‘By Their Fruit They Will Be Known’: Junipero Serra as Indian Killer

Bayard Johnson

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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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
FundaMENTAList Catholics are just as bad as fundamental Muslims, fundamental Baptists and fundamental Satanists. These religions offer an "either or" philosophy. Either you're with us, or you're against us. As important as they are there is no room in organized religion for the moderate individual. The sad thing is that it's too easy to get run over while standing in the middle of the road.

brechlintom's picture
Submitted by brechlintom on
What you're doing is taking a secular view of how a person attains sainthood. Do you realize that Jesus chose his apostles who were sinners. In Fact Paul was known to be the greatest sinner. I would recommend that you look into the process of a person becoming a saint. There is a lot that goes into the process. " He added that although the canonization “has opened old wounds and revived bitter memories about the treatment of Native Americans,” the charges leveled at Serra “can be traced back to the anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda (that) prevents us from making an honest appraisal of Father Serra and America’s religious beginnings.” As an aside, a friend of mine referred me to your site ... very glad he did

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
To brechlintom: you said: the charges leveled at Serra “can be traced back to the anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic propaganda (that) prevents us from making an honest appraisal of Father Serra and America’s religious beginnings. _____________________________________________________________ Propaganda or not, the charges against Serra are well documented and have apparently been ignored when considering Serra for sainthood - what's that about "an honest appraisal of Father Serra?"

Rysha's picture
Submitted by Rysha on
The raw historical facts of what missionaries did as the "Americas" were being invaded is worse than any horror movie out of Hollywood. They paved the way for the military to take over, which led to the political structure that exists today. The process of so-called "civilization" boggles my mind to its core. It is in keeping with the doctrine of discovery that the catholics consider these friars "saints." Not because they were examples of their preaching but because of how they destroyed the indigenous tribal ways of life.