Indigenous Nations v. Junipero Serra: AIM Takes Serra to Court
Junipero Serra was brought to court by California’s tribal descendants of the Mission system in the case of Indigenous Nations v. Junipero Serra. He was brought to court by the American Indian Movement Southern California Chapter on Tongva territory in Los Angeles for the crimes of torture, slavery, rape, theft of California indigenous land and promoting the intentional death of thousands of California’s indigenous people. The historic effects of this trauma are still experienced today. Serra was found “guilty” of all charges against him.
The “No Sainthood for Serra Tribunal” was presented as satire on September 12 in the form of Guerrilla Theater, and was serious yet funny, allowing for laughter amidst the pain of the Canonization proposed by Pope Francis. This theater piece was conceived and organized by Corine Fairbanks (Lakota), director of AIM Southern California.
“We wanted people to have a voice, and we wanted this protest to be creative and interactive in a positive way,” Fairbanks said. “There is so much anger surrounding the proposed sainthood among California’s Native tribes, that we wanted people to be creative and have fun too.”
AIM Southern California views the Canonization of Junipero Serra as an international issue having global repercussions. The Doctrine of Discovery was an instrument used by the Spanish Monarchy and the Catholic Church to justify the invasion, enslavement, and genocide of indigenous people. Pope Francis, in his recommendation to elevate Junipero Serra to Sainthood, implies that the Doctrine of Discovery was justified, and atrocities committed against California’s First People were justified and by “Divine Right.” Canonization for a priest such as Serra, with the large body of his own recorded statements, and well-researched historic fact, presents a profound contradiction and hypocrisy within the Catholic Church.
At the tribunal, Serra was assigned a public defender, portrayed by Fairbanks, and a defense attorney portrayed by Dennis Sandoval Landau (originally from Guatemala, now a senior at Cal State Los Angeles). There was a judge, expert witnesses for the Church, and even Satan, portrayed by San Bernardino College student Jason Martinez.
Martinez portrayed a dancing Satan with lines like, “don’t you love what you have now? Inhale the sweet smell of gunpowder in your streets instead of the sweet smell of sage.”
The role of Junipero Serra was performed by Kevin Head, a professional actor who also organizes community gardens. “It’s tough to play the role of someone so hated. Now I understand why so many California tribal people are angry. The decision to grant sainthood to Serra is wrong,” Head said.
The prosecuting attorney, played by Angela Mooney D’Arcy, Acjachemen Nation/Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, and executive director and founder of Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, asked pointed questions about colonial ideology, forcing the defense to stumble. She asked for a definition of genocide, and forced Serra to say that he believed completely in Church Doctrine at the time.
The prosecution presented its own expert witnesses including the Virgin/Tonatzin, who was portrayed by Mary Valdemar, librarian at San Bernardino Community College and V.P. of Latino faculty and staff. The Virgin reminded Serra: “If you have men who claim to be doing the work of God, yet they prey on the most vulnerable, the women, the children, you have an obligation to speak out. You cannot use Christianity to strip away our people. It is not an excuse for loss of language, culture and tradition.”
Lydia Ponce (Mayo, Sinaloa and Quechua, Peru) represented the role of the women working in the fields, who were not fed enough, and were beaten. Her performance brought tears to the eyes of those watching. Josey Trevor (Hopi descendant, Third Mesa and Diné) provided comic relief as the pregnant nun. “Here we are again, Serra. Not only did you rape me (thus my pregnancy) my mother, and our children, but you enabled the Spanish soldiers to beat us and strip us. They came into our room all the time,” the nun said.
The tribunal was not only creative, funny, and engaging, but it also asked serious questions about the validity of canonization and the effects of colonization and historic trauma that tribal descendants of the Mission system continue to endure. The play presented the effects of dominant cultural mythology that is taught in California schools as the only narrative about California’s tribal nations, and the importance of a new historic truth.
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