Native Americans Want Church Recognition for Mission Work

December 4, 2000

Source: Los Angeles Times

On December 4, 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that "with its Moorish domes and bell towers, the splendid Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel is the jewel of the California mission system. The small cell where Father Junipero Serra lived and worked has been meticulously preserved. When he died on Aug. 28, 1784, the remains of California's apostle were buried at the foot of the main altar. Now, however, a displaced tribe of Indians is trying to stake a claim in what Serra called the 'Garden of God,' south of San Francisco. The Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe is asking that its centuries-old contributions to the construction and operation of the 'gem of all the missions' be finally--and formally--recognized. According to Chief Tony Cerda, it's about time the Catholic church gave credit to his ancestors. It was his forebear, Chief Chanay, he said, who persuaded tribal members to join Serra at the mission...To the church, however, it isn't that simple. Still smarting over allegations that, far from leading them to God, Serra exploited indigenous people, the modern church insists that it respects the Indians who greeted Serra as he made his way through California. But it also is careful to guard its authority over the missions. Albert S. Ham, the attorney for the diocese at Monterey, said that, over time, demands of the Rumsen tribe escalated from a request for recognition to calls for erection of a bronze statue, inclusion of Rumsen Indians in all mission celebrations, and allowing the Indians to sell arts and crafts at the gift shop...And there it stands. Cerda, whose 1,500-member tribe now lives in Chino, said he has contacted an Indian legal firm and may sue. The church is doing its own historical research to check the Indians' claims. Ham is careful to say the church is not denying that Cerda's tribe was involved in the mission. But, he said, so were other tribes. The genesis of the dispute goes back to June 3, 1770, when explorer Don Gaspar de Portola claimed Alta California for Spain. On that Sunday, Serra, a Franciscan missionary, said Mass under an oak and planted a cross. The mission was moved to its present site near Carmel Bay a year later...In 1960, Pope John XXIII designated the mission a minor basilica, a title assigned to certain important churches. Pope John Paul II visited the mission in 1987. There's no disputing that Indians played an important role in mission life. In the first marriage at the mission, a 13-year-old Indian girl wed a 46-year-old Spaniard, according to Cerda...The diocese erected a plaque years ago honoring the Indians and the early Spaniards who developed the mission and helped it flourish. Cerda and the Rumsen Indians say they deserve more. Their claim that their ancestors played an important role in the early life of the mission is based on research Cerda did several years ago using church records and Serra's personal diaries. The tribe has hired a Beverly Hills public relations firm, Harris-DeLorean, to ask the diocese to do more than honor generic Indians. What the tribe wanted, according to Chris Harris, was verification that it was the Costanoan--which means coastal in Spanish--Rumsen tribe that helped build and maintain the mission in Carmel. In fact, said Harris, the mission is on land that belonged to the ancient tribal community of Achasta. The tribe's Web site contains a map showing the location of tribal villages north of today's Carmel. According to Harris, the Indians were freed in 1834. They migrated to the Northern California gold fields and then to Southern California, where the tribe has its headquarters and operates a business growing and selling trees...Harris said he began talks with the diocese in September...Things turned sour, however, when the public relations firm sent a letter requesting 16 things. They included locating Indian graves, putting up a bronze statue and eliminating tepees on the grounds because the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe did not live in tepees. They also requested the return of Indian artifacts, and asked that Rumsen Indians be included in all mission celebrations...Lurking behind this issue is the ugly ghost of Spanish colonialism and the role in it that was played by the church and its representatives. Efforts to canonize Serra in recent years have met with strong resistance from Native Americans, who say he was more oppressor than civilizer...Other missions in recent years have taken steps to recognize Indian contributions. At the mission in San Fernando, for instance, a memorial was erected on its 200th anniversary in 1997 to honor the 2,000 Indians associated with the mission, said Msgr. Francis J. Weber."