Tribe, Catholic Church at odds over mission

By Margie Mason Associated Press Writer
Monday February 12, 2001

CARMEL – Members of a displaced American Indian tribe say their ancestors deserve recognition for building and maintaining California’s first mission here some 230 years ago, but the Roman Catholic Church says the tribe is simply grasping at a way to win federal tribal status. 

Chief Tony Cerda of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe led a prayer dance Saturday afternoon at the Monterey Presidio, the site where he said his ancestors first greeted Father Junipero Serra in 1770. 

Cerda’s dance included chants in a circle with 20 tribe members in full regalia. The group then marched about a mile through town with a police escort and later drove four miles south to Carmel to deliver a “peace pouch” of tobacco, sage and acorn meal to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo. 

“We want them to recognize us and our ancestors,” Cerda explained. 

But the rainy demonstration met opposition from another tribe that said Cerda has no claim that his forefathers first inhabited the Carmel mission. 

“I don’t respect someone who comes into my territory and does all these demonstrations,” Rudolph Rosales, tribal chair of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation in Monterey, told reporters. 

“This is my home,” Rosales said. “I’m not going to sit at home and watch something like this go on when my family did as much as his did.” 

Cerda and his tribe of about 1,500 members are based in Chino, just east of Los Angeles, where they migrated after Mexicans took over the Spanish missions in the 1830s. But he said his ancestors were the first American Indians to come to the Carmel mission after his forebear, Chief Chanjay, persuaded them to go. 

Cerda said he has provided the mission with documents showing that the Rumsen tribe helped build and maintain the facility where Serra lived, worked and was buried in 1784. 

“We welcomed them. We gave them food, we have them deer, we gave them fish,” Cerda said. “If it hadn’t been for our people, they wouldn’t have survived.” 

At the end of the demonstration, Cerda delivered the peach pouch to the Carmel mission. It was intended for Monsignor Declan Murphy, but a receptionist said he was not there and would not accept it for him. Cerda left the pouch at the door. 

In September, a Los Angeles-area public relations firm hired by the tribe sent Murphy a letter asking that the Diocese of Monterey recognize the tribe’s contributions to the mission. 

But an attorney representing the church said the Rumsens have made unreasonable demands in an attempt to gain tribal status with the federal government. 

“It takes the government 20 years to recognize a tribe, and they want to use our name for some other purpose, and that is not appropriate,” said Rick Harray, general counsel to the diocese. “Being a pawn in vying for tribal status is offensive.” 

While Cerda agrees a letter from the church might help the tribe gain formal recognition, he said that’s not the point. 

“All we want is recognition that we were the first,” said Cerda, who is Catholic. “We’re not trying to take over the mission or claim the land.” 

But Harray said that’s not the message he got when Cerda’s tribe sent a letter asking the mission to put the tribe’s name on its stationary, erect a bronze statue of a Rumsen Indian and change the inscription on a cross to include the tribe’s name. 

“They want exclusive recognition as the only group, and they want to tell a Catholic church what to put on their cross,” Harray said. “That’s pretty cheeky.” 

The Catholic Church has recognized the importance of the mission with a minor basilica designation in 1960 and a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1987. 

Problems between California tribes and the church go back hundreds of years. 

“The mission Indians had to work to feed themselves and support the entire military, including the presidio in San Francisco,” said Jack Forbes, Native American Studies professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis. “They were a form of captive.” 

He said Serra, the Franciscan missionary who founded California’s missions, wasn’t as benevolent as some may think. Many indigenous people died from disease, bad diets or poor living conditions during his conversion attempts. 

After the Mexicans took over the Spanish missions, dozens of tribes dispersed to surrounding lands. 

“The Catholic church eventually got titled to the mission building itself,” Forbes said. “The Indians didn’t get any of the land.” 

And Harray said that’s not about to change. While generic reference to American Indians already exist at the mission, he said it wouldn’t be fair to grant one tribe exclusive recognition. 

“Once you throw things like that that look like demands, you have poisoned the atmosphere,” he said. “These are not waters we can fish in.”