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Home | Episode #7
The Naming of Serra Hall
October 10, 2018 | Student Producer:

Kristin Gengenbacher
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The Naming of Serra Hall
The history of Junipero Serra and indigenous perspectives on the naming of Serra Hall. (21 minutes)
Iris Engstrand, PJ Murphy, & Persephone Lewis

Kristin: Every day we walk by the same buildings, the same fountains, the same statues of the heroes of the Catholic Church, but do we really know who they are and what they stand for? What if I told you that one of these people honored by our campus is implicated in the death of thousands of people who have historically been silenced? Maybe you'd question the university or maybe you'd want to change something. Sort of like PJ Murphy. PJ is a pretty laid back guy. He's from the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. He's in his third year here at USD. He's majoring in business administration and he's an active member of the American Indian and Indigenous Student Organization, or AIISO, here on campus. So I'm talking with PJ and some of his friends on a Thursday afternoon in October. We're out in front of Serra Hall. AIISO's putting on this informational. I'll let PJ explain.

PJ: Uh, it's basically, uh, an educational event that we're having. It's a representation of the history, basically, that wasn't taught to the majority of the people about Father Serra. Ah, we have rocks laid out here on the grass, and each rock represents a thousand native lives lost. We have 300 rocks, so 300,000. That's all throughout California. But this event, we try to focus overall on California, but then generally in Southern California, because that's where the mission movement started. So with this we try to bring light to the history that wasn't really taught.

Kristin: Okay. So AIISO's got the whole set-up. They've got a table out in front with cookies and drinks and informational books. They've got the flags of each Native American tribe represented in AIISO hung up on the trees outside Serra Hall. They've got rocks painted red out all over the front lawn of Serra, and instead of the sign that normally says Serra Hall, they've got their own sign, which says "The Silence of Serra."

Kristin: PJ says that AIISO is trying to bring light to the history that we weren't really taught. But what exactly is this history? I mean, who was this guy? Really? I know that he's a Catholic Saint, our school has a building named after him and apparently he caused the death of thousands of Native Americans. Something doesn't line up. So I talked to one of the most accomplished professors here at USD who probably knows more about Serra than anyone else on our campus.

Professor Iris Engstrand: Um, my name is Iris Engstrand and I've been teaching at USD since the Fall of 1968, making me one of the longest standing professors. Actually I retired and am now working on a short updated history of the university.

Kristin: Dr. Engstrand is smart, like really smart. She's super knowledgeable in all of these subjects, like for example:

Professor Engstrand: Yeah, the history of California, the history of Spain, Mexico, Spanish Southwest,  Pacific Ocean in history and a number of seminars on shorter topics like the Mexican Revolution, Spanish-American War. I also taught diplomatic history, US relations in Latin America.

Kristin: Needless to say, Dr. Engstrand really knows her stuff and she was able to give me a lot of insight as to who this character, who had caused a lot of controversy, not only on our campus but in the world, really was.

Professor Engstrand: Well, Father Serra or Miquel Josep Serra, I kind of wish he'd kept Miquel Josep, which is easier than saying Junipero, but he was born in Mallorca in 1713 in a little town called Petra and when he was young he had asthma and other problems of health...

Kristin: So basically when he was young, Serra got really sick. He had asthma and a bunch of other health issues, so his parents decided to send him to a Franciscan seminary in Palma, which was the capital of Mallorca at the time, and he got better and he loved it so much that he joined the Franciscan Order and that's how Brother Miguel Josep Serra became Father Junipero Serra. Serra would go on to get his doctorate in theology and he ended up teaching at Palma, the same place that he grew up in, and he was always preaching about the importance of missionary work. So finally, one day his students just said to him:

Professor Engstrand: "Well, if you're so excited about missionary work, how come you're not a missionary?"

Kristin: Serra thinks about it and he's like, hey, maybe they're right. I should become a missionary. So he does, and he gets assigned to Sierra Gorda in the new world and because of some political problems and Spain, Serra gets reassigned to Baja California where there was already 14 other missions, but the goal was to go farther north. So Serra ends up walking all the way from Baja California to, yep, you guessed it: San Diego.

Professor Engstrand: On July 16th, 1769, Father Serra dedicates the mission or founds it, called San Diego de Alcala, which is the name of our university, and also the name of our city...

Kristin: This is when things start to become a lot more hazy and complicated and controversial when we're talking about Serra, specifically in the California region, but we'll get back to that later. Serra eventually would go on to establish like 20 other missions in California, ranging as far up as the San Francisco Bay area, but before that, back in San Diego, he was really short staffed. In fact, a typical mission consisted of six to eight soldiers and only two priests.

Professor Engstrand: And I think it's important for people to realize these were not soldiers of a conquest. They were explorers and they were actually looking to California as a settlement and there was no gold. There's no money motive. It was all for conversion of the Indians to turn them into Catholics and, of course, according to their religion, save their souls.

Kristin: But a lot of natives didn't feel like their souls needed to be saved. In fact, Serra didn't have a particularly great track record when it came to converting natives, specifically at this San Diego mission. This was probably due in part to the conditions and quality of life at the mission, so people were quarantined into one room and because there was little, if any, access to medical care, a lot of people died because of disease. Others were subjected to forced labor in the fields in order to bring food and other supplies to the people who were living at the mission. In fact, in 1775 there was a revolt at the mission. About 600 natives either living at the mission or a part of outlying clans banded together to try to gain control at the mission. Dr. Engstrand is quick to note that a large part of the reason there was a revolt was not because of Serra, but instead because of the soldiers. The soldiers were accused of raping women or of cruel punishments, but nonetheless, a priest was killed during the process. The soldiers were able to reestablish control at the mission and in the aftermath of the revolt, Serra seemed to show a lot of forgiveness or grace or whatever you want to call it.

Professor Engstrand: It's not a job anyone really likes, but he was, he was not very lovable and, in fact, Father Lasuen, who comes after him, who has to come and take over after the uprising, was much more popular and somehow the, uh, the natives really liked him, where Serra was never a big popular person, as far as the Indian people were concerned, but he didn't, he even wrote a letter that these Indians who caused the uprising and who were the ringleaders should not be punished. And he said that they didn't, ya know, know what they were doing. They weren't Christians and so they should be treated with leniency.

Kristin: They didn't know what they were doing, they weren't Christians, and they should be treated with leniency. Hmm. Despite the uprising, Serra was still able to convert a significant number of Native Americans to Catholicism, not just in San Diego, but all across California, and some natives really liked him. They felt they were able to incorporate parts of their traditional spirituality into their understanding of Catholicism, and he has left a lasting legacy in California. For anyone that grew up in California, they've probably heard of the mission system. Serra died in 1784 and he was canonized as a Catholic Saint, which means that he was named a Catholic Saint in 2015.

Professor Engstrand: And even then, there was, there were, uh, objections by the, some of the native groups there. I happened to be at the service in Monterrey when they were announcing it...

Kristin: Serra is undoubtedly a complicated figure, no matter how you look at him, but I think that defenders or supporters of Serra would say that to understand who, who Junipero Serra was you have to understand his intentions. And Serra honestly believed that unless he brought the message of Jesus and the love of God to these Native Americans that they were going to suffer eternal damnation in hell. And so while in hindsight he caused so much pain for so many people, maybe it does help to understand why, but, and this is the goal that AIISO was trying to accomplish, maybe it doesn't fix anything at all. Maybe actually it makes things worse.

Professor Lewis: You know, I think the legacy of the mission system is really the fact that it brought colonization to a land that had not been colonized.

Kristin: That is Percy Lewis. She is a citizen of the Yomba Band of Shoshone Indians in Central Nevada. She is the tribal liaison for our campus, and she's the Professor of Practice in the Ethnic Studies department.

Professor Lewis: Right. So, so, and of course people died. So the mission systems brought disease the same way any colonizer who came to the new world brought disease. We saw the same thing happened with the missions.

Kristin: Not only did the mission system devastate an entire culture and population, but it also had negative effects on the plants and animals that had previously been available to the natives.

Professor Lewis: The missions brought invasive species, so we especially see that here in California, um, you know, where so many plants grow so easily. When Europeans came here, they believe that there is nothing here, that there is no food here, that there was no civilized people, you know. Their whole idea of this as being kind of a savage place with nothing to offer other than the resources that they could extract, um, really also held when it was, you know, the Catholic Church that was, that was doing the colonizing and Father Serra, you know, he was canonized because of his ability to proselytize and to spread the, the Catholic faith and that, you know, that is what he tried to do here in San Diego with not very much success. When you look at the mission records, right, you see that he wasn't converting a lot of natives into Catholicism and proof, you know, our mission was burned, so there was a rebellion. There's proof that it was a destructive system.

Kristin: So professor Lewis is not the first person to recognize that Serra is a complex, complicated figure. But from talking with her, I gathered that it wasn't so much what Serra's intentions were. It really wasn't that at all. It was the fact that Serra set up these institutions and he created the norms that would be used to establish missions all over California, which is what led to the death of her people.

Professor Lewis: And I think this, this comes up in our conversations about Columbus also, you know, is the fact that Columbus came, created a precedent that was then followed by everybody who came after him. And we see the same thing with Serra, right? So when Sarah comes, he determines what the relationship is going to be with the native people. He determines what it's going to be with the neophytes once they become Christian or enter the Catholic Church. So he determines what that looks like. He determines the, um, the punishments that they will receive, how each mission is going to kind of be structured. That all comes from him, and that legacy continued.

Kristin: And that legacy still lasts today as Serra is still memorialized by Catholics as someone who brought Catholicism to the United States. And even though it may seem controversial now, back then it was viewed as respected and honorable by many people.

Professor Lewis: I've had people tell me he has to be judged as a man of his time. Right? And the argument to that is, well, at the time the native people did not glorify him, right? There is a side that did not see him as doing great things and we have to see him as the system that he created also, and not just as the man.

Kristin: What does it mean for our campus, a Catholic campus to have a building named after this figure? And what does that look like for the native community?

Professor Lewis: Well, I always equate the naming of Serra Hall with confederate statues, right? It's a memorializing, and with that memorializing a history, a replaced history, right, a single sided narrative of his, of his legacy

Kristin: And this single sided narrative is the same one that most people grew up learning. The same single sided narrative that Dr. Engstrand from earlier gave us. The same single sided narrative that we acknowledge every time we walk into Serra Hall.

Professor Lewis: Um, and I think that in an institution of higher education that we should be able to think about these things and think from different perspectives and be able to recognize that memorializing somebody who is seen to have brought almost an apocalypse to some communities, that's how, you know, you hear indigenous communities talk about the effects of the mission, um, that it was like catastrophic that a person like that shouldn't be memorialized.

Kristin: One of the big pushes that AIISO is trying to make is to rename Serra Hall to Saint Kateri Hall. Remember PJ from the beginning of the story? Here he is again.

PJ: We want to try to, in the words, like the big picture something that I would like to see is a name change for this building because this event wasn't an attempt to, it wasn't a protest, it wasn't like trying to bash, you know, the religion. It was just trying to educate people. One of the names that we were going to propose, is Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Mohawk, the first Native American to be canonized as a saint.  I believe that we can have peace among both sides. We can respect the religion while also representing Native American community on campus.

Kristin: Saint Kateri is highly respected in a lot of native communities, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike. A lot of people love and admire her because she was recognized as a Catholic saint, not despite her indigenous upbringing, but because of her indigenous upbringing. She was able to incorporate aspects of her native spirituality into her Catholic faith, which was inspiring to a lot of natives and much needed in a time when they felt like they weren't welcome in the Catholic Church

Kristin: This topic of forgiveness and reconciliation and what that actually looks like can't just be solved with an apology letter from campus or the church. Reconciliation and forgiveness are active processes with meaningful steps that can be taken, and for the native community, changing Serra Hall to Saint Kateri Hall is one of these steps.

Professor Lewis: An easy step that we can take, you know, as settlers to this land, is to make indigenous people more visible, to center, you know, indigenous perspectives, knowledges, epistemologies, histories, um, and I, and I think that's all easy stuff. And I think one thing as a campus that we can do is just to, to do land acknowledgements, you know. When we come together in a group let's thank the indigenous people, let's acknowledge that we are guests on the homeland of the Kumeyaay Nation, you know, and that as guests, we have a responsibility also. Um, you know, I think it's just, it's really easy things and I think sometimes we get wrapped up into these ideas of decolonization as a complete restructuring of society, which yeah, it can be a complete restructuring. It could be a complete tearing down and rebuilding, but it could also be acknowledging indigenous people, right? It could be making sure that they feel comfortable coming to campus, that we don't have buildings that are named Missions A and B and Mission Parking Structure. You know, easy little things that we can do to make them feel more inclusive.

PJ: I come from two backgrounds. Part of my family is Catholic, and part of my family still stays true to the native traditions. So I like to think I'm in between. I actually think I'm blessing knowing both sides because I can kind of see the light of both sides. With this and the past history, I understand it was brutal, but moving forward, you know, you have to forgive it and we're here now. We have flags hanging up, you know, to show that we're still a prominent people in this area.


Kristin: Maybe it would help to see things from this point of view, to be able to reconcile the horrors of the past with hope for the future. We have to find some sort of middle ground like Saint Kateri did in the 1600s and like PJ is doing now.