Photo Courtesy of Walk for the Ancestors

When Caroline Ward-Holland heard of the plans to canonize the 18th-century Spanish Franciscan priest Father Junipero Serra, to make him a “saint,” she said she “felt sick to her stomach.” 

Ward-Holland, a member of the San Fernando-based Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, said she decided to walk from her home in Santa Clarita to the San Fernando Mission “to honor our ancestors.”

But her walk that began on Sept. 7 soon grew to take on a much more ambitious journey to “spread the truth and let people know what really happened there.” Now, she and her son Kagen, 21, are currently walking to all of the California Missions, and plan to  complete the long 650 mile journey by November.

At each Mission she is greeted by area tribal members connected to each Mission, and joined by supporters who’ve heard about the effort through a website and the Facebook page that is set up. Intertribal relationships along the California coast have been strengthened, she said, as a result of the walk.

“They are welcoming us into their territory and people have given us an overwhelming response. We were going to walk by ourselves, and found that many more people wanted to be involved,” Ward-Holland said.

Serra is “revered” by the Catholic Church for being the architect of California’s Mission system and “reviled” by Ward-Holland and other members of Native California Indian tribes.

While Serra officially proclaimed a saint Wednesday, Sept. 23, as the “Great Evangelizer,” in the nationally broadcast Mass held in Washington, D.C. during the Pope’s visit to the United States, members of California’s tribes wore black and proclaimed “a day of mourning.” Ward-Holland and supporters gathered at the Mission in Carmel and held their own prayer ceremony.

“There are mass graves of native people buried at each Mission that aren’t even acknowledged with a marker,” she said. The out at the Mission in Santa Cruz, that Native people are buried under a Mission parking lot. Ward-Holland and walk organizers were told ‘that was good because that parking location wouldn’t be developed.’”

Undeserved Sainthood   

“This is like giving sainthood to Hitler,” said Rudy Ortega Jr., tribal president of the Tatavíam Band in San Fernando. “The numbers of California Native American Indian people killed at the hands of the California Mission system surpassed any war, or 9/11.”

Eighty-one thousand California Native American Indians were forced into the Mission system. 

“Thousands of Fernandeño Tataviam were converted, tortured and enslaved — how can making Serra a saint be justified?  asked Ortega, who met with L.A.’s Archbishop Jose Gomez earlier this year to voice the tribe’s objection to Serra’s sainthood.

“He essentially said that the Pope didn’t [have to ask] for forgiveness from Native tribes in California because this [situation] had already occurred and passed and there was nothing that could be done about it.”

Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, beginning his path toward sainthood.

Ward-Holland said there are still many people in their tribe who are Catholic as a result of the initial conversion through the mission system generations ago.

“It is fitting that history’s first Hispanic pope will give the USA its first Hispanic saint,” Archbishop Gomez wrote on his Twitter page Tuesday, Sept. 22, in anticipation of the Mass. With Serra, he wrote, the pope “is giving Americans a saint who reflects his own spiritual priorities.”

Before Serra’s arrival, hundreds of thousands of indigenous people lived in what today is California. But the Mission system pressured Indians to assimilate while also exposing thousands to foreign diseases that wiped out villages, native animals and plants.

“Part of me wanted to believe that the Pope was going to stand up Wednesday  and not do this as respect for the Native people, and all the atrocities that happened at the Missions,” Ward-Holland said.

“I believe that Junípero Serra actually created and brought genocide to the California Indian people,” said Corrina Gould, an Ohlone tribal member. “In less than 100 years, our way of life, our language, our foods — everything — was destroyed.”

Indeed, she said, the real miracle is that the descendants of “any of the California Indians that were pushed into those California Missions, those slave encampments,” are alive today.

According to documents at Mission San Fernando in 1815, “The captured leader of a group of Indians that escaped the San Fernando Mission had his feet and legs bound, then the skin of newly slaughtered calf tightly wrapped around him and sewn shut. He was tied to a post and left to suffocate under a hot sun that slowly shrank the calf skin.”

“The truth of this history needs to be told, especially in California,” Gould said. “They are still building those little Missions in schools today, and in doing so they continue to perpetuate genocide against California Indians.”

Ward-Holland said she is very disappointed with those politicians who have been silent. Letters were written to Gov. Jerry Brown and to the Pope that were ignored.

“We should put a tax on the Missions and reparations would be paid to Native people whose ancestors all their lives had nothing, [but] raping, whipping and starving, slavery and genocide,” she said. “If the Pope is who he says he is, then this is wrong.”

“Perhaps being a ‘saint’ is not the same to the Catholic Church as to what I consider a saint to be. I thought being a saint meant you were a good person,”  said Greg Cotten, one of the supporters and organizers of the walk.

“If the Pope wants me to forgive him, he would not have made Serra a saint,” Ward-Holland said. “I think if the Pope was going to canonize Serra, he should have done it in California. I am very upset with our government for accepting him and this [sainthood] with open arms.

“Are they pro-slavery, rape and crimes against humanity? They raped us of our culture, our religion, our language and everything. I really feel that I am now being discriminated against as a Native person. The atrocity continues as a result of the canonization. Shame on the Pope for condoning all the atrocities again. This is unfathomable,” she said.

In Serra’s own diary, Ward-Holland pointed out, he wrote about his support of whipping [Native Indians].

Mass Graves At Each Mission

And “at every mission we are finding the same thing with hundreds of native people buried in mass graves but without the dignity of markers,” Ward-Holland added. She said they may find a plaque on the Mission wall that references the numbers of Native people baptized, but no reference to those Native Indians buried at the mission.

“This is like a holocaust. The whole California coastline is full of Native people buried in mass graves. It is a disgrace, it is sickening. I am planning on working on the issue of retribution and correcting the curriculum in public schools.”

“I don’t think that children should be subjected to an incorrect curriculum.”

Ward-Holland’s son Kagen describes their journey as an experience of a lifetime to meet people who support them and already know the truth.

“At the same time it’s been a most horrific experience to go to each Mission and see how much everything is glorified and to see history has been and continues to be glossed over,” he explained. 

“At every Mission there is some kind of statue or plaque to Missionaries, but no recognition of the people who built the Missions with their own sweat. I met the President of the University of Santa Clara, and there is no marker for the thousands of native people that are buried there under their own feet. They have a statue to Junipero Serra, and it’s sad that they can’t acknowledge their own history.”

Close to home, Kagen also points to the example at the San Fernando Mission.

“There is a mass burial of my ancestors buried in what is the Mission dining room,” Kagen said. “I remember going on a tour of the San Fernando Mission when I was in fourth grade and I remember hearing information that I knew wasn’t right. The tribe has tried to work to have a relationship of integrity with them and we have attempted to have a dialogue with officials at the Mission many times.”

“If I had my way, I believe that all the missions should be repurposed as educational centers to share the true history, not the history that the Catholic Church has perpetuated. These Missions were concentration camps and slave fields,” Kagen offered.

“In the Catholic tradition, once you ask for forgiveness, that all is forgiven. “But the fact that all the missions still stand on sacred Indian land, I would ask, ‘what’s next?’ 

“The fact that after Serra is deemed a saint, there will be a new American saint to help the Vatican maintain it’s foothold in the United States. Our culture has largely been lost but we still honor our ancestors and our traditions, and the Pope doesn’t acknowledge that because if he did he wouldn’t be doing this right now.”

Kagen said he wants to volunteer in public schools “to allow the next generation to learn the truth.” 

  Pope Francis, during a previous trip to Bolivia, had asked for forgiveness from indigenous community. Ward-Holland said if she’d had the opportunity to sit across from Pope Francis and he had apologized for the actions of Serra, “a proper apology would have been for the Pope not to make Serra a saint.”

Why didn’t the Pope come to California and ask [the descendants] for forgiveness? Ward-Holland asked.

“We want the truth to be told,” she said.

Following the completion of their walk, Ward-Holland, with other Native California Indians, will concentrate their efforts to remove Serra’s name and statues from highways and all public lands.

To follow the Walk For The Ancestors, visit or their Facebook page.