This article is in response to this piece published in The Stanford Review.
I am an indigenous woman.
I am an indigenous woman from California.
I am an indigenous woman from California who spent her early years of education learning about the Spanish missionary system from a glorified perspective.
I am an indigenous woman from California who thought that American Indians were savages and Father Junipero Serra (you had to say his full name and title, yes, you couldn’t just say Serra that was disrespectful) was just trying to help them.
And when I, an indigenous woman from California, built my Santa Barbara mission replica out of cardboard and sandstone for my fourth grade class project, I wasn’t thinking about the cultural genocide, the murder, the disease, the pain, the suffering.
Because I, an indigenous woman from California, did not have the opportunity to explore these “alternative” views of history until long after I had been churned out by a system that had been molded, crafted, fine-tuned by centuries of Western colonization.
Just because these are the systems that have been and continue to be put into place, this does not mean they should stay that way for the sake of avoiding the “whitewashing” of history and teaching the importance of “contextual narratives.”
Because claiming that Serra was simply a product of his time and “progressive” for caring about those poor, poor savage Indians is like claiming that Hitler’s anti-semitism was a result of the environment surrounding him. This may be technically true, but this reasoning should never excuse the loss of human life that stems from the dangerous ideals of our past.
You may think I’m being extreme in comparing Serra to Hitler, and I agree that it’s an extreme example. But when I think about the lives of my people who were lost through the process of colonization, Spanish or otherwise, my heart pangs with grief. When I think about the loss of multiple beautiful and varied indigenous cultures as a result of colonization, my face flushes hot with anger. And whenever I pass Serra during the lunch rush at Stern, or take Junipero Serra to get to the Menlo Park Safeway, I feel defeated, invalidated, crushed that the institution that I call home would glorify even just one of the many symbols of indigenous destruction.
We should be taught that the lives lost to Spanish colonization are just as valuable as the lives lost in the Holocaust. Today, we are not doing that, because today, it would be reprehensible, without question, to have a “Hitler House” on the Row. But when people begin to question the placement of Serra’s name on our campus, they are met with backlash and criticism because, well, Serra didn’t know any better. Because indigenous lives don’t matter.
There is power in a name. There is power in commemoration, in glorification, in tribute. The people who we choose to honor through the naming of our spaces is, in itself, a statement of our values as an institution.
Yes, David Starr Jordan and Donald Tressider were problematic eugenicists. Yes, Leland Stanford’s fortune came at the expense of the lives of hundreds of Chinese railroad workers. These are problems too.
But the focus on one issue does not eradicate the existence of another. Just like our professors tell us to focus on one specific problem in our research papers, activists surround one specific topic to maximize the possibility of change in our immediate spaces. If we try to tackle all the problems we encounter on this campus in one fell swoop, nothing will ever change.
The removal of Serra’s name from Stanford won’t reverse the centuries of damage done to indigenous communities as a result of colonization. The removal of Serra’s name from Stanford won’t magically fix every other issue in the world, let alone every other issue at Stanford.
But, believe me, it’s a damn good place to start.
Drawing courtesy of Plains Indian Ledger Art.