‘Far from Civilized and Scarcely Human’

Steven Newcomb

The book Writings of Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, Vol. I, translated and edited by Finbar Kenneally, O. F. M. (1964), provides information that helps us better understand the context of the Spanish Catholic Missions in California during the time of Junipero Serra. In a letter to Don Jacob Ugarte y Loyola, Padre Lasuén questions an edict which, Lasuén explained, Ugarte y Loyola had “ordered to be proclaimed within the confines of your higher jurisdiction” (pp. 210-11). The edict, said Lasuén, had to do the Indians being allowed “to change their location” and “to journey from place to place.”

Lasuén questioned applying such liberty to the Native people being held in the missions: “I would never believe that the law quoted in the first article of the edict would apply to the Indians of the missions,” he wrote, “but only those [Indians] of the pueblos.” Lasuén complained that “it is only with much difficulty that I can adapt them [the new rules] to mission Indians, especially our own” (emphasis added), thereby referring to the Native people as “possessions” of the Church. With dehumanizing language, Padre Lasuén then clarified the purpose of the missions:

Our basic work consists in the care of the native population of these new possessions, in converting them to the bosom of the church, and in gathering into the missions the barbarous pagans scattered through the hills and beaches like animals, or living in a society far from [being] civilized and scarcely human. (emphasis added)

Lasuén’s wording is surprisingly close to the wording of a letter Serra wrote to Francisco Carlos de Croix in 1771. Serra expressed the “hope” that “we will see before long, new and immense territories gathered into the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church and subjected to the Crown of Spain,” (emphasis added) (Writings of Junipero Serra, Vol. I, edited by Antonine Tibesar, O. F. M., 1955, p. 209). Whereas Lasuén expressed the idea of “the native population” being “converted” to “the bosom of the church,” and “barbarous pagans” being gathered “into the missions,” Serra expressed the idea of “vast territories” being gathered into the “bosom” of “the Church” and “dominated” (“dominios,” from dominar) to “the Crown.”

Lasuén’s dehumanizing language about “barbarous pagans” provides a fuller explanation of the attitude of the Franciscans toward the original peoples of the “vast territories” in which the Padres were working toward what they called “spiritual conquests” (i.e., dominations). The original peoples were, in Lasuén’s words: “scattered through the hills and beaches like animals.” Those societies were, in his view, “scarcely human,” meaning “barely human.”

In an earlier letter, dated April 29, 1785, Lasuén writes of three men (very possibly Kumeyaay), one of whom had been given the Christian name “Carlos,” and who was, as a note in the book explains, “one of the principal leaders in the Indian revolt that resulted in the destruction of the first San Diego Mission and the death of one of the missionaries” (p. 94). Carlos and two other men (Luis and Raphael) involved in the uprising had been imprisoned and exiled for six years.

Lasuén wrote to Governor Don Pedro Fages and asked for a demonstration of sympathy for the three men by releasing them. One reason given by Lasuén for his request is that he believed such a gesture toward the men would be persuasive in making the “relatives and countrymen” of the three prisoners “content” with the “subjection” of the Indians desired by the Church and the Crown. As Lasuén put the matter: “Finally, my Lord, if the prolonged and grave punishment which they have endured should be regarded as sufficient warning to them, the pardon and pity for which I plead will, without doubt, be a means toward making the relatives and countrymen of three unfortunates more content in the tranquility, peace, and subjection which we desire.” (emphasis added) (p. 94).

The idea of reducing the Indians under “subjection” is derived from the Latin subjectus, “to throw under,” and relates to the language of papal decrees calling for the subjugation or reduction of the inhabitants of the islands and mainlands that were to be brought under the domination (dominio) of a Christian dominator (dominorum Christianorum) for the expansion of the Christian empire.

In the language system being used by the Church, and by Franciscans such as Lasuén and Serra, the words “subjection” and “civilized” are synonyms. In this context, what is being called “civilization” is “a state of subjection.” The idea is this: once the Indians have learned how to be “content with subjection” they will have learned to be properly “civilized.” The phrase “far from civilized” is a reference to how far the people have to “go” before they will be “content with subjection.”

Lasuén’s view that the Indians’ society is “far from civilized” is accurately understood as meaning it is a society “far from having been successfully subjected,” or “far from having been successfully dominated (dominio) by the Church and the Crown. Having become “civilized,” then, means having learned to live in “a state of subjection,” with a proper “civil” attitude of “tranquility” and “peace.” The Native people, in other words, will have been successfully pacified (“conciliated”) when they no longer harbor any attitude of resistance or rebellion toward the Church or the Crown, their dominators.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is co-producer of the soon-to-be-released documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).

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