A whitewashed Catholic chapel, the Mission of the Sacred Heart, crowns a grassy knoll overlooking a broad, slow bend in the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River in Idaho’s panhandle.
The chapel is graceful and small with wooden columns across the front and a domed ceiling within. It is the oldest standing building in all of Idaho, completed in 1853 after several years of construction by Jesuit missionaries and people of the Schitsu’umsh (the present day Coeur d’Alene, “Those Who Are Found Here”) working together. The foot-thick walls are plastered with mud, wattle-and-daub style, and in places the handprints of the builders remain visible—a grace note of brown hands and white hands, two cultures, two faiths joined. And while the tribe appreciated the many spiritual teachings brought by the missionaries, a more recent Coeur d’Alene elder, Millie Nicodemus, said, “We didn’t think they’d stay!”
That delightful exclamation by Nicodemus, now deceased, is on a banner just down the hill from the chapel, where a decade of fund-raising by the tribe and others has this fall resulted in the opening of a new, $3.26 million museum as the permanent home for an exhibition, Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet and the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West. It strives to tell the full story of this encounter—the Native view as well as the white, the sorrows as well as the joys. Sacred Encounters is packed with artifacts from as far away as Europe, but it’s not static. Visitors walk through a series of “acts” or rooms in a rich audio-visual atmosphere—nature sounds and Coeur d’Alene singing fading into Gregorian chants and Latin prayer—as the exhibit creates a dynamic portrait of two cultures, two faiths colliding.
This design by the highly regarded Richard Molinaroli was considered groundbreaking when Sacred Encounters was originally assembled as a major traveling exhibition in the 1990s, says historian Jacqueline Peterson, recently retired from Washington State University, who created it. The story is powerful and complicated, she says, “(It’s) about dialogue. About two separate worlds. About two separate ways of thinking and believing coming together. We couldn’t allow all this gold and silver from the Catholic tradition to overwhelm the Native story. We had to create two pathways.”
Think about the Jesuits, she demands. “What motivates a group of people like that? What can be wrong about wanting to share the thing you value most deeply in your heart?” Sacred Encounters, she argues, “challenges the viewer to think what do we mean by conversion? Does anybody really give up the most intimate, private sense of themselves? I don’t think they do, at least not in the way missionaries think they do.”
The Jesuit interaction with the peoples of the interior Northwest was both more respectful and less violent than many other missionary approaches. “This is not the story of the California missions, where Indians were converted at the point of a sword,” Peterson says.
Subtle and respectful it may have been, but Peterson says the ultimate goal “was to transform and to eradicate” the indigenous spiritual practices. In the early 1840s, Jesuit priests led by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet were energetically bringing Catholicism to the isolated Rocky Mountain West, establishing a string of missions in what is now Montana, Idaho and Washington, and with an astonishing ambition. Jesuit maps from the era reveal that here at Cataldo, the Mission of the Sacred Heart was the center of what was intended to be a sort of kingdom of the faith: the “Empire of Christian Indians,” stretching from the Bitterroot Valley of Montana to the Pacific Coast of Oregon. “But it turned out to be a disaster, because [he] opened the floodgates to the treaties and to miners and settlers and all of that,” Peterson says.
There were immediate political changes as well. “The Jesuits did away with the chiefs’ power,” says Ernie Stensgar, who was chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in the 1990s. Chiefs lost their standing by giving up multiple wives, and their day-to-day authority was often overshadowed by the priests. “They created the Soldiers of the Sacred Heart that traveled throughout the reservation and kept people in line under the auspices of the priests,” said Stensgar. “They said, You can’t dance. You can’t play stick games. That’s pagan ritual—you’ve got to follow the teachings of the church.”
Sacred Encounters deals frankly with these darker chapters of the story of the arrival of De Smet and the Jesuits, and it is part of the reason Stensgar was determined to lead the tribe into the unheard-of step of buying the exhibit from the university, and constructing the modern museum needed to house it. “That [story] should be told to our people!” he says. “Today, our dance outfits and our songs—they were hidden by families. They would still practice the culture, the medicine dances… but they hid it, kind of kept it underground.”
“It is important to get the Native American perspective,” says Jeanne Givens, a Coeur d’Alene tribal member who remembers being on a committee working with Peterson as Sacred Encounters was taking shape. “For so many years, exhibits have been strictly about what non-Indians think of Indian items and of Indian history. So Jackie’s approach was refreshing, and it was exciting.”
The Coeur d’Alene to this day are known as a very Catholic tribe, but they acknowledge that the initial joy at their encounter with the Black Robes dissipated as the priests became more repressive. A boarding school was erected at the village of Desmet, where children—even though their homes might only be a few miles away—remained for much of the year, isolated from family, culture and language.
And then there came the dark day when one of the priests demanded the Coeur d’Alene burn their “Indian stuff,” which Givens said included the beadwork, moccasins and cradleboards.
But both Givens and Stensgar note that for all its bad elements the encounter with the Jesuits had good outcomes, as well. “If you
look at how the Jesuits came in and really worked with the tribe and kept us out of war, and kept [the reservation] on our traditional ground instead of moving us off into another area,” Stensgar says. “And helping us farm and plant orchards.”
Givens says her mother, Celina Garry Goolsby, described a childhood boarding-school experience that was lonely and sometimes harsh, but came out of it with the language, assimilation and vocational skills that helped her in the changed world. “Change was coming,” Stensgar says, “and the elders decided, Hey, if you are going to make it in this world you’ve got to learn how to the talk the white man’s way. I think the vision that past leaders had of learning the white man’s ways, the seeds were planted—even today our young men and women are going off and looking for an education or a trade and we have a lot of success stories. We see our harvest coming back, if you will.”
The original Sacred Encounters, which toured the U.S. and Canada, was so large—more than 7,000 square feet—that it was unable to be housed in any museum near the Coeur d’Alene. It opened at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, to the east, and also stopped at Tacoma, Washington to the west, each requiring a drive of more than five hours from the Coeur d’Alene reservation.
But the people went.
The unique power of Sacred Encounters, telling deep stories of the joys and the pains, the opened hearts and the disappointments, surprised viewers at the opening in Bozeman. Peterson remembers walking into a room and, “seeing a group of elders [Flathead Salish and Coeur d’Alene] and a group of Jesuits, and they were crying together. It was a profound experience. It was sadness, and it was pride that the story was being told and [that] it was about them.”
The emotional power of Sacred Encounters is what drove Stensgar to push for the Coeur d’Alene to create a permanent home for the exhibit. He credits the late Silver Valley businessman Harry Magnuson for throwing influence and financial help behind the quest. “It took many years,” he says. The tribe at first approached Washington State University about purchasing Sacred Encounters, and were surprised that $100,000 got them the cases and other furnishings. It took more time and money to secure the loan of all the artifacts from about 50 museums and private collections across America and into Europe. And then there was the requirement to have a museum with all the security and environmental controls to house fragile objects.
“It was in the millions,” Stensgar says. “The state was involved… national involvement… Belgium. The tribe… appeasing everybody. I think the intention of bringing it was certainly to showcase the tribe but also to hopefully educate our youth to say, you know this is part of our history. Accepting Christianity was a big part of our history.”
An acceptance that is remarkable, Peterson says. “I came to really respect this tribe, and Indian people in general, for their capacity—I think their innate capacity—to forgive the unforgivable. I think a lot of younger people, or people who reject religion in general, look at this and say, at some level, ‘How could these people have done this? Were they duped?’ I think the answer is no, they weren’t duped. I think they were very selective in what they chose to take into themselves and what they rejected.
“I think there was a lot of hurt and a lot of anger and a lot of disappointment. But I think at the same time the dignity of these people in the face of really unrelenting oppression, the dignity is what finally shines through. And then that understanding, that deep understanding that you simply have to forgive human frailty…. This isn’t even Christian, it is much deeper than that. Something really, really fundamental, I think, to the way Native American people live and believe.
“And to tell you the truth, I think the Jesuits themselves were changed by this,” Peterson says. “What they didn’t understand—or maybe they did understand—is that the Coeur d’Alene took elements [of Catholicism] that meshed with their existing beliefs and pretty much put the rest aside.”
Givens agrees. “It’s an interesting dynamic to see how the Catholic faith is expressed today in tribal communities. It’s very important to include Native American song, and making the Mass more Indian. Some of us like to think we made the Church better.” The faith has been enriched, she said, by “core tribal values such as being a good listener and not doing all of the talking. Of humility and a sense of empathic compassion. We brought those values to this encounter.”
Is this the capacity to forgive the unforgivable?
“I’ve heard Jackie say that before and I’ve given it some real thought. But I think many Coeur d’Alene tribal people are at a point of saying, ‘That happened. Let’s talk about today, and what we can do about making things better.’ I think that approach and that attitude is one of grace,” Givens says.
Peterson believes such grace makes Sacred Encounters a powerful experience. “The Coeur d’Alene basically opened themselves up to be willing to share their stories and their life history and pain and anger. All of that has allowed us to tell the story as a deeply held emotional experience. People are really moved by this exhibit because it’s very honest.” And now, she says, “It’s come home.”
If you go: Old Mission State Park is just off Interstate 90 in Cataldo, Idaho (Exit 39), 58 miles east of Spokane. Sacred Encounters is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily. For info call 208-682-3814.