The holy woman Toypurina attempts to liberate the "indios" at San Gabriel Mission

Junípero Serra spearheaded the first colonial wave to hit Alta California. After being an inquisitor in eastern Mexico, he moved on to found missions along the Pacific coast between San Diego and San Francisco. These were prison-missions, run on captive Indian labor which serviced the monks and the soldiers garrisoned there. The Franciscans flogged Indian residents for acting like free humans, practicing their own customs or refusing to labor. Armed soldiers stood by during the mandatory masses, while the congregation was kept on its knees by the whipping and caning of church bailiffs.

The colonists infected Indian "neophytes" (baptized captives) with contagious diseases that killed thousands. Soldiers abused the Indians living in the missions and committed mass rape against Indian women, as Serra was well aware. Such crimes, combined with the whipping of mission Indians who attended a traditional dance, precipitated the Kumeyaay revolt of 1775 at San Diego.

Indian resistance to the totalitarian mission system had been going on for decades. As early as 1656, on the other side of the continent, the Timucuas had revolted against Spanish missions in Florida. In 1734, the people of Baja California rose in insurrection against the mission system. It took the Mexican army two years to suppress them. The Yuma staged a successful revolt along the southern Colorado river, expelling the Spanish from their lands in 1781.

In 1785 the 24-year-old medicine woman Toypurina led an Indian revolt at San Gabriel mission in southern California. She allied with two chiefs from traditional villages and the "neophyte" Nicolas Jose, who was angry that the monks forbade the mission Indians to hold their native dances. A soldier who understood the language overheard people talking about the revolt, and the rebels were captured. The military governor of California ordered them flogged to prove "that the sorceries and incantations of the woman Toypurina are powerless in the face of the True Faith."

Toypurina told the Spanish military judges that she had instructed chief Tomasajaquichi to tell the mission Indians not to believe the friars. "I commanded him to do so, for I hate the padres and all of you, for trespassing on the land of my forefathers..." She was forced to convert and ended up marrying a soldier and dying young.

The California Indian resistance also took place on the cultural front. In 1801, a Chumash woman at the Santa Barbara mission had a vision after ingesting datura. The earth goddess Chupu appeared to her, saying that Indians who remained baptized would die, but that those who bathed in the "tears of the sun" could throw off the baptism. As word spread among the Chumash, people came from far away to see the prophetess and to honor Chupu. Though the monks suppressed the outward signs of this movement, the Chumash continued to venerate Chupu in secret. They made small shrines out of wood, cloth and feathers. The missionaries flogged the builders of these altars whenever they discovered them.

In the 1820s the monks at Santa Barbara reverted to the old European method of using penitential books to root out non-christian customs. They interrogated their converts about shamanism, healing, datura and tobacco ceremonial, and sexuality, including sex between men or between women. The tightening repression, combined with the missions' institutionalized violence, led to a Chumash revolt in 1824. Though Mexican soldiers suppressed the rebellion, about half of the people escaped into the interior.


Principal source for the above is Daniel Fogel's excellent study of the California mission system: Junipero Serra, the Vatican and Enslavement Theology, San Francisco: Ism Press, 1988; also see Milanich, Jerald T, "Laboring in the Fields of the Lord," Archaeology Magazine, Jan/Feb 1996.


Pope John Paul II continued to pursued canonization of Junípero Serra, in spite of the uncontested fact that, in the words of Cahuilla historian Ed Castillo, "Serra oversaw the whippings, use of stocks and hobbles, and punitive military campaigns to recruit reluctant California Indian tribes for conversion." [News from Native California, Jul/Aug, 1987]


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