Apologize for This

Mission founder Junipero Serra brought death and destruction to Californias natives. Now hes one step away from sainthood

With the natives of the New World, he was at times equally overbearing—dispatched to quell the half-wild Pames of the Sierra Gorda north of Mexico City, he put on religious pageants, dressing the chiefs as Magi and the children as angels—but showed patience as well: he learned the Pames' excruciatingly complex language.

Occurring often enough for it to be a kind of rule, history is made by people who were lucky. And Father Serra was lucky. He had long dreamed of entering the unexplored regions of Alta California to save the inhabitants for the church, but when he finally made it as far as Mexico, he was sent off to deal with the Pames and then burdened with administration. But while he languished in Mexico City and the years revolved and he grew old, two events occurred far beyond his scope. First, the Russians launched exploring parties from their settlements in Alaska down the coast toward Alta California. When intelligence of this reached Madrid, there was panic because the central coast of Alta California was the first eastward landfall made by the Manila galleon, and Spain depended on the riches of that yearly voyage from the Orient to rule its empire and fight its wars. Orders were dispatched that an expedition be mounted to establish and fortify settlements at San Diego and Monterey.

Then the second half of Father Serra's luck came to pass. In the normal course of things, padres accompanying any expedition into Alta California would have been Jesuits; they ruled the Baja California missions that would be the jumping-off points for any expedition north. But the wealth and power of the Jesuits had long been resented by various factions at court, and now a conspiracy fabricated evidence against them, its result being the order's expulsion from all parts of the empire. Their missions in Baja were given to the Franciscans, whose leaders, casting about for someone to take charge of them, happened to remember Father Serra, then handling administrative chores in Mexico City and readily available for a new job.

He was appointed presidente of the Baja California missions. In 1769, 56 years old and not in the best of health, accompanied by a party of soldiers, friars, muleteers, servants and Native American neophytes to drive the accompanying livestock, he began the trek to California.

Get up from your desk or sofa for a minute and go to the window. Looking out, imagine the land as it was at the beginning. Mentally erase from your view of Orange County all the houses, glass-and-metal towers, shopping centers, streets, freeways, cars and buses and airplanes, any sort of mechanical conveyance, any sort of machine at all. Erase the hand of the white man. What you have left is the Earth as it was. Brown grasslands, cut by arroyos and dotted with groves of oak and clumps of prickly-pear cactus, the grasslands rolling down to mud flats and beaches and the ocean. Freshwater marshes, replenished yearly by numerous streams and rivers, their banks thick with alders, sycamores and cottonwoods. Evergreen-dense chaparral hillsides. Tall gray mountains. Deep canyons flushed by cold springs. All of it teeming with creatures: rabbits, coyotes, deer, antelope, wolves, foxes, squirrels, skunks, rattlesnakes, hawks, crows, badgers, bears.

This was the land the native Californians inhabited. In the beginning, they told themselves, were the Sky and Earth, who were brother and sister and who joined together. From their union were born dirt and sand, stone and flint, the trees, then herbs, then animals, and then, finally, a creature called Wiyot. And from Wiyot came the first race, the predecessors of mankind. Their numbers gradually increased. At the same time, the Earth grew southward, and the people followed. For food they consumed the soil. But then Wiyot was plotted against by the Frog Women, who poisoned him. His mother, the Earth, prepared a remedy but did not reckon with always-curious Coyote. In his curiosity, Coyote caused the remedy to spill, and so Wiyot died but promised the people he would return. His body was cremated. Coyote appeared and, singing his affection for Wiyot, leaped upon the pyre, tore off a piece of his flesh and ate it. After this, Chingichngish, who lived everywhere throughout the world, at last revealed himself to the people. He changed the first race of beings into plants and animals and scattered them across the Earth. Then, out of the earth, he made a new race, the race of humans, and he gave them laws and institutions and taught them to build the wankech, the ceremonial chamber in which was placed the skin of a coyote filled with feathers and claws and beaks, particularly those of the condor.

The native Californians fashioned a society intimately connected with the land. Living in complicated family clans, they built permanent homes, either of conical wooden frames covered with bark or earthen pits roofed with tules. Each village had its sweathouse in which the men would sit in the evenings. The Native Americans fashioned a wide array of implements: bows and arrows, pottery and baskets, gracefully shaped mortars and pestles, canoes, clay pipes for everyday smoking and special pipes made of ancient stones for the shaman to use in ceremonies. Essentially an acorn people, the Native Americans also consumed fruits and berries and seeds and added to their diet, when available, wild game and, if they lived on the coast, fish and shellfish. Food was dried and stored against lean times. They knew the medicinal properties of more than 20 different plants—wounds, for instance, were treated with poultices of wild onion and a plaster of cooked tule leaves. Their dead were cremated in special ceremonies designed to release the spirit of the deceased into the heavens. Boys and girls were initiated into adulthood with trials of endurance and advice on how to live good and responsible lives. War was waged under strictly limited circumstances and never to acquire territory.

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