A. Garcia / El Sol

Amidst the happy smiles of quinceañera and bridal parties posing for photos at Brand Park in Mission Hills on Saturday, April 28, there was also a determined protest group. 

About 20 Native Americans and their supporters walked more than two miles from Rudy Ortega Sr. Park in the City of San Fernando to the park in Mission Hills where a statue of Father Junipero Serra depicted kindly with an arm around a statue of an Indian boy stands next to a fountain in the park. 

The park is located directly across the street from Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana and is under the jurisdiction of L.A. city parks and recreation department and protestors have questioned why the statue is located at a municipal park.

Despite efforts to stop it, Serra was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 2015.  Since then, protests have continued and statues of him, including the one at Brand Park have been vandalized.

Native American Indians say Serra was nothing more than “a criminal,” and called elevating him to sainthood is a travesty because Serra represents murder, rape and the theft of their culture, identify and lands.

“We’re rewarding these criminals,” said Caroline Ward-Holland, a member of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indian, the first people who inhabited the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys before Spaniards came to this area.

“He’s responsible for thousands of deaths of indigenous people,” she said.

Ward-Holland led the April 28 march, where people chanted “Mission 17, you’re on Tataviam land.”

Chuck Sanchez, another participant, said the truth about what the Spanish friars did to Native Americans in California “has to come out.”

“People have this rosy, pretty picture and it’s not that. It brings tears to your eyes,” he said.

Controversial Figure and Statute

Before being canonized by Pope Francis in 2015, the image of Father Serra — who founded the initial nine of California’s 21 missions prior to his death — stirred contentious debate about the accuracy of  reported history.

For Native American Indian historians, Serra represents the “genocide” of native people who were used as forced labor to build the missions; for Catholic church officials, Serra was a pious man who taught Native people about God and spread civilization to lands barely populated and reshaped the culture of the West.

Protests, petitions and marches were organized against his ascension to sainthood while the Catholic Church hailed him as the first “Hispanic” in the United States to receive such honor.

There was even vandalism against the statue. A photo circulated online then and last year as well showing Serra’s face, chest, and hands spray-painted red and the word “murder” written in white. A Native American boy standing with him as part of the monument had red paint under his eyes as though he were crying blood. A swastika was also painted on the boy.

In 1770 Serra moved to the area that is now Monterey (in Northern California) and founded Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo. He remained there as “Father Presidente” of the Alta California Missions. He also founded missions in San Diego, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Ventura.

Between 1769 and 1835, missionaries led by Serra are said to have baptized nearly 90,000 indigenous people in California. Once they were converted, native people weren’t allowed to leave their assigned missions; escapees who were recaptured by soldiers were often flogged and imprisoned. 

Mission officials also banned their traditions and customs, as well as their language, food and dress.

Native Americans assert that Serra enslaved their ancestors, spread disease, and murdered countless individuals in order to forcibly impose Catholicism on the population.

“We’re taught to learn they (Mission fathers) are heroes, but they led the massacre of thousands of our people,” said Ernesto Ayala, of the “Crush Columbus Coalition” and one of the organizers of last week’s protest.

“They’re monuments to genocide,” Ayala said of Serra’s statue.

Ward-Holland agrees, but also makes a concession. If the Catholic Church doesn’t remove the statue, she at least wants something next to it to “tell the truth” about what happened during the Mission period.

“Something to honor indigenous people and tell our side of the story,” she says. “I don’t want people to forget what happened,” adding that “the importance of standing on historical truth is that it begins a healing.”

Native American Protocols

An effort at healing began in late March, when Archbishop Jose Gomez signed 17 Native American protocols recognizing history, culture and heritage of “first peoples” in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

“Today we commit ourselves to going forward on a path of mutual respect, recognition and dialogue,” Gomez said at the signing ceremony at the Museum and Cultural Center at Kuruvungna Springs in Los Angeles. He was joined by members of the Chumash, the Tataviam, the Tongva, and the Acjachemen tribe.

“We honor the rich contributions that the ‘first peoples’ of the land have made to the Catholic Church from the beginning — here in Los Angeles and throughout the Americas.”

More than 150,000 self-identified urban Native Americans representing more than 50 American tribes live in the county of Los Angeles, the largest assemblage of urban Native Americans in the United States.

“These protocols that we are signing today are not a treaty or a legal document. They are a promise. A promise that we will work together so that our future will be more hopeful than our past,” Gomez added.

As part of the protocols, liturgies, celebrations, cere-monies or events that involve the formal public participation of Native Americans, they may include a traditional blessing with sacred herb (sage, tobacco) by a member or members of the Native American tribe or band.

 Also, historically identified and authenticated Native American Indian burial sites are to be respected and are not to be utilized as construction sites by the Archdiocese, its parishes, and all other Catholic communities, organizations, and entities associated with the Archdiocese.

Rudy Ortega Jr., president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that the march didn’t have the tribe’s endorsement, but acknowledged there were “members of the tribe expressing their feelings toward Serra.”

He said the “the protocols are a promise from the church to the tribe towards building a better relationship,” and part of that agreement is the promise to grant them access “to the (San Fernando) Mission records and the true history that occurred during the Mission establishment.”

Ortega Jr. said they have access to baptism records, but not the priests’ journals, which shed light on a lot more details about land agreements and other deals.

For instance, one of the things they are interested in exploring is whether Bishop Joseph Alemany actually purchased the Mission land on behalf of the Mission people.

If that’s not the case, Ortega Jr. said, “it should be land that belongs to the tribe today.”

For some members of the tribe, there cannot be any reconciliation and they are doubtful that the Church will ever turn over records of any significance.

Ward-Holland, who last year began a “walk with the ancestors,” traveling on foot with her son to every California mission, saw the impact of the missions and evidence of  indigenous burial sites being disturbed at Mission sites.

“The 17 protocols aren’t laws, they are supposed ‘promises,’” Ward-Holland said. “For native people historically,  there is a long trail of broken treaties, agreements and promises.”  

Ortega said he understands that some tribal members don’t agree with the signing of these protocols.

“The trust is really not there with the church,” he said. “This is a step towards that trust.

“We felt that this is a good step toward better understanding.”

Diana Martinez contributed to this article.