OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

MEETING # 1623

4:00 P.M.

November 4, 1999

Saint Or Sinner

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by Gerald A. Smith

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


People often have opposing views of the value of decisions made and actions taken by individuals in the past.

The Spanish plan to colonize california was undertaken by a military division under the command of don gaspar de portola. The catholic church endeavor was under the command of father junipero serra.

Efforts have been made to make of Father Serra a saint for his work with the Indians of California. Rupert Costo, a Cahuilla Indian, opposed the plan of sainthood for Father Serra because of his belief that the decisions made and the actions taken resulted in the decimation of the california Indian population.

Background of the Author

Gerald A. Smith graduated from Redlands High School in 1933. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands. He earned has doctorate in education from the University of Southern California.

Gerry was a teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools prior to serving in the United States Naval Reserve during World War II.

Gerry’s interest in history and anthropology led to his work with the Indians of southern California and Arizona and with the native Marshall Island population in the Central Pacific.

After retiring from the position of Superintendent of the Colton Joint Union School Districts Gerry became the first director of the San Bernardino County Museum, which he had created.

Since retiring from the County, Gerry has devoted his time to Maxine, his wife of more than sixty-one years, and to his nine grandchildren.

Saint or Sinner?

My understanding and appreciation of the life style of the Indians of Southern California prior to the arrival of the Spanish explorers and clergy has increased during the past fifty plus years of association with their descendants and research of the records left by the explorers and pioneers.

Each of the various Indian peoples of Southern California contacted by the explorers, clergy, and pioneers had the same basic needs as do all people throughout the world today, and these same basic needs have been experienced by all people throughout all time periods in the history of people. These basic needs include, but are not limited to, the need to relate to the universe, the need for food, the need' to procreate, the need to belong to and to be a part of a group, the need to love and be loved, the need for artistic expression, the need to communicate, the need for shelter and clothing, and of course all people have the same body function needs.

serra9.gif (58547 bytes)That they were able to meet their basic needs and not only survive but multiply in diverse and often harsh environments, indicates that the early Indians of Southern California had intelligence, strength, endurance, resilience and adaptability.

The Southern California Indians met their need for food by using more than sixty varieties of native plants for nutrition and probably an additional thirty for stimulants or medicines. A great many animals and even some insects were also utilized as food. No one had a monopoly on the food resources, and each individual participated in the procurement and preparation of the plant and animal resources for meeting the basic human need for food.

All people from the beginning of time to the present have searched for and developed a relationship with the universe. People have sought a source of power greater than their own. Both the methods of the search and the resulting beliefs or doctrines have been diverse, but also there have been some similarities among all people in respect to the great fundamental universal truths which nurture the continuation of the human species.

The Indians of Southern California, long before the arrival of the Spanish, had developed cosmological concepts, value systems, a moiety system that regulated marriage, and a cyclic food gathering system that supported an increasing population in apparently reasonably good health. They had developed skills in providing necessary clothing and shelter, and even among some populations practiced agriculture somewhat similar to that practiced by the ancient Egyptians. Their communication skills we're adequate to meet their needs, and their need for artistic expression was manifested in a variety of ways during their daily activities.

In May, 1769, Don Miguel Costanso, who compiled the narrative of the Portola Expedition, described the Indians of the San Diego area as being "well-built, healthy, and active." Fr. Serra on July 3, 1769, wrote that the Indians of the San Diego area were exceedingly numerous, lived well on various seeds and on fish obtained from the sea, and that they were very friendly. Costanso made further comment about the Indians while on the journey up the coast with Portola's party. He stated that the whole country was inhabited by a large number of Indians who were very docile and tractable. Fr. Crespi, in August, 1769, wrote of the Indians bringing abundant presents of seeds, acorns, and pine-nuts for Portola's party.

Fr. Garces, a devoted priest and early explorer, described the Indians as being strong, healthy, friendly, generous in sharing their food with him, and helpful in guiding him across the desert. Garces was well treated by the many Indian groups he visited during his two thousand mile journey over desert, mountain, and river lands in the southwest. He wrote of the Mojaves along the Colorado River as being very superior and of taking excellent care of him.

Descriptive terms of "great fishermen," "ingenious," "well built," "good disposition," "agile," "alert," "diligent," "skillful," "peaceful," and "great hunters" appear throughout the written accounts of the earliest explorers.

The decimation of the Indian population of Southern California began during the mission period of California history and has been well documented. There were many causes for the rapid decline, with perhaps health, nutrition and pressure from the aggressive Spanish-Mexican culture being the most critical.

King Carlos III of Spain became alarmed upon learning of the Russian fur traders' exploration and occupation of California north of San Francisco. Efforts to proceed with a Spanish plan to colonize California resulted in what was termed a "Sacred Expedition" composed of two divisions. The military division was under the command of Captain Don Gasper de Portola, and the Roman Catholic Church division was under the command of Father Junipero Serra. Spanish ships loaded with supplies were sent to meet and supply the "Sacred Expedition" at San Diego. Here in 1769 the first of a series of missions reaching from San Diego to San Francisco was established. Mission San Gabriel, the fourth of the series, was established near Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley in 1771. The local Indians assisted in cutting the timbers, dragging the logs to the mission site, and helping with the construction. The Indians of Southern California shared their friendship and their food resources with the members of the "Sacred Expedition" who had been sent by the Spanish authorities to impose on all California Indians the rules proposed as early as 1519 by the Franciscan bishop Rt. Rev. Juan de Quevedo, and practiced at the Franciscan missions in Texas and Mexico. The essential features of these rules have become known as the Mission System.

serra7.jpg (15415 bytes)The Mission System, as viewed by some of the Indians, meant not only a complete change in the way they had learned to meet their basic needs, but absolute slavery to an established hierarchy in all matters spiritual and temporal. Their previous life style had provided more individual freedom.

The missionaries, according to Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt, believed they had "encountered a race of people who did not reason, whose thoughts turned on nothing higher than how to fill their stomachs without laboring to produce that which would sustain life." The missionaries, because of a great communication gap due not only to the language barrier, but also to the cultural barrier, believed it useless to begin the work of converting the Indians to their religious beliefs by reasoning. They believed the Indians had no idea of the creator and neither knew nor cared where they came from or where they would go. So they treated the Indians as little children giving them presents of trifles and food at first for any service rendered. The treatment in fact made the Indians beggars, dependent upon the missionaries who were supported by military force.

The women and girls were soon collected and placed under a matron, and the men and boys were used as laborers to farm the lands after the oak trees that had provided them with food were cut and used as lumber to build the mission buildings. Those who could not comply with the restrictions and ran away were pursued, captured and returned to the mission for punishment. In fact some reports would indicate that expeditions were sent out from the mission to capture the women and girls of Indian villages, knowing that the men and boys would follow the expedition back to the mission to try to stay close to their family members.

An early unfortunate event occurred at San Gabriel Mission soon after it was founded that illustrates not only the lack of communication between the Indians and the Spanish but also gives one example of the cruel punishment inflicted upon the Indians to induce fear and thus compliance with the wishes of both the military and spiritual authorities. One of the soldiers raped the wife of the chief of the village, and the chief, wanting to punish the soldier, gathered some friends and with their bows and arrows attempted to get close enough to release their arrows and inflict harm to the soldier. The soldier had a leather jacket for protection from the arrows and used his gun to shoot the chief.

The shot frightened the Indians, who fled. It also alerted the other soldiers at the mission who came and helped cut off the dead chief's head. This was placed on a pole which was then taken to the Indian Rancheria to further frighten the Indians into submission. Within a few days some of the Indians came to the mission and asked the missionary for the head of the chief, which he gave to them. The fact that the soldiers who accompanied the missionaries abused and mistreated the Indians was a constant problem and at times created conflict between the church authorities and the military authorities.

Missionaries also inflicted punishments. Usually shackles, the lash and the stocks were used when Indians failed to understand the obligations placed on them by the missionaries. Such punishments were usually considered to be much like what a parent at that period of time could use on his own children. The Indians who could not or would not conform to the Mission System had the alternatives of fleeing from the missionaries or dying. At the San Gabriel Mission the baptismal register for 1794 listed 2,552 baptisms and 1,181 deaths, and in 1845, a total of 8,841 baptisms and 6,048 deaths. These records verify that there were many who died.

On May 20, 1810, the venerable Franciscan Mission Priest Francisco Dumetz of the San Gabriel Mission led a company of priests, soldiers and neophytes into the San Bernardino Valley and conducted the first Christian worship among the Indian residents and others who were gathered to observe the feast day of St. Bernardine of Siena. Accordingly, the priest named the valley San Bernardino, a designation which later applied to the nearby mountain range, a particular mountain, and eventually to both county and city.

The authorities of San Gabriel Mission wished to extend their influence over the Indians of the San Bernardino mountains, the inland valleys, and the desert areas and proceeded to establish an Asistencia, or branch of the San Gabriel Mission, in the San Bernardino valley. An irrigation ditch was completed by the valley Indians under the supervision of a Spanish majordomo in time for a planting of crops in 1820. More than 1,000 Indians responded to the mission invitation and many assisted with the necessary work. A year later there were about 200 Indians still around the mission branch at San Bernardino, and most of these had been baptized at the San Gabriel Mission.

Descendants of the San Bernardino Valley Indians have indicated that their people became unhappy with the mission authorities because the food produced was taken to the San Gabriel Mission, and they did not receive what they considered a proper share of the food grown. This discontent continued and later led to hostility between the Indians and authorities from the San Gabriel Mission.

The Mission System, as well as contact with the military personnel and settlers brought from Mexico to occupy-the land, began the destruction of the Southern California Indians' spiritual and economic way of life. This decline, not only of the "life style", but of the Indian population, was accelerated after Mexico won its independence from Spain, initiated the secularization decrees, and the missionaries were recalled from their work in California.

The Spanish impact on the culture of the Indians of Southern California was not unique. The history of all people throughout the world reflects cultural change because of contact with other people. The Spanish mission system impact came quickly upon the Indians and was harsh, demanding and unrelenting. Those who survived best and kept some of their old culture were the larger population groups more distant from the mission locations and therefore less affected by the destructive influences.

serra5.gif (1632 bytes)Rupert Costo, a Cahuilla descendant of one of the groups less affected by the Spanish mission system, was very much opposed to the plan of making Rev. Junipera Serra a candidate for sainthood. Serra, a Spanish priest who died in 1784, was a pivotal force in California's early history. After arriving in 1768 in what was San Diego, he directed a group of Franciscan priests who established a chain of nine religious missions to convert California Indians to Catholicism and made plans for eleven others which were completed after his death.

Rupert Costo was among those who attended a conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1987, where Pope John Paul II participated in a special event in his honor. After stating that the time had come to go forward, forget past mistakes and work for the future, the pontiff stated:

"One priest who deserves special mention among the missionaries is the beloved Fray Junipero Serra, who traveled through Lower and Upper California. He had frequent clashes with the civil authorities over the treatment of Indians. In 1773 he presented to the Viceroy in Mexico City a Representacion, which is sometimes called a 'Bill of Rights' for Indians. The Church had long been convinced of the need to protect them from exploitation. Already in 1537, my predecessor Pope Paul III proclaimed the dignity and rights of the native peoples of the Americas by insisting that they not be deprived of their freedom or the possession of their property. (Pastoral Officium, May 29, 1537: DS 1495). In Spain the Dominican priest, Francisco de Vitoria, became the staunch advocate of the rights of the Indians and formulated the basis for international law regarding the rights of peoples..."

Rupert Costo took exception to these remarks because he believed Pope John Paul was misinformed. Rupert stated that it was not Serra who presented the so-called Bill of Indian Rights to the Viceroy of Mexico. It was Captain Juan Bautista de Anza. Serra had agreed, but then proceeded to violate every point in the document.

It was in the same 16th century when Pope Paul III proclaimed the dignity and rights of the native peoples of the Americas that Cortes committed genocide against the Mexican Indians, stealing their gold to send to Spain and confiscating their properties. Rupert Costo believed John Paul II was truly misinformed when he spoke in Arizona and had not examined extensive evidence which had been presented regarding the California missions' genocide against the Indians.

The Spanish mission period of California history only lasted for about -fifty years and was followed by the Mexican Rancho period of twenty-five years before California became a part of the United States.

If the mission period resulted in genocide against the California Indians, then it must be added that the early American period was also noted for cruel treatment of the Indians in many situations. Two examples will illustrate the point.

There were few Indians remaining in San Bernardino County during the 1860's, but some caused a little trouble in the San Bernardino mountains, even killing three cowboys in Summit Valley area. A citizens group was organized to get rid of the Indians, and after finding some which they killed in Lucerne Valley returned to San Bernardino. As one of the pioneers was crossing the mountains back to San Bernardino City, he saw an Indian woman running through the forest with a baby. He turned his horse in pursuit and soon there was the sound of a single shot. The brave pioneer bragged in his diary that he had killed two Indians with one shot.

The other example relates to the treaty O. M. Wozencraft and others, at the request of the United States Government, worked out with the Indians of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The treaty promised agricultural instructors, implements, foodstuff, animals, schools, teachers, lands, etc. After all the time and work of getting the various Indian groups to sign, the United States Senate refused to ratify the treaty and so the Indians lost again.

Rupert Costo, a Cahuilla man, is dead. He died about two years ago. Fray Junipero Serra has not as yet been granted sainthood, but his supporters are still at work compiling hundreds of papers to try and pass him through the three milestones necessary for sainthood. One man's saint may be another's satan.


Beattie, George W. and Helen P., Heritage of the Valley


Cutter, Donald C., Malaspina in California


Dakin, Susanna Bryant, A Scotch Paisano


Engelhardt, Fr. Zephyrin O.F.M., San Gabriel Mission


Richman, Irving Berdine, California Under Spain and Mexico


Robinson, Alfred, Life in California

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