she is descended from Indians who lived at San Gabriel Mission and that some of her ancestors were conscripted into crews that built San Fernando Mission. She contends that Serra played a part in the destruction of a rich civilization.

Weber holds a different view of 18th-Century California Indians.

"They were on a par with what we studied in school as the Stone Age," he said. "Now if you think that's a good era to be in, then you can see where you would end up in this ongoing controversy of did we destroy their civilization. In my opinion, they didn't have any civilization to destroy."

'Stable Villages'

Mark Raab, director of the Center for Public Archeology at Cal State Northridge, disagrees. Raab said archeological evidence shows that the Indians "had a complex economy, stable villages and elaborate systems of belief in art and religion."

Weber's view, he said, "perpetrates the idea that one way of life is inherently better than another. It's an heir to the kind of thinking that let European societies eradicate whole cultures.

"It's true the Indians had no knowledge of metallurgy, knew no written language, didn't have the wheel," Raab continued. "On the other hand, they hadn't invented something like the Spanish Inquisition and they hadn't invented mass slaughter by warfare. They had lives that were complete and meaningful within their own frames of reference and that had endured for thousands of years."

Raab said that the introduction of European diseases killed as much as 80% of the Indian population during the 60-year mission period, which ended in the mid-1830s. He said Anglos who arrived in the 1840s found "the last desperately poor remnant of the Indian population" and concluded incorrectly that they had always led miserable existences.

Weber said that Serra's saintliness emerges when his work is looked at in historical context, because Indians would have suffered far more without him.

Serra Followed Blueprint

"He realized that the mission system was not perfect, but he had to operate according to the Laws of the Indies," Weber said.

A blueprint for colonization agreed upon by the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church, the Laws called for a parent-child relationship between Indians and missionaries and listed crimes that required physical punishment. Those included adultery, sex between unmarried people, homosexuality and desertion from the mission. On occasion, soldiers searched for and captured Indians who had returned to their former villages.

"The true saint is the person who does the best he can in a bad situation," Weber said. "Working within the confines of the limitations he had, it's hard to see how anyone could have done a better job. It's easy to say by 1980s standards that this or that was wrong."

There is no record of Serra ever hitting a native, Weber said, and on one occasion the missionary prevented the execution of an Indian in San Diego who had killed a priest.

Indians 'Spanked'

While critics of the mission system say that Indians were beaten or whipped by padres, Weber contends that "spanked" is a more accurate word.

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