History

Catholic leaders to examine portrayal of Indians’ experience at missions

A statue of Fray Junipero Serra, the founder of The California Missions, is outside the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo, photographed June 20, 2012.
A statue of Fray Junipero Serra, the founder of The California Missions, is outside the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo, photographed June 20, 2012. acruz@sacbee.com

Bishop Jaime Soto, who heads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento and the California Catholic Conference, announced Friday a plan to explore how American Indian experiences at California missions during the era of Father Junipero Serra are portrayed and how they are taught in Catholic schools.

The effort, involving American Indian educators, historians, Catholic school officials and others, will focus on 19 missions still under church control and address the schools’ third- and fourth-grade curriculum.

Pope Francis’ January announcement that he will canonize Serra on Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C., was a catalyst for the church to open a dialogue about what changes should occur, said Ken Laverone, provincial vicar of the Franciscan Province, which is a partner with the Catholic bishops of California in the effort.

“The canonization from that perspective is a positive thing,” Laverone said. “Whether you agree he should be canonized or not, the fact is that it’s giving us both sides of the dialogue.”

Soto, in a statement with the announcement, noted that the California mission era “gave rise to controversy and to heartache” when seen through the eyes of Americans Indians.

“For many years, the Indian experience has been ignored or denied, replaced by an incomplete version of history focused more on European colonists than on the original Californians,” Soto said.

The 18-month initiative will proceed on two fronts. One emphasis will focus on how the history is presented within the missions. The other will explore how American Indians and missions are presented to Catholic students.

In the schools, each superintendent for California’s 12 dioceses will look at the curriculum and examine how Serra is taught and how the story of American Indians in California missions is taught, said Andrew Galvan, curator of Mission Dolores in San Francisco and a member of the Ohlone tribe.

“We’re not looking to rewrite textbooks,” he said. Instead, the aim would be to mold a curriculum that is correct and true, Galvan said.

On the mission front, a panel will review and revise cultural content and displays, guided by a cultural study and survey of the sites by Galvan.

Galvan said he was delighted that the issues he discussed with Catholic bishops at a Sacramento meeting in April were about to be explored.

Currently, he said, descendants of the natives whose labors built the missions cannot tour them without paying a fee charged to the general public. And they cannot reserve a classroom in a mission for an activity without being charged.

“My ancestors were baptized at Mission Dolores,” he said. “I’m museum director and I don’t have anything about what Indian people are doing today, cultural revitalization, arts and crafts,” he said.

A large wall exhibit at the mission in Carmel uses teepees to designate the locations of American Indian villages, Galvan said. “There were no teepees in California,” he said. “It’s offensive to native people. It’s wrong.”

Galvan described the missions as places where traditional American Indian life was suppressed to transform natives into good Spaniards and good Catholics.

“What the missions need in California (is) to let the Indians in,” he said, to visit and worship where their ancestors lived.

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