05/29/2014 01:50 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2014

Mission Indians

I have always liked people who suffered at the hands of those yielding power, including religions and states. Brought up in the Greek tradition helps me appreciate the danger of tyranny and oppression. After all, the Greek people have gone through centuries of occupation -- a tragedy going on as we speak. So it's part of me to side with the oppressed.

Thus I was astonished that my new home, America, was guilty of genocide against Native Americans, especially the taking of their land. Native or indigenous or tribal people are the descendants of those inhabiting America before the invasion of the continent by white Europeans. I read extensively about the mistreatment of Native Americans and, in fact, I subscribed for years to Akwesasne Notes, a newsletter of the Mohawk tribe of New York.

When I taught at Humboldt State University in northern California in 1988-1989, I visited Indian festivals like those of the Hupa tribe. But despite my efforts to learn as much as possible about Native Americans, I remained largely ignorant of how and why present day Native Americans are materially very poor, always on the edge of society, largely landless, and perpetually in struggle to keep the little they have.

Accidentally, I came slightly closer to understanding the unhappiness of Native Americans, at least those living in California.

It was February 15, 2014. I was a guest to a celebration of Uncommon Good, a non-profit organization in Claremont, California, where I have been living since 2008.

A tribe from southern California donated a canoe to Uncommon Good. While observing the simple canoe, a Native American by the name of Jacob Guttierrez, explained and performed a religious ritual of blessing the canoe and all of us watching him. Later on, I asked him to elaborate on a brief comment he made about Christian violence against Native Americans or, as the California Indians came to be known, Mission Indians.

In an email dated February 18, 2014, Gutierrez said to me:

"The European invasion / colonization of the Americans is nothing short than the systematic extermination of the indigenous people. A holocaust that continues today with every building, road that cover our ancestral lands. With every so called progress that developers loved to use to cover their greed over our sacred sites. Our stories are very similar to all indigenous people that faced the atrocities of the invasion / colonization. But the insidious nature of the "Mission Period" I find most horrendous...

The mission Period, the missions were concentration camps, every kind of atrocity was committed to our people. Our Auschwitz, Dachau, Sashsenhausen and others was the Missions Period for us. Not allowed to speak your language, practice your culture or religion. You [are] taken away from your parents, friends and family and put into slavery never to escape without the penalty of death or lost of limbs, sexes separated from each other, confined in dark disgusting rooms, continuous raping, murders, tortures of every kind. You are literally worked to death and replaced as soon they can gather new peons. For us Paradise Was Lost by the invasion / colonization and "Sin" came over on the boats along with those despicable colonist, soldiers, and priests...

Our blood is on every square inch of this land. Forgiveness maybe, forget never!!!"

The mission period dates from 1769 to 1834. The Franciscans Christianized the California Indians with an iron fist. So I understand the anger of Gutierrez against the barbarous policy of the Franciscans and other colonizers. He also reminded me that hundreds of "pervert" priests continue their atrocities, this time molesting thousands of Christian children. The church, meanwhile, covers up their crimes.

There's little doubt that the Christianization of the California Indians is primarily responsible for the continuing tragedy of their descendants. The Mission Indians absorbed tremendous inhumanity from their clerical masters. Indeed, the violence behind the Mission Indians of California became global, engulfing the world's indigenous people.

According to Stephen Corry, author of "Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow's World" (Freeman Press, 2011), there are three hundred and seventy million indigenous people in the world.

These people test our humanity. Do they represent the right way of living? Or are they an anthropological and religious fiction? Which is to say, has Christian "civilization" deform them? And can we help the descendants of the Mission Indians recover their culture?

Corry asks: "Is their life nasty, brutish and short, or a better one than 'civilization' has in store? Do they threaten the future of the nation-state, or show us the way to save our planet?"

Millions of tribal people live the miserable lives of the Mission Indians even without the Franciscan priests. Corporate executives, large farmers, and governments are just as ruthless. How does one explain the cruel treatment Canada inflicts on its tribal people, telling them that even to negotiate with them they must first forget their land.

Corry credits the indigenous people with the "development of foods and medicines," not a minor contribution to human survival and civilization.

Read Corry's well-written book, a distillation of 40 years of wisdom and practical experience in "supporting tribal peoples."

Knowing the thoughts and practices of tribal people is especially urgent as "civilized" people are nearly killing the Earth with their machines, factory farms, dams, logging, mining, chemicals and wars. The poisoned natural world give them and nature diseases. And burning fossil fuels, which keep their system going, is warming the Earth.

The voice of the indigenous people ought to be heard. They say their rituals and myths re-create the world. Corry's book brings us close to those rituals and myths. It also opens a road for reconciliation and dialogue with this other human family.

But we need to act fast. Give them land.

Gutierrez is right. "The church and country may apologize all they want, those words are meaningless without restitution," he wrote to me.