Where Does the Statue Controversy End?

(originally published Oct. 26, 2017  in Catholic San Francisco)

The San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously on October 2 to recommend to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission the possible removal of the “Early Days” sculpture of the Pioneer Monument”. One of the three figures on the sculpture is a Franciscan priest. The timing of the push to remove the “Early Days” statue of the Pioneer Monument in San Francisco coincided with the removal of Confederate statues in the South, anti-Columbus Day news, when many were celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, and the recent vandalism of memorials of the 18th century Franciscan, Saint Junípero Serra, who brought Catholic Christianity to California. Are those demanding removal of “Early Days” barking up the wrong tree?

Saint Junípero Serra, the founder of the California missions knew history and wanted to distance himself from the conquistadors and encomienda system. He wanted to change hearts and minds with the Gospel, not the sword. His heroics were recognized by the monument’s benefactors in 1894 with a portrait medallion near the “Early Days” statue. Dr. George Yagi, Jr., professor of history at San Joaquin Delta College, is not the first to argue how Junípero Serra defended the California Mission Indians against Spanish military abuse.  Like any institution, the California missions had its saints and sinners and all types in-between. The greatest tragedy was an unintended consequence of the cultural exchange—the majority of the Mission Indians died due to diseases to which they had no immunity. 

The plaque “California Native Americans” added in 1994 to the Pioneer Monument rightly notes that pre-contact with Europeans, the California Indian population was estimated to be 300,000. Historian James A. Sandos argued in Converting California that the overall population dropped 21 percent by 1830, just before Mexico took possession of California. Regarding the Indians in the area of mission influence, he notes from 1770-1830, the population declined from 65,000 to 17,000, a loss of 74 percent. Scholar Barry Pritzer estimates by the end of the 19th century there were 15,000 California Indians.  Therefore, the near annihilation of the California Indians came during the Gold Rush from the 49ers and with the blessing of the government of California. The native got in the way of so-called progress and genocide ensued. 

Accusation does not mean guilt. California Mission history is complex and generalizations, when looking at any history, should be avoided. It would be crazy to believe that all Pueblo Indians were bad because of Popé, the religious leader who headed the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 that killed 400 Spanish and relocated 2,000 settlers. Yet Popé has been honored with a statue in Washington, D.C.

If city officials are really set on righting a wrong of history, maybe they should demand that the San Francisco 49ers change its name. If they are really serious about removing offensive monuments, then they should consider the Monument to the Lincoln Brigade. The Republican forces (the side they fought for) in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) murdered 6,844 Catholic clerics and religious.

Yale University historian David Blight, an expert on slavery, and other historians presented a very sensible criteria when judging historical monuments: 

“ . . . discussions [should] weigh many factors, among them: the history behind when and why the monument was built. Where it’s placed. The subject’s contribution to society weighed against the alleged wrongdoing. And the artistic value of the monument itself.”

Maybe this will help the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission avoid politicization when it comes to the fate of the “Early Days” statue of the Pioneer Monument.

PC: Joshua Sabatini, San Francisco Examiner, Mar 5, 2018.

Christian Clifford is a veteran Catholic school teacher and author of three books about Catholic Church History in Spanish and Mexican California. Clifford’s writings have appeared in Aleteia, California Teacher, Catholic San Francisco, Catholic Standard, Crux, Patheos, and Today’s Catholic Teacher. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and son. For more information, visit www.Missions1769.com.