“It was, according to my father, a test to believe in the Sky Chief, the Kollinsuitan, the Amotqn, the God. And his son Jesu. Jesu Christe. Converting Indians to Christianity in the name of Jesus… there were some casualties. Big time.”
“Nick Si John, that’s what the rolls call him. The rolls were the official registry of the government.” Cliff was telling me about the coming of the Jesuit missionaries into Coeur d’Alene (Schitsu’umsh) territory. After smallpox and other diseases, the second greatest destructive force to the Coeur d’Alene people was the Jesuit’s arrival in 1842. “Their ultimate mission was to take the culture and tradition away from the Coeur d’Alene people, to bury it forever and replace it with a store-bought suit, short hair, a buggy, house, 40 acres, and a team of horses. Their goal was to change the savagery of these Indian people. But in our eyes, it was the way we had been living since time immemorial. For thousands of years, we had taken care of our people and our family. We lived around this lake. And in a very short time the Black Robes, the Missionaries, came in and placed a cut behind our knees and we’ve been crippled ever since. That’s how I see it.”
Two associated factors helped the Jesuits Christianize the Coeur d’Alene people: Circling Raven and the similarities between the two belief systems. Circling Raven was a medicine man who foresaw the coming of the Black Robes—the men with “crossed sticks.” He said that the Coeur d’Alene people should follow the Black Robes because they would show the people a new path to the heaven trails.
The Coeur d’Alene people already believed in one God—the Amotqn—who lives in the sun and is the father. The earth is the mother, and the sun rises to warm the earth so new things will grow from her and become part of the continuous cycle of creation.
When the Black Robes came, they showed pictures explaining the basic teachings of Catholicism to the people. When looking at the birth of Jesus, they saw a dove, horses, cows, a manger, and several other animals. Cliff explained how the Coeur d’Alene connected and identified with the pictures and Catholicism because the Amotqn sent messengers from the animal world to the Sweat House. Animals were the first people, placed on earth before humans. The first peoples taught humans how to live, and their teachings endure in the stories people share. The Jesuits’ message made sense. Their beliefs overlapped enough that they integrated them as an added path and source of spiritual power. Many people thought they could walk the two paths simultaneously.
In the 1960s, Malcolm McFee proposed the 150% man based upon his research with the Blackfoot people. The theory holds that people can learn and accept new ways without abandoning the old. McFee observed how people can be secure in both worlds—Indigenous and white ways of being—even if they conflicted. What we identify with is contextual, and people are not always bound to binary, either/or categories. If those in power do not foreclose options, we can choose identities and practices as needs arise or circumstances change.
The Black Robes were less open-minded than the Coeur d’Alene people. They refused to appreciate the similarities between the belief systems. They also had an agenda.
The Jesuits introduced farming techniques. They intended to shift the Coeur d’Alene from hunting and gathering to a sedentary existence—people are easier to control if they stay in one place. This change in subsistence strategy threatened an identity woven into their seasonal round and landscape. The Jesuits told the people to burn their Suumesh, or spiritual power bundle. Those who refused suffered consequences. They were given Christian names, severing their ancestral connections and powers. They forced children to attend school, cut their hair, and speak only English. In time, losing their language and the culture linked to it further devastated their cultural identity.[i]
The Soldiers of the Sacred Heart were the police for the Catholic Church. They were Coeur d’Alenes sent among their people to discover who violated Jesuit rules, such as holding medicine dances.
“The Jesuit force was so strong here on this reservation that even killings were committed in the name of the church,” said Cliff. “Nobody talks about those things now. Nobody brings them up—afraid they’ll hurt somebody’s feelings. I say bullshit, that’s all crap, our people went through this!”
“So, Nick Si John was staying out near what is now Worley. My grandma talked about how one night the Soldiers of the Sacred Heart came riding up to the house and came bustin’ in the front door. They said they wanted to talk to Nick. There was a loft upstairs, so my grandmother said, ‘He is upstairs. What do you want?’
‘We want to talk to him.’ They hollered at him: ‘Nick!’
And he said, ‘Come upstairs.’
‘Come down here we want to talk to you.’
‘I’m in bed.’ He was with his wife and baby. He’d been working hard all day. I think they’d been hunting or something.
‘Come down here we want to talk to you because we heard that you had been drinking in Spokane last month. You were drinking whiskey.’
He hollered, ‘Last month I was in the Huckleberry Mountains with my stepmother.’
‘Come on down here. We want to talk to you about this, you been reported drinking.’ So, he came to the loft where the stairs were. As he showed up, these Soldiers of the Sacred Heart pulled out their pistols and shot him. Shot him down through the leg here and up right through his heart. Nick fell. They holstered, walked out, got on their horses, and rode off.
That was the professed love of Jesus Christ. That was the professed love for all my children. That was the mass of I’ll take care of all of you, love God, he loves you. These jerks sent the Soldiers of the Sacred Heart out to assassinate an Indian and his crime was what? He was accused of drinking in Spokane 30 days before when he was actually in the mountains with my grandmother.”
The Jesuits had a chokehold on the Coeur d’Alene people. Cliff’s grandmother never allowed them to get their fingers around her neck, even though she lost her stepson to them. They excommunicated her for refusing to burn her medicine bundles (I mention part of her story here), so she just traveled to church in Spokane instead. “They did all kinds of things like that,” Cliff said. “In the name of the Jesuits, they’d go around and club people. Go around and kill them. Nobody will talk about it now. Nobody wants to talk about it—they don’t want to hurt the priests’ feelings. I say screw ‘em. Our people really suffered, and my children need to know that.”
Cliff was a respected cultural and spiritual leader. But he also identified as Catholic. He walked within both worlds, perhaps like Circling Raven’s vision.
“How can you still go to church after all this?” I asked.
“I asked my father the same question,” he said. “My father, when he’d tell me these stories, I’d ask him: ‘How can you not hate the Jesuits? How can you not hate them for what they did to our family? How could you not hate them!’ Always his response was: ‘I love my religion. These were men. It wasn’t Jesus. It wasn’t God. These were men doing this. Men who were involved with the church.’”
He took a position that prioritized his spirituality over the institution and its agents. It remains hard to imagine doing so—to remember yet stay adherent—especially as the Catholic Church continues to deny equal rights and does not atone for their misdeeds and coverups. What does it mean when people separate the abuse and politics from other parts of their religion? Are overlooking issues, or picking only the details one agrees with, the same as excusing the offenses? These questions remain today as they did 150 years ago.
“Up until the day my dad died, he talked to me about using both ways all the time,” said Cliff. “And never to forget. No matter what the Soldiers of the Sacred Heart did. No matter what the Black Robes did to him. To still practice our culture. He made me promise to continue with that and balance it the best we can. We pray. Our children are baptized, do first communion. The grandchildren serve mass. All those things. Because we serve the father almighty, not the man.”
Want more? Check out my book “Spirit Children.” Read my related essay on Cliff’s thoughts about trauma and cultural authenticity here.
[i] For details see: Frey, Rodney (2001). Landscape Travelled by Coyote and Crane: The World of the Schitsu’umsh. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Pages 29-44.