Earlier this week Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who, between 1769 and 1784, established the first Catholic missions in California. During the half-century of Spanish rule, Serra and his successors baptized over 80,000 California Indians, a colonial North American record. Father Junipero's elevation to sainthood generated some controversy, however, as many modern Native Californians see him as a pioneer of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Louise Ramirez, chair of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, observed that her people primarily associated Franciscans with corporal punishment and servitude, while Deborah Miranda, an American Indian university professor, identified Serra as an“impose[r]” upon, rather than a contributor to, California's indigenes.
The historical account of California's mission Indians, while slightly more complex than the one provided by Serra's latter-day critics, generally confirms their charges. Stephen Hackel, author of Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis (2005), observes that California Indians did indeed come to the missions involuntarily. What drove them inside, however, was the specter of starvation, not the soldier's bayonet. When the Spanish came to Alta California they brought with them their livestock and weeds, which so ravaged the indigenous ecology that many Indians had to resort to the missions for food and shelter. Within those missions, the Franciscan priests imposed a strict discipline upon converts: they had to wear Spanish peasants' clothes, spend their days at labor, live in gender-segregated dormitories, and marry only spouses whom the missionaries approved. As in New Mexico a century earlier, the Franciscans flogged Indian converts guilty of sexual misconduct or apostasy, a practice secular Spanish colonists considered barbaric.
Jean Francois de la Perouse, visiting Monterey in 1786 during his attempted circumnavigation of the globe, reported that the missions reminded him of the slave plantations in the West Indies (Life in a California Mission [Santa Clara, 1989], p. 81). Perouse's comparison wasn't entirely fair: mission inmates enjoyed more autonomy than slaves, with more freedom to travel beyond the mission walls and some political power. (Spanish officials appointed Christian Indians' leaders to secular offices like alcalde.) However, one might note a similarity between sugar plantations and California missions that escaped Perouse's attention: both proved deadly places to live. Diphtheria, measles, and venereal diseases scythed through the conversos' ranks, killing or sterilizing them. 75 percent of children born in the missions died before their fifteenth birthdays, and few inmates lived past the age of 60. Caught between a subsistence crisis outside the mission walls and an epidemiological one within, California's Native American population declined significantly, from 300,000 people in 1769 to 200,000 in 1821.
Prof. Robert Senkewicz, cited in an article by Emma Green, argued that Pope Francis isn't, in fact, trying to justify mass death, torture, and cultural imperialism. He values Junipero Serra as a brother Franciscan, and as an advocate of the evangelism that his pontifical predecessor (who sought to conserve the existing Church rather than increase its ranks) did not emphasize. Moreover, Latin American Catholics view missionaries in a different light from North American ones: in South America, missions often served as refuges for Indians trying to escape forced labor.
While we shouldn't downplay Francis's obvious concern for the secular needs of the poor, his Church has historically concerned itself more with the salvation of souls than the preservation of bodies, more with unearthly than earthly priorities. Serra probably would have disliked the high death rate in his missions, but he wouldn't necessarily have deplored it – after all, the deceased would spend eternity in heaven. Francis doubtless prefers to think there isn't much cultural distance between himself and Saint Junipero, but that's because he is a prelate, not a historian, less interested in the “past-ness” of the past and its people than in institutional continuity. One must leave it to modern scholars, and modern Indian leaders, to remind the public of the importance of those differences, of the Native cultures that Franciscan missionaries sought to efface, and the tragic impact of the California missions on Indians' physical lives.