The San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously Oct. 2 to consider the removal of the “Early Days” sculpture of the Pioneer Monument near Civic Center. One of the three figures on the sculpture is a Franciscan priest. The timing of the push to remove the statue 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 St. Junípero Serra, who brought Catholic Christianity to California. Are those demanding removal of “Early Days” barking up the wrong tree?

St. 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 monuments benefactors in 1894 with a portrait medallion near the “Early Days” statue. 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 for 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. Scholar Barry Pritzer estimates that by the early 19th century there were 200,000. By the end of the century there were 15,000. 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.

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.

Full story at Catholic SF.