By Paul M. Lewis

The controversy over whether Junípero Serra ought to be made a saint is not particularly new. But it has gained traction of late because of Pope Francis’s declared intention to perform the canonization ceremony while visiting the United States this coming September. In a recent speech delivered in Rome, the pontiff is quoted as noting that Serra “ushered in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California,” and that Father Serra defended “indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers.”

Questions of papal assertion aside, the basic issue really seems to be: Was Serra a saint, or was he a perpetrator of genocide, as he has more than once been accused of? To an extent, the answer depends on whether you believe he ought to be judged by 21st century standards, or solely by those of the 18th century. Most Christians of the time—Catholics in particular—believed it was their duty to spread the gospel and to convert heathens to the “true faith.” Any other belief system was seen not only as inferior to Christianity, but as false, evil, and outright diabolical. Pagans in particular—indigenous peoples—were especially in need of salvation. Those who died while still believing in the tenets of their religions were assured of going to hell for all eternity. Only baptized Catholics had any hope of getting into heaven. In addition, indigenous peoples were seen as children in need of a firm hand to guide them to Christian adulthood, a state in which they would then leave behind their old ways and recognize the superiority of European mores and culture.

In those years, it was a given that missionary work led to the greater good—spiritual, intellectual, cultural, even physical, emotional, and psychological—of those who were evangelized. It was seen as a way of raising people up from ignorance and allowing them to perceive the light.

That this light came at a huge price to indigenous peoples bothered the evangelizers not at all. So little value was placed on their religions, their languages, their whole cultures that Europeans never even considered that something irreplaceable was being lost. And if Indian lives had to be sacrificed in the process, well, those who died merely “went to heaven more quickly,” as the French Jesuit, Honoré Laval, who created a “settlement of God” among the Gambier islanders in the South Pacific a century and a half after Serra came to California, so arrogantly put it.

The question really ought to be, why should Serra not be judged in 21st century terms? After all, he is being held up today for special praise, as someone who should be emulated by those of us living in 2015, and in particular (or so the pope asserted) by Latinos. Why otherwise canonize him at all? And here’s an analogy to consider: Just as lawyers can cross-examine witnesses in a trial on a particular topic, if that topic has previously been brought up by the opposing side, so it seems fair to say that the style and content of missionary work done in the past can now legitimately be examined, since it has been raised by our contemporaries wishing to canonize Father Serra. If he is to be considered a role model for people today, it is also perfectly relevant to know how exactly he conducted himself in his life, so as to understand what about that life people should emulate. Seen from this point of view, however, Junípero Serra’s life appears to be less worthy of imitation.

Many modern Indians hold him up as a prime example of oppression (if not of genocide), and as someone who disrespected and denigrated their ancestral cultures. He’s seen as a perpetrator of acts of overwhelming arrogance, puffed-up pride, and conceit. Many even believe that most Amerindians would not have readily converted to Christianity, if it were not forced upon them by a hostile aggressor who came at them with far greater military and technological prowess. The image of peaceful Indians living in the shadow of the majestic California mission buildings, happily tilling the fields, or sitting and listening to benevolent brown-robed friars preaching to them about the Christ child is not just a fantasy, it amounts to a deliberate reimagining of history. There is little doubt that Indian labor was not offered freely, but extorted from them by force. It may be true, as some historians (and popes) claim, that Serra did protect Indian peoples from even worse treatment at the hands of colonial overlords. But the fact remains that the Catholic Church condoned and encouraged the expansion of European power in the New World (new to whom?), and that missionaries like Serra benefited from the military protection of these occupiers, who imposed their own will upon subjected native peoples.

The invasion of the Americas by Europeans was devastating and utterly catastrophic to the cultures, the religions, indeed, to the very lives of those people already living on this continent. Never mind that they had been here for a minimum of ten thousand years, that they had built very successful societies of their own, and that they were quite happy without the “guiding hand” of European paternalism. All this meant nothing to the invaders. Neither is anyone saying that the Indians of the time were perfect. They warred against each other, and sometimes they killed one another, just as every other human population did in any other part of the world. Some anthropologists even believe that ancestral Amerindians may have been responsible for the killing off of whole species of animals, such as mastodons, saber toothed tigers, and short-faced bears. In other words, they were full-fledged human beings, with all of the wonders and all of the flaws each of us has.

What they were not, however, were children in need of guidance, heathens who had to be saved, or sub-humans who had to be shown how to become civilized people. The pope has the right to do as he wishes. He can make as many saints as he likes, and people can celebrate them if they want to. But Junípero Serra was a man of his times, and those times have changed—I am glad to say, for the better. He is now dead and buried, along with the values of the era he so well represented. We are no longer in need of sainted role models from bygone days when one race, one religion, forced its way, lording it over another. If Francis wants to give us a saint to model our lives on, why not instead find one who resonates better with the needs and the understanding of the time we live in? Someone, at very least, who can be seen as respecting, honoring, and celebrating the good, the positive, and the human in all of us?


By Paul

There’s been a brouhaha of late in tony Santa Barbara County, California, between the Chumash Nation and many of the locals. The Chumash want to build a bigger and better gambling casino, including more hotel space, for those who like to loll away the hours depositing money in electronic slot machines. The locals very much want things to remain the way they are, and fear that proposed changes will alter the nature of the area – more traffic, more outsiders (read, the hoi polloi?), less bucolic peace and quiet, which they pay a lot for. And, to be completely fair, I ought to add that there are no doubt other factors at work, as well, in terms of zoning laws, environmental regulations etc.

So, I’m not exactly taking sides on this one, since I admit to feeling very torn. First off, I’m not really much of a fan of gambling.   Sure, in a sense it’s like drinking alcohol, or any other thing that some consider to be a vice. If done in moderation, what harm can it really do? And while that’s true, it’s also the case that there are those who get hooked on it and ruin their lives, as well as the lives of those who love them. Personally, I can’t even stand going into a casino. Just the ping-ping noise of the machines sets my teeth on edge, and somehow I get this feeling of a vast aura of desperation. For me, it’s an uncomfortable place. On the other hand, it seems to be one of the only ways that Indians have ever been able to accumulate a degree of wealth in a society that has long considered them to be second and third class citizens. There’s definitely nothing glamorous or virtuous about being poor, so who can blame the Indians for latching onto a thing that works? The money gambling brings in can be used for education, healthcare, housing, and a whole host of other necessities that much of white society takes for granted, though not always all people of color.

Looking back at history, there’s no doubt that Indians have gotten the rawest of raw deals from Europeans, and later on from white Americans. In fact, as a measure of how invisible Indians are, most people don’t even think about or bother to educate themselves regarding what has happened over the years. In a short essay, I certainly won’t attempt to encapsulate the enormous, sad history of Indian-white interaction ever since that fateful day on Oct. 12, 1492, when Columbus “discovered” the so-called New World. Even the use of the term “discover” highlights the arrogance and high-handedness with which native populations have been treated. After all, the word means to find something new, something that no one had seen before, a place that was not known to exist. When, in fact, it was only the Europeans who didn’t know.   Depending on which anthropologist and which theory you believe, Indians have been in this hemisphere anywhere from between twelve and twenty thousand years.

Naturally, once word spread that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria had landed everybody wanted to get in on the act. That meant that everyone wanted a piece of the giant pie that had been “discovered.” The indigenous population of Indians, so called because Columbus was so turned around he thought he’d somehow landed in India, counted for very little. They were, in fact, pretty much just in the way. And besides, they were pagan savages, so Europeans were duty-bound to convert them to the true religion and in so doing to civilize them.

The very briefest of historical sketches might help to set the stage for that day when Columbus and his men first set foot on Guanahani Island, and the whole world changed for those who lived there, as well as for all other native inhabitants of the Americas. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what is called a Papal Bull (a kind of official “letters patent,” granting an office, a right, a title etc.) to the King of Portugal, allowing him to declare war against non-Christians throughout the world and sanctioning conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christians and their possessions. Later on, the King of Spain, who was not to be outdone, demanded one of his own, and got it. The Bull “inter Caetera” was issued in May of 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had “found.” This included all rights over peoples so discovered, who were to be “subjugated and brought to the faith itself.” Pope Alexander went so far as to draw a line from the North Pole to the South Pole, stipulating that the Spanish Crown could take any lands to the west of this line of demarcation, unless, of course, such lands had already “come into the possession of any (other) Christian lords.” Indigenous peoples were considered the “lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”

In essence, this document, and the legal reasoning found therein, was used for the next several centuries as a blueprint for how to deal with Indians. It has come to be referred to as “The Doctrine of Discovery.”   In the United States, it was the basis for a Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1823. In this ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that Christian nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the Americas during the so-called Age of Discovery. As a result, all Indians living within those lands had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations.” Marshall specifically gave the U. S. government the right to occupy lands previously controlled by “the natives, who were heathens.”

The logical result of these legal documents can be seen in how Indians have been treated in this country. If their lands were not simply taken from them by force, if Indians were not killed off by smallpox or other European diseases against which they had no natural defenses, if their cultures and ways of life were not decimated by alcohol, then so-called treaties were made, which were largely legal conveniences that were never meant to be upheld, once it came time for white people to make their move. And all this was done in the name of civilizing and Christianizing them, a logical and legal throwback to the Papal Bull promulgated by Pope Alexander VI.

No apology has ever been forthcoming from the Catholic Church (or from the American government, for that matter) for these injustices done to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, no admission of wrong, no acknowledgement of pain or suffering or loss, no compensation, no acceptance of guilt, no mea culpa. This is a fact of history, a thing that most Indian peoples have simply learned to live with over the years. The best lands were taken from them and given to white settlers, and what was left was “reserved” for them. For many years, it was forbidden that their languages be spoken, their religious traditions were belittled and condemned, and their wonderfully varied cultural expressions denigrated and disparaged. They were put into servitude by Franciscan friars, and their children were forcibly taken from them and placed in boarding schools hundreds of miles away, where they could be taught to “behave like civilized white people.” While those left on the reservations came to know the meaning of poverty, want, and cultural dispossession.

So, fast forward to the 21st century, and we wonder whether or not the Chumash of Santa Barbara County, California, ought to be given permission to expand their gambling casino. Should the Chumash really take into consideration the rich people who live around them and their desire for peaceful country living? And what about the zoning and environmental regs? I still don’t claim to know the answer to all this, but if I were to try to put myself in the shoes of a member of the tribe, I guess I could imagine myself thinking, why shouldn’t it be my turn now? The Doctrine of Discovery, after all, did what it was intended to do. It “civilized” and Christianized the heathen Indians. So, why is everyone complaining now that those same Indians want to take advantage of an opportunity to make money? You know, just like those good, civilized, white Christian folks, who live in the beautiful country surrounding them, have always done?



Dear Kevin,

I loved the letter you wrote about your recent weekend combination of ArtWalk and “Connect the Dots” event, designed to help raise people’s consciousness about global warming and its effects on life on earth.  It’s a very serious topic — what could be more serious? — but at the same time, if it is only approached from the point of view of super-seriousness, then people are easily turned off.  It is, in fact, by definition almost an overwhelming topic, one that’s both crushing and devastating. 

All that to say I thought your were right to inject a “clown person” into the mix.  The whole idea of clowns is, in fact, an interesting topic in itself.  It makes me think, for example, of the many ways that traditional American Indians incorporated clowns into some of their most sacred ceremonials.  I think that when non-Indians first saw this they were shocked and put off, even a little appalled.  The Western idea of the sacred seems to have no room for any kind of levity in it.  Which is odd, isn’t it?  I mean, who says that God has no sense of humor?  Anyway, I was surprised myself, I have to admit, when I first came to understand that clowns were an integral part of some of the most sacred AmerIndian ceremonials.  I wondered for a while why that might be.  Finally, it began to dawn on me that there were lots of reasons, and no doubt I only understand some of them. 

One of the things that occurred to me has to do with what I think of just as a lightening of the mood.  The “sacred” sounds awfully serious, and I suppose in a way it is.  Some people even find it frightening, especially when dance and masks are involved, and the playing of the drum, that mimicking of the heartbeat in all of us.  But people feel a bit of a load taken from their shoulders when the clowns arrive and they start making fun of everything — of themselves, of the people standing around watching, and even of the very ceremonials they’re part of.  They seem to have this ability to speak to people at some very basic, almost pre-cognitive level, and to say that it’s alright, it’s a good thing, to laugh in the face of that which is most serious, in the face of danger, maybe even in the face of death itself.  This, in turn, reminds me too of your wonderful painting “Leonard Says That Some Things in Life Are Serious, But Everything Is Funny,” which you included a photo of attached to your letter.

One of the other roles that clowns take on in some of these ceremonials is to, in a sense, turn things upside down.  If the ceremony takes place in the summer, they might appear in full winter gear; and if it’s freezing out, they’ll dance around in very little clothing, complaining to everyone around about how hot it is.  It always seemed to me that this has something to do with realizing that our expectations about how things are, or how they should be, are so often not necessarily the case.  In other words, for example, you can pray to all the gods for an answer about some question or problem, and you will get an answer, but that answer may be very different from what you thought it would or should be.  It’s a way of getting out of our head and into some other place that is open to the unexpected and the magical.  It’s a way of saying: “Surprise me!  I want to laugh and to wonder.  I want to be amazed!” 

Your clown persona incorporated all of these things, I think, and a bunch more that I’m not clever enough to understand.  But it seemed to me that you played the “adult-child” in order to contribute to the opening of  people’s hearts (not just their minds) in a way that was funny and enjoyable.  I saw people laughing in the photos, and it’s good to laugh.  Even when things are serious.  Especially when things are serious.

So, congratulations to “Pretty Pretty Snowflake” on his clowning about matters that matter. In the realm of ritual and mythology, you come from a long, long line of such clown people.  As Leonard wisely said to us many years ago, somethings really are very serious, but in the end everything’s pretty damed funny.