The Coming of the Black Robes

The coming of the Jesuit priests to the Coeur d'Alene Indian Tribe would prove to be one of the most providential encounters in the tribe's history. Their encounter would change the tribe's view of their world, and their culture. Some of the changes were good, some were not so good. But it ultimately helped them prepare for what would be their destiny of moving to reservation land and farming to make a living.

The following is taken from a December 2005 issue of "The Prospector", the newsletter of the Idaho State Historical Society's Junior Historian Program. The following article was written by Glenn Newkirk.

Before the European settlers arrived in America many different types of religious beliefs already existed among the Native Americans. Many of the tribes still practice their traditional religions today. But in some cases, the arrival of the Europeans and their religious beliefs changed the way Native Americans practiced religion. This is the story of the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the northern Idaho area and how this changed the lives not just of the Native Americans but also of the Jesuits. When two groups of strangers start to live, work, eat and pray together they sometimes create a common culture between the two.

The Jesuits were founded as an order of the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. They thought that education was one of the most important goals in life and built many schools. They became excellent teachers and had little trouble “roughing it” in the wilderness of America because they lived modest lives, without a lot of material goods. The Jesuits were known for dressing in simple, ankle length dark robes. This is where their nickname, the black robes, comes from.

The Jesuits came to Northern Idaho in a rather indirect way. Around 1820, a group of Iroquois Indians who were working for the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company visited western Montana. Several of the Iroquois stayed after they had finished their work and began living among the Salish Indians. As the men settled in, they started to share their ancestors and history. The Iroquois Nation has roots in the eastern part of America and so some of the Iroquois already had met the “black robes”. The Salish and the neighboring Nez Perce, fascinated by the stories, started planning to have some of the “black robes” come and live among them.

It took about ten years, but in 1841, Father Pierre Jean Desmet and several other Jesuits arrived in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. They built a small settlement called St. Mary’s and encouraged the Salish people to settle nearby and take up farming. Soon other Indian tribes in the area, including the Coeur d’Alene, heard of the arrival of the “black robes” and came to see for themselves what all the excitement was about.

In 1842 Jesuit missionary Father Nicholas Point entered what is now Idaho and began living among the Coeur d’Alene and in 1843, the first Jesuit settlement in Idaho was built. The humble mission stood on the point where the St. Joe River and Lake Coeur d’Alene met. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a poor location. During the spring thaw the mission often flooded and swarms of mosquitoes were a common nuisance. Still, Father Point went about his work diligently. He encouraged the Indians to take up farming and taught them the rituals and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. His hard work paid off. Within a couple of years, over one hundred Coeur d’Alene became Christians. This does not mean that they necessarily gave up their religious beliefs or way of life, although that may have happened in some cases. More likely, the Coeur d’Alene adopted only some of the Jesuit’s beliefs, mixing them with their own cultural traditions.

Eventually, the decision was made to relocate the mission and the rest of the community to higher ground along the Coeur d’Alene River just west of the present day town of Cataldo. This new location turned out to be much better than expected. Not only was the mission safe from spring flooding, but it turned out to be a crossroads of sorts for many travelers who stopped to rest, eat and share stories with the community. The Mission moved once again in 1877 to its current location on the south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, but the Cataldo Mission is still standing. Although neither the tribe nor the Jesuits live there today, the building has been preserved and is open for daily visitors.

Life at the mission was an interesting mix of cultures. The Coeur d’Alene people lived by hunting and gathering their food from the wild. The tribe had no written language, but instead used a system of oral storytelling to pass information from generation to generation. And, of course, the Coeur d’Alene people had their own religious beliefs that included plants, animals, and land around them. The Jesuits, on the other hand, believed that farming skills were essential to civilization. Their schools emphasized the art of reading and writing. And the Christian religion they practiced came from much different traditional beliefs developed across the ocean in Europe. The story of the Jesuit missions in Idaho isn’t just about historic buildings. It is a tale of two different groups of people living together in the harsh wilderness of early Idaho.

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