Early this year, 2015, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is scheduled to launch a replica of the colonizing Spanish ship called “San Salvador” (“Holy Savior”). That was the ship which Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, in 1542, sailed into the Kumeyaay bay of the Kumeyaay Nation’s territory. As a result of that voyage, the society of the United States now typically calls that bay, and the city adjacent to it, by the Catholic name, “San Diego” (“Saint Diego”).
Cabrillo sailed up the Baja peninsula under a royal commission that the Spanish crown had granted to a vicious and deadly psychopath, a conquistador named Pedro Alvarado. The royal commission authorized Alvarado “to discover and conquer” places he was able to reach by sailing northward along the Baja peninsula. When Alvarado was killed in Guatemala, the Spanish viceroy charged Cabrillo with sailing north on the basis of that royal commission.
One biographer, Harry Kelsey (Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, 1998), has described Cabrillo as “a family man, and perhaps even a religious man” who was “a professional soldier with a real taste for slaughter” (back cover). Those were Native people Cabrillo was slaughtering, by the way, during the time he served under Hernán Cortez and Alvarado. The entire Spanish maritime tradition is interwoven with a loss of life at genocidal levels among the original Native nations and peoples of those regions that the crowns of Castille and León colonized so as to force them under Spanish Catholic domination, and plunder their resources.
By a most striking coincidence, the very same year the Maritime Museum of San Diego is going to celebrate a bloody conquistador named Cabrillo, Pope Francis and the Vatican are going to celebrate the deadly and unsaintly Spanish Catholic mission system by bestowing sainthood on Junipero Serra. He was the Franciscan founder of San Diego Mission de Alcala in 1769, and nine of the twenty-one missions in what the Spanish then called “Alta California.”
Given a Native population collapse of some 90% in the Spanish Catholic missions of “Alta California” (Robert Jackson, 1990), any Indian person consigned to or born in a mission had been pretty much given a death sentence. The life expectancy for Indian children born in the Alta California missions, according to Robert Jackson, was only 4.5 years of age. The massive destruction of the original nations and peoples of California is the reason why there ought to be a mourning rather than a celebration associated with the ship San Salvador and the Spanish Catholic Mission system.
A context of domination is another reason not to celebrate the San Salvador or Junipero Serra. What does it say about a religion and a society when it pretends that a tradition of dehumanization and brutal domination is a tradition of virtue and saintliness? Some, especially some Catholics, are likely to respond: “Domination? Really? That’s a bit harsh.” Let’s look at an accumulation of evidence.
In a previous column in Indian Country Today Media Network, “Father Serra’s Sainthood: Sanctifying A Legacy of Domination,” http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/01/17/father-serras-sainthood-sanctifying-legacy-domination , I mentioned the title page of a book published by the Catholic Church. On that title page Mother Mary of the Catholic Church is called “Senora de los Exercitos” (“Lady of Armies”) and “La Conquistadora de Nuevas Reynas” )“the Female Conqueror of New Kingdoms”). Such vocabulary matches Pope Alexander VI’s authorization to Los Reyes (Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand) to establish Spanish domination over the original nations existing in that region of the world to which Cristobal Colón (Columbus) had sailed.
The pope declared it to be “cherished of his heart” that “barbarous nations” be “subjugated” (deprimantur, in Latin) and reduced to the Catholic faith and Christian religion. This is the tradition that Pope Francis is now celebrating by bestowing sainthood on Junipero Serra. Language from a papal document from 1493 states says that Los Reyes (Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand) were authorized to establish domination over lands “discovered, and to be discovered” that were not under the domination of any Christian dominator (“sub actuali dominio temporali aliquorum dominorum Christianorum constitute non essente”).
Pope Francis’ predecessor Pope Alexander VI called for “the propagation of the Christian empire”(imperii Christiani propagationem). An empire is a political and economic framework of domination. Along these lines, Pope Alexander further said in 1493:
“We trust in Him [the Catholic deity] from whom empires and dominations and all good things proceed.”
The Catholic Church also called for the “spiritual conquest” (domination) of Indian nations and peoples.
Regarding the proposed canonization of Junipero Serra, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles gave no acknowledgment of the propagation of the Christian empire and its patterns of domination when he said:
Indeed, Padre Serra’s canonization will be a beautiful day in the life of our nation [the United States]. It will be a day to remember that our state and our country—and all the nations of the Americas—are born from the Christian mission and built on Christian foundations.
There is something that Archbishop Gomez has not honestly acknowledged: In those places now claimed by the United States where the Spanish crown first laid claim, such as California, it was the Catholic Church’s bid for “dominorum Christianorum” that gave birth to the present system as it is still applied to Native nations.
It is that system of domination that resulted not just in the massive loss of life among the original nations, but also the extent to which the original languages, cultures, and traditions of the nations and peoples of this continent, and of this hemisphere were destroyed. Those effects are a direct result and consequence of Christian imperialism, which today is euphemistically called “evangelization” and “evangelism.” It involves “spreading the news of the victory of the Holy Savior, or “San Salvador” in Spanish.
The fact remains that the Juan Cabrillo ship San Salvador, was built with the spent lives of Indians and crushing Indian slave labor; the twenty one Spanish Catholic missions were also built with Indian slave labor, and resulted in a genocidal level population collapse among the Native nations of the geographical area called “California.”
Thus, the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the Vatican are demonstrating historical amnesia by celebrating, coincidentally in the same year, a legacy of dominorum Christianorum (Christian domination) with no regard for the deadly toll which that legacy has had on the original nations and peoples of this continent and this hemisphere.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s, and is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.