Caroline Ward Holland lighting candles and sage at the only burial marker on the SLR mission grounds for the 4,000+ Indians buried there.

What began as a walk on Sept. 7 to protest the plans to canonize Father Serra turned into a 780-mile  “Walk For The Ancestors,” that took Caroline Ward Holland and her 23-year-old son Kagen eight weeks to complete.

Ward Holland and her son are members of the San Fernando-based Fernandeño Tataviam tribe, also known as a band of [San Fernando] Mission Indians. Ward Holland and and other members of the San Fernando tribe have pointed out that her ancestors, and thousands of others were forced into slavery to build and work at the California missions and have been buried there without even the recognition of grave markers or their existence.

For the final section of the long walk from San Luis Rey Mission in Oceanside, more supporters joined them on Saturday, Nov. 7, as they entered San Diego. They were met by the local tribe who accompanied them on their final steps to Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá.

They sang and prayed in memory of their ancestors and for healing of all those killed or buried on the grounds of the mission.

A spiritual leader gave Ward Holland and her son an eagle feather, the highest honor.

“It was an absolutely amazing journey,” Ward Holland said. “We were so blessed to be received traditionally by representatives from numerous Kumeyaay communities, including those from south of the border. In total, over 130 people joined together for the final ceremonies.”

They kept a journal of their experience on their website, where they shared their feelings.

“My great, great-grandparents were slaves here at Mission San Luis Rey,” tribal member Max Moran said, with a booming voice. “We have a lot of stories about how badly they used to treat the Indians here. It breaks my heart in different ways.”

“When we started this trip, I was angry,” Kagen said. “But after walking [over] 700 miles, I don’t have the energy to be angry. It just detracts from the respect and love that I have to show for my people and all our cousins, all the way down the coast.”

The walk was joined by tribal members and supporters in each city where a mission was built, remarking the trail with red ribbons that they tied to the bells along the El Camino Real.

“Father Serra built the Missions from south to north, Caroline walked for our ancestors traveling in the opposite direction,” said Fernandeño Tataviam President, Rudy Ortega. “She and Kagen and others walked from Northern California to Southern California.” 

While the walk began as a protest, it became a “spiritual journey,” Ward Holland noted, and at each Mission there were experiences and discoveries. “We met so many people, and now many tribal members who we didn’t know, now know us and we know them.”

At the Mission in Soledad, she said it was most disturbing to find bone fragments on the ground. There was even a jar in the gift shop that held some of the fragments with a sign that asked visitors not to pick up the bones.

The group of walkers documented what they found at each mission, and saw that there was little to no recognition of California’s native people that were used as the principal workforce for California’s missions.   

“I’m really glad that we had the strength to continue this walk,” said Kagen, who was at his mother’s side every step of the way. “The walk was really hard, and I feel like the walk isn’t over. We will continue to work on the issue of California’s curriculum that has hidden our history. We have found that the system is not inclined to correct it.

“We’ve been told that our actual history is just too graphic for third or fourth graders so perhaps the subject of the California missions needs to be taught in a higher grade — but it needs to happen. We are going to keep working to ensure that the true Native history is acknowledged,” Kagen said.

Ward Holland said with the strength of a coalition of tribal leaders and other supporters the work will continue. She will be spending the upcoming days continuing to document her experience and will spend time with spiritual leaders on a California reservation to transition from the walk because  “it takes time to come down” from a spiritual journey like this one.

“It’s not just a bunch of individual California tribes anymore,” she said. “It’s one band of coastal California Indians who feel the same way. This isn’t an end, it’s another beginning. We’ll just keep turning the pages, until we make things right.”