Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system, is often held responsible for the enslavement and death of thousands of Native Americans in the state.
Today, Serra’s name graces both streets and dorms on Stanford’s campus, a fact that has been a point of debate for several years. Recently, after a previous committee tasked with considering the issue of renaming ended in stalemate, University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne formed a new Renaming Principles Committee tasked exclusively with creating a set of guidelines for the renaming of campus buildings and sites.
At the end of February, this committee released a set of draft principles on renaming. Although they are still waiting for public comment from students and faculty before the principles are finalized, it is important to consider the ramifications of these renaming guidelines. After all, although these guidelines are not inherently interesting, they will affect future campus renaming decisions that have gained a lot of attention on campus.
This column will specifically seek to address how the issue of Serra’s name on campus would be handled under these new guidelines should be considered.
Principle 1: Whether the individual’s behavior is deserving of honor.
- Recently, Serra was honored by the Catholic church for his role in creating the California mission system, but, whether or not he was deserving of this honor is up for debate. According to Pope Francis, “[Serra] learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.” However, the missions that allegedly accomplished this goal were also responsible for housing Native Americans in tight, inhospitable quarters. While staying there, Native Americans were converted to Christianity and forced to assimilate.
Principle 2: The centrality of the person’s offensive behavior to his or her life as a whole.
- Even Francis admits that Serra is most known for his work with the mission system. He became a missionary at the age of 36 and remained one the rest of his life. At age 54, he was appointed to establish missions in upper California. He would spend the rest of his life in California, creating his first nine missions in one month. These original nine would be responsible for converting 4,600 Native Americans and baptizing 6,700 Native American children by 1784.
Principle 3: Whether the individual had any relation to the University community.
- According to the Committee, individuals with relation to the University may have more ground to be honored with landmarks and buildings on campus, even if their life accomplishments outside of the institution remain controversial. Their name, visible on campus, would provide a way to record the history of figures and individuals who have previously stayed at the same dorms and classrooms as the current students. However, Serra had no relation to the University. His only relation is to the state of California as a whole.
Principle 4: The University’s prior consideration of the issues.
- If the University has previously considered this issue it is an indicator that this is not simply a short debate or an issue that will resolve itself given time. As previously mentioned, this is an issue the University considered as recently as last year.
Principle 5: How harmful the impact of the honoree’s behavior was.
- The case for renaming is stronger when the individual’s actions disrupted the University’s central goals related to pursuing knowledge and educational improvement. Serra’s behavior had an extraordinary harmful impact on Native Americans in California who were subjected to life under his mission system. According to author Elias Castillo, Serra’s missions were overcrowded and filthy. Native Americans who stayed there were forced into unpaid agricultural labor. Native Americans, particularly those who were children, who stayed at these missions were deprived of the life opportunities that generally provide individuals with a diverse and flexible education.
Principle 6. Whether the community identifies with the feature.
- As previously mentioned, Serra had no connection to Stanford, and his legacy is not a point of tradition or pride for most students here. He never attended the University himself and neither did any of his relatives or associates. Serra’s only connection to Stanford is tangential, through his connection to the state of California as a whole.
Principle 7: How strong and clear the historical evidence related to the individual’s action is.
- On his deathbed, Serra entrusted his closest friend, Palou, with the telling of his life story. Palou took this responsibility seriously, eventually publishing a biography about Serra. Contained in this biography originally intended to honor Serra’s memory there is profound historical evidence related to the abuses of Native American culture and individuality that occured in Serra’s missions. These missions were responsible for the forced conversion of thousands of Native Americans, and they were cesspools of disease responsible for the death of many. Even the California state curriculum acknowledges that the missions Serra set up brought harm to many Native Americans.
Principle 8: Whether the harm this individual caused can be mitigated through knowledge and education.
- Although education would go a long way towards repairing the harm that Serra’s missions caused, they cannot bring back the thousands who died nor can they effectively re-establish the strength of the Native American culture that once existed in California. Too much harm has been done to go back to the time when California was dominated, not by catholicism, but by the cultures of many different tribes.
Comparing the situation related to the presence of Serra’s name on campus to these newly drafted principles, it is clear that Serra’s name should have no place on campus. The story attached to Serra’s memory is one of cultural harm and personal damage. His name displayed on campus buildings honors a man that failed to honor the identity and personhood of others, undermining the progress and education of thousands of Native Americans. The Serra name should not continue to be honored at Stanford by being present on campus buildings and landmarks.
Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu