THE INDIANS UNDER THE PADRES
The first consideration of the padres in dealing with the Indians was the salvation of their souls. Of this no honest and honorable man can hold any question. Serra and his coadjutors believed, without equivocation or reserve, the doctrines of the Church. As one reads his diary, his thought on this matter is transparent. In one place he thus naively writes: “It seemed to me that they (the Indians) would fall shortly into the apostolic and evangelic net.”
This accomplished, the Indians must be kept Christians, educated and civilized. Here is the crucial point. In reading criticisms upon the Mission system of dealing with the Indians, one constantly meets with such passages as the following: “The fatal defect of this whole Spanish system was that no effort was made to educate the Indians, or teach them to read, and think, and act for themselves.”
To me this kind of criticism is both unjust and puerile. What is education? What is civilization?
Expert opinions as to these matters vary considerably, and it is in the very nature of men that they should vary. The Catholics had their ideas and they sought to carry them out with care and fidelity. How far they succeeded it is for the unprejudiced historians and philosophers of the future to determine. Personally, I regard the education given by the padres as eminently practical, even though I materially differ from them as to some of the things they regarded as religious essentials. Yet in honor it must be said that if I, or the Church to which I belong, or you and the Church to which you belong, reader, had been in California in those early days, your religious teaching or mine would have been entitled, justly, to as much criticism and censure as have ever been visited upon that of the padres. They did the best they knew, and, as I shall soon show, they did wonderfully well, far better than the enlightened government to which we belong has ever done. Certain essentials stood out before them. These were, to see that the Indians were baptized, taught the ritual of the Church, lived as nearly as possible according to the rules laid down for them, attended the services regularly, did their proper quota of work, were faithful husbands and wives and dutiful children. Feeling that they were indeed fathers of a race of children, the priests required obedience and work, as the father of any well-regulated American household does. And as a rule these “children,” though occasionally rebellious, were willingly obedient.
Under this regime it is unquestionably true that the lot of the Indians was immeasurably improved from that of their aboriginal condition. They were kept in a state of reasonable cleanliness, were well clothed, were taught and required to do useful work, learned many new and helpful arts, and were instructed in the elemental matters of the Catholic faith. All these things were a direct advance.