Reportback from Carmel: “It’s not over. This just makes us stronger.”

Reportback from Carmel: “It’s not over. This just makes us stronger.”


On the morning of September 23rd, we arrived to Mission Carmel, bracing ourselves for a day we had not been looking forward to. In the Mission courtyard, about 75 people sat in plastic chairs, enthusiastically preparing to watch a live feed of the Canonization Mass for Junipero Serra on a giant TV screen. Meanwhile, in the old cemetery where over 3,100 indigenous ancestors lie buried in unmarked graves, we gathered together with Esselen descendants and other native and non-native people, standing in mourning, prayer, and solemn opposition.

Louise Miranda Ramirez

Louise Miranda Ramirez

Louise Miranda Ramirez led a prayer in the Esselen language, acknowledging the land and her ancestors, and invited each person in the circle to introduce themselves. “I am glad that you have come, and shown this respect to our ancestors: So that they know we have not quit, and that we won’t quit. So that they know we will not forget them. That’s what important, that we never forget what they went through. And that we keep on fighting.”

Caroline Ward Holland, Tataviam descendant and leader of the 650-mile Walk for the Ancestors, also thanked everyone who came out to stand against the canonization. “They keep saying Serra was a man of his time. But there is no time, anywhere, anyplace, when it’s OK to be treated the way that our people were treated, by this horrible person who is being celebrated today.”

Caroline talking to a reporter from the Guardian

Caroline talking to a reporter from the UK Guardian

“They considered us subhuman,” Caroline continued. “By making Serra a saint, the Pope is basically putting a stamp of approval on everything they did. He’s saying that it’s OK to commit crimes against humanity, and whip people, and have slaves, and rape them, and take their children from them, and take them away from everything they know, and that’s OK.”

“Now that the Pope has given this person sainthood, he’s just made himself accountable for all the atrocities that happened at every Mission, and to every native person in the state of California,” Caroline said. “Because no one’s ever taken responsibility before. It’s time for the Church to take responsibility for all of the horrible things that they’ve done. It’s on them now.”


In the courtyard on the other side of the chapel, jubilant cheers and clapping could be heard as Pope Francis pontificated. Cathleen Novales, whose Esselen ancestors came from Carmel Valley, placed shell necklaces she had made over grave markers as she grieved. “My heart is crying, and I feel so much sadness, so much pain,” she exclaimed. “And I’m so sorry, ancestors. I’m so sorry that this has come about. That the murderer, the man that put you through so much, is becoming a saint today. And what does that put out to the world?”

“They saw us as uncivilized because we didn’t worship their God.” Novales said. “But we did worship. We did have our prayers. We did have our songs. We don’t need one God in the sky, we have a creator. We have our wind, we have our ocean, we have our trees. We sang of everything. We had songs for everything. They came and said, get on your knees, and look up and pray…It was wrong. Serra was not a good man. He didn’t need to teach our people how to build a house. They knew how. They knew how to survive here, they had survived here for thousands of years before the Europeans came here, any of them.”

Laughing Coyote, from the Mono tribe of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, told us that in 1987, he had taken part in a major protest at Mission Carmel with other native people, when Pope John Paul II had come to beatify Junipero Serra. “It made a lot of native people very angry. They wouldn’t allow us within two miles of this Church, because they didn’t want to embarrass the Pope.”

Laughing Coyote, Mono Tribe

Laughing Coyote, Mono Tribe

“We are standing, right here as we speak, on the graves of native people that perished, because of a group of people who had a cultural mindset that they were superior to our people, that their religion was superior to our religion. It’s not just about Father Serra, it is about the Catholic Church as an institution. That it has been complicit in the genocide of Native peoples, it has been complicit in the murder, the kidnapping, the slavery, the torture and destruction of a whole race of people. That is the truth.”

Laughing Coyote also referenced the official apology made by Pope Francis earlier this year for the Church’s “sins” against indigenous peoples. “They are not sins, they are criminal acts that they have committed. The Pope’s apology is meaningless. It means nothing unless there is some kind of true reconciliation. Reconciliation can only happen if those who perpetrated those crimes against native people are willing to acknowledge and take ownership of the crimes that they committed. Then we could begin a true dialogue, if we understood them to be sincere. But to just say, oh by the way, we’re sorry for killing hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, and stealing your lands, and committing atrocities against whole nations of people— But we’re going to give sainthood to Father Serra anyway. That is called hypocrisy, at its worst.”

“I’m sad to hear the women cry,” he concluded. “But I also know what’s coming down the road. I also know that they will be held accountable. We may be a small number of people, but right is right. I recognize no moral authority in the Pope. And so, I say to all of you, don’t have a heavy heart. Stand up, be proud of who you are. This battle has just begun, and it’s only going to get more interesting.”

Winter Fox

Winter Fox Frank

Winter Fox Frank, who drove all the way from Redding to stand with us, explained that on his mom’s side, his ancestors survived Mission San Diego, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission San Gabriel— though another of his ancestors was a settler who helped build Mission Dolores. He led the group in singing a traditional Wintu song, and offered kind words of encouragement to the Walkers.

“The community that you guys are building is great. It’s something that’s hopeful, and something that is positive, amidst a very negative and very traumatic experience for all of us. So, thank you for that. Thank you for taking it upon yourselves to walk this land. It’s not a happy thing, to be here, but I’m glad to be here in solidarity with you all today.”

As our gathering drew to a close, and the televised charade of Canonization wrapped up with its final praises of the “great evangelizer,” Caroline Ward Holland and Louise Miranda Ramirez shared their reflections on the day. “This isn’t over,” Louise told the group. “It’s not over. I think the best thing about this is that it woke us up. And we’re still saying No. You know, the Church may have another Saint. But he’s not my Saint.”

Walkers decompressing on the beach after leaving Carmel Mission

Walkers decompressing on the beach after leaving Carmel Mission

“I’ve been feeling really heavy, and sad, and have been dreading this day.” Caroline said. “But now, I feel like I’m just getting stronger. All of this is just making us stronger.”

2 Comments on “Reportback from Carmel: “It’s not over. This just makes us stronger.”

  1. My heart is heavy because of this situation. I have spoken to many outlining the history and reality of Father Serra’s true doings— that he was a major contributor to the slavery, abusive conditions and deaths of the California Natives. People seem to think that because Pope Francis has made some progressive comments– that he should be excused for contributing to what amounts to the biggest Holocaust to occur on U.S . soil. In my mind– what he did by making this murderer a saint is absolutely and unequivocally WRONG and UNFORGIVABLE.

  2. folks,
    has notice and information about this walk been sent to the vatican and the pope? good luck in your journey.