The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band’s Day of Prayer in San Juan Bautista began with the construction of a large open circle made of mugwort. Stacked at the circle’s center were red bricks that formed a fire pit. Decorated with eagle feathers and with deer antlers carefully positioned at its base, a wooden totem stood tangent with the circle. Next, Amah Mutsun tribal members—descendants from the mission Indians of Missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz—and their supporters were asked to step into the circle’s opening, where they were smudged with the smoke of burning sage, an act of purification. Handed a stem of unburnt sage, participants approached the fire pit, offering their stem and walking counterclockwise around the burning embers before exiting the circle.
For the next seven hours on Saturday, July 11, speeches, music, and dance reverberated from this sacred arena—a space built in strict observance to indigenous, spiritual practices and from which emanated calls opposing the canonization of Father Junipero Serra, the architect of California’s mission system.
Val (Valentin) Lopez, tribal chairman for the Amah Mutsun, initiated the event with a blessing. He then introduced the first of several speakers, ChoQosh Auh’Ho’Oh. A female elder descending from three tribes of California Coastal Indians, ChoQosh is an spiritual guide and storyteller, according the website, mendingthesacredhoop.net.
Sitting in a chair near the circle’s center, she chronicled the history of California’s indigenous peoples, explaining that for thousands of years their song and dance celebrated the land’s abundance and the harmony that existed between them and the environment.
But with the arrival of Spanish missionaries things changed, as the Amah Mutsun and other tribes were confined to mission property. “No longer the sounds of songs, only the sounds of whippings” and pain, she stated, echoed across the California landscape. She concluded by addressing Serra’s road to sainthood, arguing that his righteousness is “one of many lies” and that Serra’s supporters can call him “whatever they want, but that doesn’t make it true.”
In a pattern repeated throughout the day, Miwok and Amah Mutsun tribal dancers performed following each presentation. Accompanied by music and song, the dances added conviction to the invocations, as performers enter the indigenous spirit world, Lopez explained to the crowd of over 100. Rather than applauding, the audience was instructed to shout a guttural, “HO!”—an indigenous sound of appreciation and affirmation.
Peter Hain of Hollister was among those watching the performances. Hain, whose great-grandfather Skyler Hain was instrumental in establishing the Pinnacles as a national monument, explained that he had read about the event on BenitoLink and wanted to “stop by and stand with the people” in opposing Serra’s canonization.
Hain later added his signature to the MoveOn.org petition urging Pope Francis “to abandon the canonization of Junipero Serra,” according its website. Norma Flores, another featured speaker and an advocate of the Kizh Nation of the Gabrieleño band of mission Indians, encouraged attendees to sign the petition that she intiated.
Attendees were also given an opportunity to sign a banner entitled, “Respect Our Ancestors!.” Created by the organization, Chicano Indigenous Community for Culturally Conscious Advocacy and Action (ChiCCCAA), the banner includes hundreds of messages to Francis. One entry read, “To make Junipero Serra a saint would imply that no real good, no real miracles, and no real saints ever existed in your institutional church.”
ChiCCCAA co-founder, Mary Valdemar, said that the banner has traveled across California, appearing at various events, and it’s “to be presented” to the pope when he arrives in Washington, D.C. in September.
The tenor and tone of Saturday’s event was decided months ago, according to Gray Wolf, the associate director of the American Indian Movement Southern California who assisted in organizing Saturday’s event. Wolf explained that first and foremost the day was to be marked by peace.
He added that the purpose of AIM-So.Ca. is to facilitate this process, working “with tribes to make sure they are secure and not bothered.” So far this year, AIM-So.Ca. has collaborated with tribes holding events at Missions Carmel, Santa Barbara, and now San Juan Bautista. Other events are planned at Missions San Juan Capistrano, San Fernando, and San Buenaventura.
With the exception of one interaction that occurred near the site of the event, things went relatively smoothly. The incident, unrelated to the Amah Mutsun Day of Prayer, illustrates the intense polarization caused by Serra’s canonization.
Leading a tour group through Mission San Juan Bautista, president of Pacific Mission Tours of San Francisco, Todd Stagnaro, paused in front of the statue of St. John the Baptist near the entrance of the mission church. Stagnaro explained to his group of nearly thirty, that there’s been a lot of “pomp and circumstance” regarding opposition to Serra’s sainthood.
He then said, that Serra and his contemporaries “came with the cloth not the sword.” Serra, he argued, was the “the first human rights activist,” adding that California “Indians should be protesting [George] Washington and [Thomas] Jefferson” for accepting, participating, and institutionalizing slavery.
An unidentified female passerby, who stated she was Catholic, overheard Stagnaro’s statements. “You're missing a lot of the truth! Stop sugar-coating it!,” she shouted at him. Stagnaro retorted “…what gets lost is what Serra did” and that all historical actors share the blame for the ills of imperialism. A history major from Humboldt State, Stagnaro later explained that he was “very sensitive” to issues regarding indigenous peoples.
Awaiting their bus, Stagnaro’s group—many of whom were on the tour as part of a fundraising effort to build a Catholic shrine in Sunol, Ca.—stopped to watch the events taking place on the large lawn area owned by the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park—the site of Saturday’s Day of Prayer.
One observer, Odette Mabalatan of San Jose, strongly supports Serra’s canonization, though admitted she was “unaware of protests” against it. She hoped to learn more by the tour’s conclusion, which includes the visit to five other missions.
Another from the tour group, Faye Magpayo of Union City, declared, “…no matter how sinful you can still be a saint…nobody’s perfect.” Before boarding their bus, many from the group, including Stagnaro, confided that they had never heard of the Amah Mutsun.
After the luncheon period, Elias Castillo, the author of “Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions,” took to the sacred prayer area. Borrowing from his book, Castillo recounted the depravity, disease, and death that befell California’s mission Indians under Serra and others. Claiming that irrefutable evidence existed, he told the growing crowd that the impetus of his of book was to tell the truth.
Dr. Donna Schindler, a self-described tribal psychiatrist of more than 20 years, spoke next. She explained that the mission system inflicted deep, generational and historical trauma on California’s indigenous population. Symptoms associated with these “soul wounds,” she explained, include, “depression, suicide, homicide, substance abuse, diabetes,” as well as “lateral oppression…natives hurting other natives.” Saturday’s event, she concluded, is helping indigenous peoples, like the Amah Mutsun, heal.
One person who didn’t attend the Day of Prayer, though he was very supportive of it and its power to heal, was Mission San Juan Bautista’s parish priest, Father Jerry Maher.
In a telephone interview conducted ahead of the event, Fr. Maher said, the “reality is that some people feel hurt and alienated..with good reason and cause.” The priest noted that the Church shares responsibility in recognizing the pain and suffering endured by the Amah Mutsun. He added that most importantly he needed to be open and present to that experience, offering his parish as a place where “people who are hurt and broken can come.”
Of the event’s close proximity to the mission, Fr. Maher said, “it should be here,” for it’s the place where the Amah Mutsun’s “ancestors are buried…their spirits are here.” Fr. Maher shared that he had offered the mission’s cemetery for Saturday, but the Amah Mutsun had declined.
Speaking highly of Lopez, the priest lauded the Day of Prayer as an exemplary model of a peaceful demonstration, though he doubted it would jettison Francis’ decision to canonize Serra.
He concluded by stating that he would be there to greet Lopez and others before the event began. However, Fr. Maher never appeared on Saturday morning. Instead, a nun arrived and welcomed the tribe, according to Gray Wolf, the associate director of AIM-So.Ca.
The priest’s absence didn’t cloud the day nor dampen the spirits of tribal members or of those in attendance, including Dr. Mike Wilcox, an assistant professor of anthropology at Stanford University and the author of, “The Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest”.
Dr. Wilcox, whose research for an upcoming book on the resistance and rebellioions staged by the Bay Area's indigenous tribes in the face of colonialization, brought him to San Juan Bautista on Saturday, where he listened to speakers, took notes, shot video, and networked throughout the day.
For those who contend that the Amah Mutsun and their culture are buried beneath centuries of conquest and acculturation, Dr. Wilcox offered a counter narrative. He said, history needs to “explain why this is happening…explain this presence,” referring to the Amah Mutsun Day of Prayer.
As the smoke weakened from the makeshift fire pit and the burning sage lost its pungency, Lopez smiled and said, “it was a wonderful day…a lot of people…told the truth.”
That truth, as told by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and its supporters, has perhaps reached the pope, for last Thursday he acknowledged in a public apology, that “grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” But whether the prayers offered by the Amah Mutsun and others on Saturday affect Serra’s canonization remains to be seen.
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