After Saint Serra: Unearthing indigenous histories at the California missions

Document Type


Publication Date



SAGE Publications


In 2015, Pope Francis elevated Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra to sainthood, reinforcing the association between the California missions and the founding of Euroamerican colonies in western North America. Yet the canonization also leaves this discourse, and its associated narrative of indigenous decline, open to critique. Here, I examine two developments that effectively recast the California missions as distinctly indigenous places that embody both struggle and perseverance. First, Serra’s canonization offers a platform for Native Californians to raise concerns about the historical and continuing impacts of the mission system. Second, the canonization coincides with new archaeological and ethnohistorical investigations of indigenous life in colonial California that illuminate how native people persisted despite the challenges of missionization. Taken together, these developments intersect ongoing efforts to reorient public interpretive programs at California mission sites to show their complex indigenous histories and the enduring consequences missionization has had for indigenous communities today.