Some believethe document rolled in the hand of Pacifica’s statue of Gaspar de Portola to be the Doctrine of Discovery.Recently, the Catholic Church acknowledged complicity with a policy that was ruinous for indigenous people.
Visitors to Pacifica who park by the Community Center before heading to the beach might notice the angular statue and wonder what it commemorates. The plaque identifies the subject as Gaspar de Portola, “discoverer of the Bay of San Francisco.” If visitors stop to examine it, they might be impressed by the ample sword in its left hand. Less visible, but maybe more potent in its symbolism, is the rolled-up document in the statue’s right hand.
Some believe that the document is the Doctrine of Discovery.
The Doctrine of Discovery was a papal bull issued by the Roman Catholic Church in 1493, the year after Christopher Colombus stumbled onto the Americas on his supposed way to India.
The decree claimed for Spain nearly all the lands of the New World and set the terms of their exploitation, declaring that "the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself."
The religious doctrine supported the colonization of the Americas by Spain. In California, it gave the church’s blessing and directions to install military bases, build a system of missions and grant Spanish settlements. The actions displaced and enslaved the people who had lived here for thousands of years. With colonization, native populations in California plummeted.
Now, the Catholic Church has finally repudiated this doctrine. Over the past year, Pope Francis personally apologized to indigenous people for the church’s role in the oppression and mistreatment of their ancestors. Then, in March, the Vatican issued a written statement on the Doctrine of Discovery.
In it, the church “repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’”
While insisting that the doctrine was never considered an expression of the Catholic faith, the statement acknowledges the church’s role in events the doctrine set into play: “It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.”
The damage inflicted on native people was not limited to California. The Doctrine of Discovery became embedded into the legal framework of the United States, supporting the country’s westward expansion. In 1823, the Supreme Court cited the doctrine in a decision that gave indigenous people the status of occupants rather than owners in their own homelands, providing justification for seizing their territories.
Over the years, indigenous people and their supporters have agitated to have the doctrine rescinded.
Pacifica’s statue has been the subject of similar controversy around its connection to the history of colonization. The statue of Portola stands in Pacifica because it was here, on the ridge above the community center, that the explorer and his troops became the first Europeans to see San Francisco Bay in 1769. He may not have had the Doctrine of Discovery in his hand, but he certainly was acting on its principles.
Three years ago, the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone — descendants of the area’s original inhabitants — presented Pacifica’s City Council a petition to remove the statue, arguing that it celebrates a history of domination and oppression. “Portola’s expedition marked the beginning of the end for native peoples and culture in California,” said the accompanying letter.
The statue actually sits on Caltrans property, and the Ohlone tribe and others are in talks with the agency about removing it. But according to Patricia Kremer, a board member of the Pacifica Historical Society, a meeting held last summer with Caltrans seemed to indicate little progress had been made.
Kremer points out that the statue was a gift to California from Catalan, Spain, and that that relationship needs to be respected. “It’s not a simple question with a simple solution,” she said.
Regardless of what happens with the statue, the doctrine under which Portola operated no longer stands. Pope Francis has urged: “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”
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