Steven Newcomb: Church set out to dehumanize Indian people

The Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad in Soledad, California, was part of the brutal system founded by Junipero Serra, who will be granted sainthood this year by the Catholic Church. Photo by Franz Liszt / Wikipedia

Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute looks into the Indian mission system in California, whose founder Junipero Serra will be granted sainthood this year by Pope Francis:
The book Writings of Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, Vol. I, translated and edited by Finbar Kenneally, O. F. M. (1964), provides information that helps us better understand the context of the Spanish Catholic Missions in California during the time of Junipero Serra. In a letter to Don Jacob Ugarte y Loyola, Padre Lasuén questions an edict which, Lasuén explained, Ugarte y Loyola had “ordered to be proclaimed within the confines of your higher jurisdiction." The edict, said Lasuén, had to do the Indians being allowed “to change their location” and “to journey from place to place.”

Lasuén questioned applying such liberty to the Native people being held in the missions: “I would never believe that the law quoted in the first article of the edict would apply to the Indians of the missions,” he wrote, “but only those [Indians] of the pueblos.” Lasuén complained that “it is only with much difficulty that I can adapt them [the new rules] to mission Indians, especially our own," thereby referring to the Native people as “possessions” of the Church. With dehumanizing language, Padre Lasuén then clarified the purpose of the missions:

Our basic work consists in the care of the native population of these new possessions, in converting them to the bosom of the church, and in gathering into the missions the barbarous pagans scattered through the hills and beaches like animals, or living in a society far from [being] civilized and scarcely human.

Lasuén’s wording is surprisingly close to the wording of a letter Serra wrote to Francisco Carlos de Croix in 1771. Serra expressed the “hope” that “we will see before long, new and immense territories gathered into the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church and subjected to the Crown of Spain." Whereas Lasuén expressed the idea of “the native population” being “converted” to “the bosom of the church,” and “barbarous pagans” being gathered “into the missions,” Serra expressed the idea of “vast territories” being gathered into the “bosom” of “the Church” and “dominated” (“dominios,” from dominar) to “the Crown.”

Get the Story:
Steven Newcomb: ‘Far from Civilized and Scarcely Human’ (Indian Country Today 8/12)

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