Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Few Thoughts on the Pending Sainthood of Father Serra

Ever since Pope Francis announced this to be done during his visit to the USA in September, I've been following (and posting) some of the reactions to it. Many of the complaints seem to come from “Native Californians” representing one tribe or another. All of them appear to be small groups claiming to speak for all natives.

This may surprise you but, before the arrival of the Spanish, the California Indians had no Tribes! There was never a tribal council or the appointment of “chiefs”.

Almost every diverse group was based on family and, at most, clans. They never traveled more than a day away from where they were born. A group might share some cultural memories and blood lines, but the only interaction between the small groups were raids to capture “fresh blood” in the form of young boys and girls. The encounters were seldom bloody as the goal was to keep the clan going, not kill it off in warfare.

In all of California, there was only one warlike group – The Kumeyaay of the San Diego area. Possibly because they lived in the mountains where they had occasional encounters with the very warlike Paiute from the east.

An example of this is the group called, by the Spaniards, the Chumash. They occupied a coastal area and were quite expert and building and using seagoing craft made out of wood and sealed using pismo, the word for the tar that washed up on the beaches. Even though sharing the same skill, they had no senior chief. The most respected individual in the tribe was the chief canoe or tomol builder. Estimates were that, prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there were no more than 10,000 Chumash living in the area of present-day Ventura, Santa Barbára, Lompoc, Santa Inez, and San Luis Obispo. They also occupied three of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel; the smaller island of Anacapa was uninhabited. Modern place names with Chumash origins include Malibu, Lompoc, Ojai, Pismo Beach, Point Mugu, Piru, Lake Castaic, Saticoy, and Simi Valley.

It was Father Crespí and Governor Portolá who mapped out and named the various “tribes” of Baja and Upper California during the expedition of 1769. In every case, the word used to describe them, as far as the Europeans could understand, was their own word for themselves – basically The People. It was among the coastal tribes that they found faint legends and myths of other bearded men who had come to their lands in “big canoes”.

The friars never tried to form or deal with a tribal entity. Missions and presidios were founded based upon the Spanish desire to control the area and fend off foreign incursions from the Russians. Missions were built one day's ride apart, in areas with plentiful water. Four presidios were built to control the area between San Diego and San Francisco.

Finally, the Spaniards didn't even refer to the natives by their “tribes”! Their main concern was for those natives who voluntarily came to the missions and each group of converts was described by the mission where they lived. Thus, there were Barbareño, Canaliño from Mission Santa Barbara, Diegueño from Mission San Diego, Costeño from Mission San Carlos (Monterey), and Costeño from Mission San Francisco – which were actually Miwok.

And that is what they thought of themselves!

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain and took the missions away from the Catholic church, the natives were not organized as tribes. No longer being supported by a mission, the dispersed, the vast majority going to Mexicans with large ranches as peones or simply retreating to the hills where they did their best to fight off starvation.

It was not until the arrival of the American that native Californians found themselves sorted into “tribes” similar to those encountered to the east. Governor Peter Burnett was the typical White, Protestant American. He did his best to exclude blacks from Oregon and then sought to deny any legitimacy to the thousands of Chinese workers brought in to build the railroads.

As for the native Indians, they were the same nuisance to Americans as they had been on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas. Burnett issued a proclamation that all “Indians” were to be gathered and placed on reservations. He didn't care where they had been before. Thus, groups who had never before had formal organization, were forced to form governments similar to other tribes conquered by Americans.

Of yeah, one thing that is seldom discussed. During the time the friars ran the missions, the converts were taught to select leaders based upon their skills. Each mission had a native majordomo or field supervisor and chiefs were elected to bring their concerns before the padre or majordomo. Something the Mexicans and Americans totally ignored.

Thus, any and all modern day Tribal Councils only exist because of a bigoted, racist American governor who did his best to do away with them as in the rest of the country.

And these are the groups complaining about Blessed Father Serra and his fellow friars?


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