School students and tourists may have a romantic vision of California’s missions and the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Franciscan friars who headed them. Journalist Elias Castillo’s book, “A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions,” challenges the notion, charging that forced labor and physical punishment ultimately led to the annihilation of California’s early inhabitants.
Twenty-one missions stretch across the state, from Mission San Diego de Alcalá, founded in San Diego in 1769, to Mission San Francisco de Solano, founded in Sonoma in 1823. Derived from mission records, it is estimated that the state’s indigenous population before the mission period was as high as 350,000, with an estimated 500 to 600 tribes or tribelets with their own cultures, traditions and languages. (After the period, the population is estimated at 150,000.)
Castillo succinctly traces the life of Miguel Joseph Serra (he later took the name Junípero to honor Saint Junipero, a companion of Saint Francis), including the iconic figure’s self-inflicted lashings and self-loathing. Serra subscribed to the contemporary view that indigenous people were demonic and their culture must be destroyed, replaced with “belief in a single God and the complex accompanying Catholic morality, theology and rituals.”
The details of this well-meaning, if misguided, cultural confrontation are an important, and painful story, adding immeasurably to our understanding of a complicated and contested chapter of California’s history.
The book’s publication is timely, with Pope Francis’ plans to canonize Father Serra, who was beatified in 1988, in September.
Castillo, a three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and the Associated Press, researched the book using primary sources, including material from little-known church and Spanish government archives.
His heavily footnoted text is fascinating in its detailed accessibility, and 14 pages of bibliographic sources, eight pages of color plates, a five-page index and various appendices solidify the documentation, which is not undermined by the few minor typos.
Lest one think that this history is no longer relevant, Castillo ends with this reminder: “The Bureau of Indian Affairs is playing Russian Roulette with the heritage of the United States. Each year that passes as the agency, perhaps deliberately, moves at a ponderous snail’s pace on petitions for recognition, Indian elders die and along with them the history, language, knowledge, and traditions of the First Americans…”
A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions
By: Elias Castillo
Published by: Craven Street Books