By Isaiah Merado Acosta and Tyler Day | Special to the OBSERVER
A new law will replace the St. Junipero Serra statue from the State Capitol in Sacramento with a monument that honors Native American tribes.
The old statue, which sat on Capitol property along L St., was torn down during last year’s protests following the death of George Floyd. Assembly Bill 338 (AB 338) calls for the old statue to be replaced by one designed with input from tribes in California. Tribal groups will also need to provide funding for the new statue.
The tribe nations under the new bill will have to go through the Department of General Services for the design of a statue. The Joint Rules Committee will also have to approve the statue. Lastly, the tribe nations must go through the Department of Finance to determine if the statue can be privately funded. The tribe nations will be responsible for maintaining the statue over the years.
Assemblymember James C. Ramos (D-Highland), a Native American, authored the bill and had strong opinions on it.
“As the first California Native American elected to the state legislature, I know California Indians have long been ignored, and very little is known about their history and culture,” Ramos said via email. “It is important to tell that story and their contributions.”
Lawmakers in California say they hope the new statue and accompanying laws can progress the relationship and the conversation around indigenous people, many of whom were treated horribly in the past.
“When the state decided to place the Serra statue in Capitol Park, Native Americans were not involved in that decision making process,” Ramos said. “That was wrong.”
The Junipero Serra statue was erected in the late 1960s. Serra is a controversial figure in the history of California. He created multiple Catholic missions in the state during the 1700s to convert Native Americans to the Catholic faith. He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015.
Serra’s supporters say he treated Native Americans with kindness and fought with Spanish officials over their wellbeing. His opponents, on the other hand, say he utilized violent methods to oppress Native Americans.
The text of AB 338 includes a quote from a historian that reads, “Enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide, and assault on women were all part of the mission period initiated and overseen by Father Serra.”
Supporters of the bill want to recognize this past, and do something to take that first step in honoring the Native Americans and their experiences.
Ron Rapp is the Legislative Director at the California Faculty Association (CFA), an organization that strongly supported the bill.
“With a focus on racial and social justice, the CFA advocates for legislation that positively impacts the lives of people, particularly those who are disadvantaged and discriminated against, which obviously includes indigenous people,” Rapp said via email.
He mentioned that before each meeting, they participate in a “land acknowledgement” that recognizes and thanks the Native Americans for the land they are able to use today.
When asked about what they hope will come of the bill, Rapp said, “You know, the bill itself is symbolic. It raised the issue for policy leaders in the legislature. It will raise the issue in the consciousness of the public.”
Rose Soza War Soldier, Sacramento State assistant professor in ethnic studies, said statues are significant to society.
“In my classes I always ask my students, ‘Can you tell me when you [have] ever seen a statue or monument to a native person?’” Soza said “And usually they can’t. To then have people really reflect — so what are the purposes served by monuments and statues. What are they doing and what are they teaching us? How is that perhaps an aspect of socialization?”
Soza said the historical treatment of Serra brings up the bigger picture of how schools show a person using one story rather than showing the whole picture.
Retired Stockon Unified School Administrator and Catholic Martha Magana-Ruley said she had mixed feelings about Serra, and the statue honoring him.
“It is OK to introduce the Catholic ways to the [Native American] people, but it should be a choice not forced upon, that is kinda how I feel,” Ruley said. “On the other side, he defended them, the people under his mission, and he fought against oppression, he fed them and kept them well.”
Ruley approved having the statue removed from capitol grounds in Sacramento but said it should be given to a Catholic church. She believed the state should pay half the costs of the new statue.
Ramos proposed the bill in January with help from many supporters and sponsors.
“We do not condone the vandalism that resulted in the toppling of the Serra statue,” Ramos said in a press release. “However, 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.”
Chairman Jesus Tarango of the Wilton Rancheria Tribal Government was among those in support of the bill.
“By removing this statue, we are not attempting to rewrite history,” Tarango said to lawmakers considering the bill. “We are asking that California history be told in a truthful and honest manner.”
This history is one that Tarango has close ties to. He is Native American himself, and spoke passionately about what this bill means to him and what it could mean for the future of California.
“AB 338 takes the first step towards telling an accurate history on the part of indigenous people,” Tarango said. “By removing [the] Junipero Serra statue, it removes the constant reminder of the violence perpetuated against people indigenous to the state, my people.”
On the Assembly Floor, the law was approved by a 66-2 vote in favor of removing the statue.
When asked about the decision by the state, two groups with stated opposition — the California Family Council and Pacific Justice Institute Center for Public Policy — had no comment on the law.
According to the Historic State Capitol Commissions website, The Father Junipero Serra statue was authorized by AB 1124 and dedicated on April 7, 1967.