It's a scholastic rite of passage for every California fourth-grader: studying the history of the Spanish Catholic missions and the life of Father Junípero Serra.
Steven W. Hackel remembers the drill.
"We were taught that Father Serra was a good, gentle padre who built missions every one-day's horseback ride apart for tired travelers, as sort of like Motel 6's of the day," says Hackel, a UC Riverside associate professor of history and author of a new biography of Serra. "And there was nothing about Indians in those missions at all."
Finding the complex man of God wrapped inside the saintly myth and putting the missing indigenous Americans back into the picture, are lead objectives of an exhibition scheduled to open Aug. 17 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and run through Jan. 6.
PHOTOS: Junipero Serra exhibition
Titled "Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions" and co-curated by Hackel and Catherine Gudis, also a UC Riverside associate professor of history, it's perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled about the devout Franciscan friar who established nine of the 21 missions in present-day California and is sometimes called the state's "founding father."
But Serra has been seen by some historians in much darker terms: as a rigid theological bureaucrat, a Spanish imperial agent who, in the guise of converting "heathens" to Christianity, hauled pre-Enlightenment ideals into the New World and imposed a slave system that destroyed the Indians' traditional way of life.
The exhibition, coinciding with the 300th anniversary of Serra's birth, hews to a scholarly middle path that avoids either hagiography or vilification. Instead, it emphasizes the complex interaction of European and Native American civilizations and illustrates how Serra's image has evolved through the centuries.
It also goes into greater depth than previous exhibitions about California Indian life, from 10,000 years ago to the present, with artifacts ranging from antique textile fragments to first-person audio narratives by modern-day descendants of Indian mission-dwellers.
PHOTOS: Following Junipero Serra's journey
"One can imagine a show that was just about clash and destruction," Hackel says. "But we wanted to call attention, interpretively, to the blending of cultures and the survival of California Indian crafts and ideas and customs within the very, very difficult situation of the California missions."
Spanning 1713 to '84 and comprising nearly 250 objects from lenders in the United States, Mexico and Spain, some on loan for the first time, the exhibition begins with Serra's early career in his native Majorca, Spain. Original baptismal registers and portraits by prominent Spanish and New World painters such as Miguel Cabrera help illustrate this formative period.
Indeed, the influence of Majorca, a major center of Mediterranean trade and a bastion of by-the-book Catholic faith, stamped itself definitively on Serra's life and thinking. Born to a family of poor farmers, he later joined the Franciscan order and spent two decades living and studying at the Convento de San Francisco in the island's capital of Palma.
He modeled himself on ferociously devout Franciscans like Ramon Llull, absorbing dogma and adopting the favored practices of extreme poverty and self-flagellation. He also studied the influential writings of María de Jesús de Ágreda, a nun who preached to Indians across the future U.S. Southwest.
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By the time Serra arrived in the New World in 1750, he already was 55, and his views, including his perception of Indians as childlike and primitive, were fully formed. Although he kept copious diaries of his early travels in California, wrote scores of letters to his Franciscan superiors – several of which are on display at The Huntington – and was "exceptionally literate," Hackel says, "Serra is not a good observer of Indian culture."
"He's not an ethnographer. The insights are that they're naked and they live like Adam. That's his worldview."
In actuality, the Chumash and other Indian peoples that Serra encountered were highly skilled craftsmen and traders, as exhibition artifacts such as baskets, sculptures and ancient fabric scraps attest. The various California Indian communities spoke between 80 and 100 different languages and, except for the Chumash mainly lived in small autonomous villages.
The exhibition moves on to examine the daily realities of California mission life. Some Indian cultural elements such as music and dance were assimilated into Catholic liturgical traditions. Other Chumash skills like basket-weaving also were encouraged by the friars.