‘By Their Fruit They Will Be Known’: Junipero Serra as Indian Killer
In 1992, Russell Means came to Hollywood with his first movie role in Last of the Mohicans. Russell was looking for a writing partner, someone who could help communicate his people’s culture and experiences and stories across the vast gulf that seems to separate American Indians and nearly everybody else. Russell got me to look at many things I hadn’t looked at closely before. We began working together, and for the next 20 years we collaborated on books, movies, theater, a rock ‘n’ roll album.
In one of our final collaborations Russell and I co-authored the book If You’ve Forgotten the Names of the Clouds, You’ve Lost Your Way: An Introduction to American Indian Thought & Philosophy. Russell was concerned that if we didn’t write this knowledge down in book form, it would be lost forever.
As a follow-up to the Clouds book, Russell invited me to co-author a second book together—Indian Killers. This would be based on an art series Russell created, by the same name, which illuminates how 12 iconic heroes of Western civilization created their famous reputations by murdering Indians. Columbus, Cortes, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and so on. Russell walked on before we had a chance to write Indian Killers. I did, however get a chance to do a little fact-checking on number 3 of Russell’s “dirty dozen”—Junipero Serra, recently canonized by Pope Francis I during his visit to the United States, despite vociferous and steady outcry from Natives from many nations.
By Their Fruit They Will Be Known
It makes sense, in a way, to evaluate both Serra and Francis on their own terms—Biblically. Many are familiar with the passage in the Book of Matthew about identifying what type of plant you’re dealing with by its fruit. As the Bible says, “By their fruit they will be known.” You’re not going to get fruit from a thorn bush, or thorns from a fruit tree. It is by the fruit that you know what kind of plant it truly is.
The idea is that this standard holds true for people as well. It doesn’t matter what Francis says, or how many photo ops he gets with orphans, or sit-down meals with homeless crews—the only real important question is: “What did he do?” How did Church policy change? If at all?
“By their fruit they will be known.” According to this idea, no good man is going to commit evil deeds, and evil men are not going to do good. So in looking at Serra’s history, it’s vital to determine whether his actions were good or evil, and, by extension, whether elevating him to sainthood was an evil act, or a good deed. We can draw our conclusions about Francis and the true intentions of the Catholic Church from there.
Father Junipero Serra was canonized—that is, elevated to sainthood—in September with little or no opportunity for public discussion. Some might argue that there was plenty of time for public discussion after 1988, when Serra was “beatified” by Pope John Paul II. Beatification is the third of four steps in the Catholic Church’s elaborate and arcane process of declaring somebody a saint. The 1988 ceremony sparked a storm of protest from Indians, Chicanos and many others from across the spectrum of humanity. There was an expectation among nearly all those who opposed sainthood for Serra that there would be a chance to expose this question to much more public debate before any final decision would be made by the Catholics. This expectation was certainly naïve. The Catholic Church is not a public organization or governmental body. Why would they welcome any public debate at all? The Church is going to go ahead and do what it perceives to be in its best interest. It’s our challenge to try to figure out what that is, and why.
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