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CA Lawmakers Advance Bill To Replace Toppled Statue Of Catholic Saint With Native American Monument

Father Junipero Serra founded the California mission system in the late 18th century.

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Devout Catholic Audrey Ortega creates a memorial at the former site of a statue memorializing Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish priest and friar who founded missions along California's coast in the 1700s, in Capitol Park on Sunday, July 5, 2020.
Nathaniel Levine/Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The California State Senate voted 28-2 on Monday to send a bill to Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk to replace a toppled statue of the first saint canonized on U.S. soil that once stood outside the state Capitol with a Native American monument.

The Sacramento Bee reported, Assembly Bill 338 (AB 338) “removes the statutory requirement for the Capitol to maintain a statue of Father Junipero Serra, and replaces it with a mandate to install a work of art that commemorates the indigenous people on whose land California sits.”

The state Assembly had passed the measure in May with a 66-2 vote.

Serra founded the California mission system in the late 18th century. Historians say the 21 missions along the state’s coast were set up to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, expand European territory, and colonize the land.

Serra’s critics, however, believe the missions were a form of institutional racial oppression that wiped out customs and culture. They say natives were forced to perform labor for the missions, thereby propping up a new system of white supremacy that kept them oppressed.

On July 4, 2020, about 200 demonstrators celebrated Independence Day by toppling the statue of Serra in Capitol Park, where it had stood since 1967. The video showed vandals scorching the sculpture before using straps to pull it down. Protesters advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of George Floyd had converged with another group that was there demanding the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue nearby.

Assemblyman James Ramos, a Democrat from Highland, said he authored the bill to “begin the fuller and more honest assessment of what the Mission period meant to California’s Native Americans.” He is the first California Native American elected to the Legislature. Co-sponsors include six Indian tribes in the Sacramento region: Wilton Rancheria; Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians; Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, Ione Band of Miwok Indians; Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, and the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

“We do not condone the vandalism that resulted in the toppling of the Serra statue last summer, but it did provide an opportunity for us to explore why this figure from California’s founding has become a symbol of the enslavement and genocide for Native Americans,” Ramos said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “He is undoubtedly seen as the creator and director of a system that held Indians in servitude to force conversions and build the missions, and that led to starvation and disease.”

In 2019, Gov. Newsom issued an apology to California Native Americans through executive order for the “state’s historical wrongdoings.”

“California must reckon with our dark history,” Newsom said at the time. “California Native American peoples suffered violence, discrimination, and exploitation sanctioned by state government throughout its history. We can never undo the wrongs inflicted on the peoples who have lived on this land that we now call California since time immemorial, but we can work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past and begin to heal deep wounds.”

Related: The Catholic Statues And Sites Attacked By Activists, And How Elected Leaders Responded

Related: Homeless Man Accused Of Setting 249-Year-Old San Gabriel Mission On Fire Pleads Not Guilty

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