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Assembly bill would replace Junipero Serra statue in Capitol Park with a tribute to regional tribes
Guest Commentary

Assembly bill would replace Junipero Serra statue in Capitol Park with a tribute to regional tribes

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Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” California’s Native Americans can relate and are coming forward to reject tales concocted about their history, including the Mission period.

Until last summer, a statue of Junipero Serra stood atop a stone replica of the map of California in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, tucked among a grove of Camellia trees. It stood there for 53 years, erected with state funding to honor the Franciscan founder of California’s Mission system.

I could find no known opposition to the statue or record of Native American input.

Since the statue’s 1967 dedication, Serra’s legacy has come under greater scrutiny. Last year Serra monuments were removed from Sacramento and cities including Los Angeles, Ventura and Carmel. Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution in Silicon Valley, cleared its statue from campus grounds and placed it in storage pending a more comprehensive interpretation of history based on a campus committee’s recommendations.

While not condoning last year’s vandalism that took down the Capitol Park statue, I believe it is long past time for a more accurate and complete telling of the Mission period’s impact on California Native Americans and Serra, the symbol of that era. That is why with encouragement and sponsorship from six Sacramento-area tribes I introduced Assembly Bill 338 in January.

My proposal repeals a statutory requirement that a monument to the friar be maintained on Capitol grounds. The measure would replace it with a suitable tribute to the Sacramento regional tribes. It would also require that the proposed new Capitol Annex include a hearing room mural dedicated to California’s First People. As AB 338 is debated, an overdue analysis of Serra’s legacy can ensue.

Controversy over Serra has simmered for decades. It came to a boil when the Catholic Church canonized the Franciscan. Now, even the Catholic Church is reassessing its role in European settlement of the New World.

In 2015 while visiting Bolivia, Pope Francis denounced colonialism and admitted “many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America.” He continued, “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

Serra established nine of California’s 21 missions that stretch up and down the state. After his death in 1784, colleagues built another 12 church hubs.

Some argue Serra should not be blamed for “grave sins” committed during the Mission era or be judged by today’s values. However, scholars point to reports by French Navy Captain Jean-Francois de Galaup, who arrived in Monterey Bay in September 1786. Shocked by the missionaries’ harsh treatment of Native people in their “care.” He wrote, “Corporal punishment is inflicted on the Indians of both sexes who neglect the exercises of piety, and many sins, which in Europe are left to Divine justice, are here punished by irons and stocks.” Spanish Governor Felipe de Neve also admonished Serra for cruelties.

Decades later, in 1851, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, demanded that Indians be “exterminated” and the Legislature raised militias and bounties to carry out his order.

Massacres and disease decimated the Indigenous population by 1900. My own family was nearly wiped out during this period on their tribal lands in the San Bernardino Mountains. In 2018, I became the first California Native American elected to the state Legislature – 167 years after Burnett’s heinous call for genocide.

Genocide against Native populations resulted from deliberative and well-organized public policies motivated by bigotry, cruelty and greed. All the more fitting that AB 338 mandates a deliberative and collaborative process to replace Serra’s statue with a monument honoring Sacramento-area tribes. Input would be sought from regional tribes, and all California Native Americans would share in the belated recognition and symbolism of a monument adjacent to the state Capitol.

Such a process would produce a proper testament and acknowledgment of the state’s First People, the human toll they endured and their survival through Spanish, Mexican and American settlement and rule.

Assemblymember James C. Ramos is a Democrat who represents the 40th Assembly District  in San Bernardino County, James.Ramos@asm.ca.gov. He is the first California Native American elected to the Legislature and a lifelong resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation.

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