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A bronze figure of the 18th century missionary Junípero Serra stands outside Ventura City Hall, sculpted in 1936 by Uno John Palo Kangas. Indigenous activists say a reckoning with Serra's legacy is long overdue. Cbl62/Wikimedia Commons
A bronze figure of the 18th century missionary Junípero Serra stands outside Ventura City Hall, sculpted in 1936 by Uno John Palo Kangas. Indigenous activists say a reckoning with Serra's legacy is long overdue. (Cbl62/Wikimedia Commons)

'How Do We Heal?' Toppling the Myth of Junípero Serra

'How Do We Heal?' Toppling the Myth of Junípero Serra

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n June 19, people around the Bay Area took to the streets to mark Juneteenth: the date in 1865 when the last enslaved people in Texas learned they were free, more than two years after slavery officially ended in the United States. The rallies followed weeks of intense protest across the country over the killings of George Floyd and other Black people by police, and over systemic racism in the United States.

That evening, protesters pulled down a bronze statue that had stood 30 feet high over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for more than a century, spattering it with red paint.

A statue of Junípero Serra toppled from its plinth in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park by protesters on June 18, 2020. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/KQED)

The 1907 monument was a tribute to Father Junípero Serra: the 18th century Franciscan priest who presided over the colonizing Spanish mission system in California that resulted in the decimation of the Indigenous population, and who was made a saint by Pope Francis in 2015. Monuments to Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key, who both enslaved Black people, were also pulled down in the park that night.

The Juneteenth topplings followed the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood by city workers ahead of plans by protesters to topple it themselves, and the removal of a Sacramento monument to John Sutter — a 19th century colonizer who enslaved Native Americans at his mill. The day after the Golden Gate Park statues fell, Indigenous activists in downtown Los Angeles watched as a 1932 park monument to Serra was ripped off its pedestal.

Graffiti at the former site of a statue of Junípero Serra reads 'Stolen land, stolen people.'
Graffiti at the former site of a statue of Junípero Serra reads 'Stolen land, stolen people.' (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/KQED)

And this past July 4, another statue of Serra was torn down in Sacramento’s Capitol Park by protesters following a day of peaceful marches by demonstrators aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement. The same day, Indigenous activists joined forces with Black Lives Matter organizers for a march in Los Angeles, calling for unity and decrying the historical 'sins' of the United States.

Black Lives Matter and the Fight Against Serra Monuments

Like the timing of the July 4 marches, the Juneteenth timing of the Golden Gate Park Serra statue toppling was highly symbolic.

"It's emotional for sure," says Morning Star Gali about how it feels to see statues come down. A member of the Ajumawi band of the Pit River Tribe — and the project director of the organization Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples — Gali has been involved in campaigns for the removal of several statues in the state.

She campaigned against the Sacramento monument to Sutter, and was there to watch it fall. She was present too at the contentious removal of the Early Days statue in San Francisco in 2018, which she and others had worked to remove from public view on account of its portrayal of Native Americans.

'Early Days,' part of the Pioneer Monument in San Francisco's Civic Center, was removed in 2018. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

America's current movement toward social justice, and the deep reckoning with U.S. history that it demands, is "absolutely intersectional,” says Gali.

"There is absolutely a mutual understanding of Black and brown and Indigenous liberation that we understand, and we've done a lot of work in the past year to get to the point where we're at."

She and her fellow Indigenous activists are active partners with the Anti Police-Terror Project — work that’s seen them hold memorials and vigils to honor Black victims of police brutality. In Sacramento, Gali’s efforts to "de-Serra" the city were purposefully held in partnership with the Anti Police-Terror Project, to “really show the solidarity that we have with one another.”

These statues are, Gali emphasizes, “monuments to racism. These are monuments to genocide. And it's time for them to come down.”

Morning Star Gali, with her youngest daughters. (Brooke Anderson)

Author and academic Greg Sarris is the chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, and lecturer at Sonoma State University's Native American Studies program. In support of "everyone who is suffering the legacy of racism and injustice," Sarris says that he and his tribe fully stand behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Let us not forget that the Indians on this continent were the first to find out what European insensitivity would do to us," he says. "And do to others."

As statues of colonizers are brought down around California — mirroring actions against Confederate monuments further east — Serra remains a particular focus. And for years, he's been a reviled figure among many Indigenous people for his leadership over a system that resulted in the incalculable loss of Native lives, and forever altered the Indigenous way of life in California.

When it comes to Serra, this is a fight that has been sustained by Indigenous activists for decades. And far from being a matter that relates mainly to California's history, it says everything about our state's present — and future.

Who Was Junípero Serra?

Born in Spain, Junípero Serra first traveled to the Americas in 1749 while in his thirties, to work as a Catholic missionary in Mexico. In 1768, he traveled north to California, and founded a string of missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco.

Father Junípero Serra in a portrait by Father Jose Mosqueda. (Huntington Library)

If members of a nearby Indigenous tribe were baptized, they were then brought into a mission where they were ordered to abandon many aspects of their culture and customs, and forced into labor — and prevented from leaving. Anyone who tried to escape the mission was subject to being hunted down and brought back.

The Native people in Serra’s missions were subjected to physical punishments like whippings and beating, which Serra himself justified in 1780, writing "that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of [the Americas]; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule."

A map of North America dated 1789, showing California when it was part of Spanish-controlled "New Spain." (Dobson's Encyclopædia)

Thousands of Indigenous people in the missions died from exposure to European diseases and from the brutal labor they were forced to perform. It was the discovery of the missions’ birth and death rolls — and the revelation that more Native people died under Serra’s system than were born — that sparked a more widespread re-evaluation of his legacy in the 20th century.

The hard physical labor performed by Indigenous people in Serra’s missions was, for years, characterized in history books as 'work.' The word for it used today by many, including the descendants of those people, is 'slavery.'

"Here we were enslaved in the missions, and whipped and beaten," says Greg Sarris. "Up to 90% of the population [was] decimated, from which we never really recovered."

The missions “were concentration camps,” said Corine Fairbanks of the American Indian Movement Southern California in 2015, ahead of a protest at Serra’s canonization at the Carmel mission. “They were places of death.”

Centuries of spiritual and cultural heritage were erased by the Spanish conversion system.

“Serra did not just bring us Christianity,” said academic Deborah Miranda, a member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation and author of “Bad Indians”, in 2015. “He imposed it, giving us no choice in the matter. He did incalculable damage to a whole culture.”

Serra the Saint

In 2015, Pope Francis announced his decision to make Junípero Serra a saint. The news was met with outrage in California, with protests taking place in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, Mission Carmel and Mission San Juan Bautista.

Pope Francis pauses in front of a sculpture of Spanish-born Junipero Serra, the Franciscan Friar known for starting missions in California, in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Pope Francis pauses in front of a sculpture of Junípero Serra in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. He canonized Serra on this visit. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

An Indigenous-authored petition urging the pope to reconsider the canonization received over 11,000 signatures, stating that “it is imperative he is enlightened to understand that Father Serra was responsible for the deception, exploitation, oppression, enslavement and genocide of thousands of Indigenous Californians, ultimately resulting in the largest ethnic cleansing in North America.”

A week after the canonization, a statue of Serra in Monterey was decapitated. Two years later in Santa Barbara, another Serra monument at the city's mission was also decapitated and covered with red paint.

This wasn't the first time the Church had attempted to elevate Serra’s holy stature. Almost three decades earlier, in 1988, Francis' predecessor Pope John Paul II had actually kicked off the sanctification process by beatifying Serra. That announcement too was greeted with horror by Indigenous voices, but even back then, it represented only the latest articulation of of anti-Serra protest.

A statue of Junípero Serra at a rest stop along Interstate 280 near Hillsborough.
A statue of Junípero Serra at a rest stop along Interstate 280 near Hillsborough. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Some saw the canonization as a Catholic matter for Catholic people.

In a 1989 episode of the TV talk show "Firing Line," host William F. Buckley Jr. suggests to guest Edward Castillo – a Cahuilla-Luiseño professor of Native American studies at Sonoma State University and a Serra critic who participated in the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island — that as as a non-Christian, “it’s none of your business who the church canonizes.”

In 2015, L.A. Native activist Norma Flores – who worked with the Kizh Nation/Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians to author the anti-canonization petition — disagreed. “Junípero Serra is being canonized for being an evangelist of the Native peoples in California,” she said. "Why do we not have an active say in this?”

What Replaces Serra?

Amid a national reckoning with U.S. history, how California deals with Serra is fundamental — not just to the state’s view of its past, but also to how it imagines its future, and the stories it wishes to tell.

A statue of Father Junípero Serra at Old Mission San Juan Bautista in San Juan Bautista, San Benito County, California.
A statue of Father Junípero Serra at Old Mission San Juan Bautista in San Juan Bautista, San Benito County, California. (The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

“Most people that are crying about these statues being removed cannot name the local tribe of where they live,” says Gali. “The fact that they can't name that San Francisco is Ramaytush Ohlone territory just goes to show the lack of education, really.” She attributes this lack of understanding to an active “suppression of information about the local tribes."

So if a statue comes down, or a place is renamed, what is the way forward? Should a statue of Serra be replaced by a figure from local Indigenous history?

It's not that simple, says April McGill, director of community partnerships and projects at the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, and the executive director of the American Indian Cultural Center in San Francisco.

An American Indian of Yuki, Wappo, Little Lake Pomo and Wailaki descent, McGill stresses that statues of colonizers like Serra coming down is the start, not the solution. Especially when a city doesn’t work to involve Indigenous people in that removal process, and in what comes next.

April McGill, an American Indian of Yuki, Wappo, Little Lake Pomo and Wailaki descent. (April McGill)

When the city of San Francisco removed its Christopher Columbus statue, for example, McGill saw a lack of “Native presence there to follow a protocol” for marking the event. “There’s always somebody speaking for our people,” she notes.

When it comes to the ‘what next’ after a statue comes down, McGill cautions against thinking only in terms of replacing the monuments. After all, statues commemorating individuals are “a white thing,” she says, referencing  recent words by Jonathan Cordero, chairperson of the Ramaytush Ohlone.

As to recompense and restitution for the damage done to a region’s Native peoples down the centuries, McGill says a city can begin to truly do right by its Native peoples by recognizing them as living communities with needs.

“I honestly say: give them a space," she says. "Give them a park. Create a dance arena. Give them back their shellmounds ... a place to continue to hold their ceremonies, and grow their indigenous food.” And federal land like San Francisco’s Presidio, McGill says, should be given to “the original stewards of that land,” the Ohlone people.

That’s how you honor them — not via a statue.”

Ultimately, McGill says, it’s about answering the question, 'How do we heal?'

Serra in Schools

If you grew up in California in the last few decades, you could be forgiven for being confused about why statues in Junípero Serra's honor are being pulled down.

The new History-Social Science framework suggests replacing the Mission-building project with assignments that provide more context to the Spanish missions.
The new history-social science framework suggests replacing the mission-building project with assignments that provide more context to the Spanish missions. (DAVID LOFINK/FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS)

Generations of California-educated people chiefly remember their fourth-grade "build a model mission" projects — and a conspicuous lack of criticism around Serra and his actions.

Of her own fourth grade mission education, Morning Star Gali says she knew "even back then that it was bogus."

Two years ago, when her now 12-year-old son's fourth grade teacher announced plans for a class visit to a Spanish mission, Gali says she flatly objected.

"I said, absolutely not. That's not happening. I will take my son to the nearby state park, to the nearby roundhouse where he can learn about our California Indian teaching that way. But he will not be doing any 'mission field trip.'"

The California Department of Education’s current guidelines for fourth grade education on the missions were adopted in 2016-2017. After learning about what life was like for Native peoples in California “before other settlers arrived,” the framework asks teachers to move onto the “colonizing” of California from 1769.

The public school guidelines emphasize how Indigenous peoples were “initially attracted” to the missions, “impressed by the pageantry, material wealth, and abundant food of the Catholic Church,” but that as colonization increasingly disrupted existing food sources and village life, Native peoples began to be drawn into the missions out of survival — and once baptized, missionaries and military forces “conspired to forcibly keep” them there, and pressed them into “forced labor.”

The state framework for teachers attributes the “extremely high” death rate among the Indigenous populations during the mission period to not only disease, but “the hardships of forced labor and separation from traditional ways of life.”

At the same time, it encourages educators to “sensitize” their students to “the various ways in which Indians exhibited agency in the mission system.” They say it's in the pursuit of “a more comprehensive view of the era.”

Greg Sarris says he's hopeful about the possibility that Indigenous voices have enough influence to make change when it comes to furthering knowledge of Native American history — albeit "sadly," he says, "only because of the money generated from our casinos that let us use that power."

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (Greg Sarris)

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, of which Sarris is chairman, own the land on which the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park resides. Sarris says he's working with the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, where he's on the Board of Trustees, and Gov. Newsom to privately finance a new template for California public schools to better teach children about their state's Indigenous history.

Who Gets to Define Serra for California?

Critics of statue-toppling in California have characterized ongoing protests as a passing moment, or somehow opportunistic of the current anti-racism uprising in the nation's streets.

After releasing statements in June on the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which called for readers "to join together in prayer for an end to racism in all its pernicious manifestations," the Archdiocese of San Francisco released a statement on the “destruction” of Golden Gate Park Serra statue. It was subtitled “Healing of Memories and Historical Accuracy."

A statue of Father Junípero Serra outside the San Gabriel Mission.
A statue of Father Junípero Serra outside the San Gabriel Mission. (George Lavender/KQED)

Its author, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, called the removal "the latest example" of how "a renewed national movement to heal memories and correct the injustices of racism and police brutality in our country has been hijacked by some into a movement of violence, looting and vandalism."

"The memorialization of historic figures," he stated, "merits an honest and fair discussion as to how and to whom such honor should be given." Instead, it characterized the statue toppling as "mob rule" — enacted against the memory of a man who "made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors" and offered them "the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ."


On June 27, Archbishop Cordileone and other Catholics joined at the site of the topped Serra statue in Golden Gate Park to perform an exorcism, saying that “evil has made itself present here" owing to the monument being "blasphemously torn down."

The New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights reacted to the Golden Gate Park incident with even more vehemence, with president Bill Donohue commenting that "Smashing statues of American icons is all the rage among urban barbarians. Ignorant of history, they are destroying statues of those who were among the most enlightened persons of their time."

Serra, Donohue says, "fought hard for the rights of Indians, and was rightfully canonized by Pope Francis in 2015."

Comparing the Catholic Church's view of the missions with the perspectives of Indigenous activists can make it seem like there are two Serras; two completely different versions of the Californian timeline. Yet as Dara Lind writes in her 2015 Vox explainer on Pope Francis's decision to sanctify, Serra "was canonized because what he did during his life was good according to Catholic teaching."

The statue of Junípero Serra in Golden Gate Park, before it was torn down on June 18, 2020 (Burkhard Mücke)

Morning Star Gali says she's tired of the 'historical vandalism’ narrative in much of the mainstream commentary she sees around statue removals.

"People are treating it like, 'oh, this is such an awful thing; this is erasure of history.' No, it's erasure of the lies that are perpetuated to support white supremacy."

Gali's own message regarding "the healing of memories and historical accuracy?" — “Tear down these monuments to genocide, tear down white supremacy: One statue at a time."

When Serra Became a Myth

To understand why Junípero Serra looms so large in the California consciousness, from the statues around us to the things we (still) teach our schoolchildren, it helps to know that his status as a California legend appears to have been no accident. It was rather an integral part of how California wished to see itself — and be seen — during the Gold Rush.

Serra's reputation as a kind of California founding father was intentionally built at the end of the 19th century, in what Atlantic writer Emma Green calls “basically a marketing effort as settlers came to Southern California in the 1880s.”

An 1877 painting by Léon Trousset: 'Father Serra Celebrates Mass at Monterey.' (Public Domain)

According to historian Bob Senkewicz, author and professor at Santa Clara University, this drive to justify white westward expansion at a time when the state’s prosperity depended on it resulted in the creation of “a mission mythology of dedicated, selfless missionaries and happy, contented Indians. And this mythology created a notion of California before the U.S. as a kind of bucolic arcadia.”

Native people have "always been the tabula rasa on which Californians can write their fantasies," says Greg Sarris. "One of which is Junípero Serra. And we've been so decimated that we haven't had the power or a loud enough or big enough voice to say, no, you cannot write our story."

The legacy of that 19th century “marketing effort” lingers not only in the Serra statues and countless Serra place names across California — and in the mythology of the "Camino Real" — but on a national stage. In 1985, the U.S. Postal Service commemorated Serra with his own postage stamp.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, a Spanish mission founded in 1772 by Serra in the present-day city of San Luis Obispo. (The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

In the U.S. Capitol collection of state statues, several states are represented by 21st-century statues of Indigenous people, such as New Mexico (Pueblo leader Po'pay) and Wyoming (Chief Washakie of the Shoshone) — but a bronze figure of Serra has represented California since 1931.

Alongside it, the state of Virginia is still represented by a 1909 statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

Serra as Symbol

Why has Serra in particular — and the monuments erected in his honor — become such a flashpoint in this moment, as anti-racism campaigners take their fight to the streets?

For Sarris, Serra represents a way of thinking about Indigenous culture — as something not to be understood and preserved, but colonized and assimilated — that has traumatic repercussions today. "Here was a man who represented a culture that felt entitled to dominate another culture,” he says. “The cultural insensitivity that resulted in violence and the death of 90% of the California Indian population is something to be understood, and not cherished."

Compared with the drive against Confederate statues on the East Coast, Sarris just doesn’t see "enough interest or understanding of the violence against California Indians for the larger California general public to say, take down Junípero Serra." At least, not yet. And for him, that lack of urgency from non-Native people around Serra's legacy stems from fundamental misunderstandings about California's Native history and culture.

A rainbow is projected over the statue of Confederate General Robert Lee on June 12, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the General Lee statue as soon as possible but legal proceedings have temporarily halted those plans. (Eze Amos/Getty Images)

For Morning Star Gali, the still-standing Serra statues represent a visual emblem of the wider issue at hand: California's systemic inaction towards its Native peoples. She notes that June marks one year since Gov. Gavin Newsom delivered an apology "for the many instances of violence, mistreatment and neglect inflicted upon California Native Americans throughout the state’s history."

But, Gali notes, “an apology is nothing without action” — especially where it concerns vital decisions being made for Indigenous people without their input.

Most recently, she says, where is that action regarding the coronavirus relief funds provided by the CARES Act? Funds were dispersed only to Native tribes that are federally recognized, to the exclusion of tribes that have been terminated, disenrolled and disenfranchised. The federal government, Gali notes, still “gets to decide who is and who is not a Native person in California."

In the lack of a specific apology from the Catholic Church for Serra’s legacy, Gali sees this same inaction.

“Until that's done," she says, "there is still a gaping wound that needs to be healed."

How Can You Challenge a Statue or Place Name?

If there’s a statue or place name in your area that you want to officially challenge, how can you do that as a member of the public?

Arianna Antone-Ramirez is a research associate at the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, and is on the board of the American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco. Born and raised in the Mission District of San Francisco, she's a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona and was a part of the campaign to remove San Francisco's Early Days statue. Her key advice for activism in this field? "Let the community lead" — especially if you're a non-Indigenous ally.

Antone-Ramirez recommends beginning by researching the communities who are "directly affected" by the issue at hand, finding out what they're already working on, and offering support to their organizers.

Arianna Antone-Ramirez is a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, and was a part of the campaign to remove San Francisco's Early Days statue. (Arianna Antone-Ramirez)

She also advises embarking on your own bureaucratic research.

"Has anything come up in my city council? Wherever you live, have there been any hearings about this? ... Where is this issue now? Is it in a committee?" Acquiring this familiarity with civic processes, says Antone-Ramirez, will really help these efforts.

And what are these processes?

The best approach for challenging a statue or place name is “the same as approaching the city government for any other civic inquiry,” says Rebekah Krell, acting director of cultural affairs at the San Francisco Arts Commission – the city body that was involved in the removal of the Early Days statue.

The governmental bodies she recommends contacting:

  • Your District Supervisor
  • The Mayor’s office of your town/city
  • The local Arts Commission
  • Your local non-emergency 311 line

Krell also advises attending “any number of public meetings” to “pose general public comment.” This, she says, is how member of the public campaigning for the removal of the Early Days monument “got the ball rolling”– “the community came to a [monthly] public Arts Commission meeting” and spoke up.

If a group is specifically looking to challenge a monument or public artwork, Krell says that the agency governing these can differ from municipality. It could be an Arts Commission (as in San Francisco), a Parks Department or your city’s Public Works.

“But when all else fails,” she says, “your elected city representative (council member, district supervisor, etc.) office should be able to direct your concern.”

The San Francisco Arts Commission has announced plans to now evaluate the the city’s nearly one hundred public monuments and memorials — and whether any of them should be removed. The plans will apparently entail the city examining factors including the story behind the historical figure a work depicts, the artist who made it, the community's response so far, and the cost of its removal.

The original story incorrectly listed Greg Sarris as the owner of Graton Resort & Casino and has since been corrected.


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