California will replace a former statue on state capitol grounds honoring a Spanish missionary with one celebrating Sacramento-area Native American tribes.
Erected more than 50 years ago, the statue of Father Junipero Serra was forcefully toppled by racial justice protesters in July 2020 and has been in storage since.
The legislation, which officially removes the statue of Serra, was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, at a virtual ceremony attended by Native American leaders from throughout the state.
“We don’t condone the violence and the tearing down of statues that are there,” said Democratic Assemblyman James Ramos, who authored the bill. “However, there’s built-up frustration. For years, California Indian people have been talking about the mission system.”
Ramos, the first California-born Native American elected to the legislature, said his grades suffered when he objected to building a replica mission in fourth grade — a former requirement and long-time tradition for California public school students.
By establishing the first nine of California’s 21 Spanish missions in 1700s, Serra is viewed by many as one of the founding fathers of California. He’s widely celebrated by the Catholic Church and, despite objections from Native Americans, he was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015.
His defenders say Serra fought to protect Native people from Spanish soldiers and other forces.
“The Indian people became the laborers that would build those missions. And when some tried to leave, they were brought back many times forcefully,” Ramos said. He said credible reports detail the shackling of Native people at California missions.
The bill sparked some passionate debate within the legislature with opponents arguing Serra didn’t enslave Native people and that shackles were used for public safety.
The bill was one of six signed by Newsom supporting the state’s first residents.
Another bill authored by Ramos and signed by Newsom removes Columbus Day as a judicial holiday and replaces it with California Native American Day in September.
The new monument won’t go up right away. The bill calls for trial leaders to work with the California Department of General Services “to plan, construct, and maintain a monument to the California Native people of the Sacramento, California, region on the grounds of the State Capitol.”
The Legislative Joint Rules Committee and Department of Finance would also have to sign off on a plan to privately fund the construction of the monument.
Ramos said he hopes the bill represents a pendulum swing toward “true education of what has happened to the California Indian people with the voice of the California Indian people.”
Ramos says he now has his eye on changing how school children learn about Native people.