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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 1 Eastertide 2004

The Price of Their Faith


by Margueritte McKenzie

Margueritte "Molly" McKenzie hails from St. Louis, Missouri, where she lives with her parents, four of her eight siblings, the family dog, a guinea pig, and a loft of pigeons. Caring for her racing homing pigeons and Indian Fantail show pigeons is seventeen-year-old Molly's primary hobby, which she began the same year as home schooling. She is now a high school junior and enjoys reading, doing artwork, playing piano and gardening. She wrote this paper for an English class.

[Details about the Young Writers Award.]

The history of the conversion of the Northwest American Indian Tribes to the Catholic religion is a story filled with inspiration and tragedy. Paradoxically, the Indians sought the "Blackrobes", Catholic missionary priests, before the priests sought them. After many hardships, they joyfully received Father Pierre DeSmet, SJ, in their camps. With his help, they became exemplary Catholics and were prepared to face their changing world with the assurance of salvation. The greatest test of their faith occurred when President Ulysses S. Grant, in an attempt to improve relations between the Indians and the white people moving west, established a "Peace Policy", which replaced the Indians' Catholic missionaries with missionaries from various Protestant denominations. Many Catholic Indians persevered in their Catholic Faith in spite of the problems and difficulties that arose from the government transferring the Catholic missions to the Protestants.

After the United States government's purchase of the land west of the Mississippi, very few people ventured into the unexplored West, except for the Lewis and Clark expedition, fur traders, and missionaries. Yet the Indians of the northwestern United States in the Rocky Mountains had Catholic roots that stretched all the way across an entire continent and two hundred years, to Indian converts of the North American Martyrs, seventeenth-century Jesuit priests in the northern United States and southeast Canada. To quote from a historical account: "Some years before a small band of Catholic Iroquois had settled among these pagan tribes of the Northwest and had so impressed them with their explanations of the Catholic religion and its ceremonies, that a delegation was sent to St. Louis for a missionary priest to dwell among them".1 Two of the Indians from the delegation died in St. Louis, and the remaining two never returned to the tribe and are believed to have died on their return trip.

The Flatheads, however, were not to be deterred in their desire for a priest. Over the course of four years, three more delegations undertook the 3,000 mile journey to St. Louis "over high mountains, broad rivers, and across arid plains and the sand of the desert".2 Many of the Indians in the delegations lost their lives, including Ignace, the chief of the Iroquois, who had told the Flatheads of Catholicism. Finally the missionary Father DeSmet was sent to them and the first Catholic Indian mission in the Northwest was established. Thus, the first missionaries to visit the Flathead tribe were Indians themselves.

The conversion of the Flatheads prepared the way for the conversion of many surrounding tribes such as the Nez Perce and Pend d'Oreilles. The first mission was established in 1840, and by 1870 there were forty missions serving more than a hundred thousand Indians. Numerous examples may be found that reveal the love and respect the Indians had for their Catholic religion and missionaries. When Big Face, the chief of the Flatheads, was receiving the Last Rites, a missionary asked him, "Have you no sins to repent of since your Baptism?" Big Face, astounded, replied, "Sins? How could I commit a sin when it is my duty to teach others to live well?"3

Every time Father DeSmet returned to the mission, he was greeted by crowds of Indians rejoicing to see him. One such scene is described in Father DeSmet's biography, Apostle of the Rocky Mountains: "'As we approached the camp we saw one courier after another approaching. Toward nightfall an affecting scene took place. The neophytes -- men, women, young men, and children in arms -- struggled with one another to be the first to shake hands with us; our hearts were too full for utterance'".4 Similar demonstrations of affection were performed by other tribes at the approach of missionaries at other times.

The Indians' love of their Catholic religion is shown again by the great Chief Big Face in his morning exhortation to his people as he rode around the camp: "Come, courage, my children! Tell Him you love Him and ask Him to make you charitable!"5

The migration of white men into the West produced a drastic change in the Indians' lives. Following the Civil War, many veterans and settlers forged their way west with their families in search of a place to call home. Disagreements between settlers and Indians inevitably arose when settlers began the westward trek to Oregon. The federal government intervened and arranged with the Indians to establish roads that the settlers would be permitted to travel on.

But as the masses of settlers began to fill available land, the land set aside for the Indians began to beckon to the settlers. The government bargained with the Indians and eventually concluded treaties giving the Indians "annuities", in the form of clothing, knives, camp stools, etc., in exchange for their land. Unfortunately, the agents put in charge of delivering the annuities to the Indians stole many of them for their own benefit. The Indians were aware of this cheating and grew resentful. Soon battles occurred between them and the settlers.

Then another plan was devised by the government to establish an understanding between the Indians and the settlers. President Grant was aware of the deep respect the Indians had for the Catholic missionaries, so he thought that he would establish peace through the mission system. He proposed the idea of a peace policy in which "religious men appointed by Congress would replace civil and military agents and oversee the implementation of the policy.... The goals of the policy were to place Indians on reservations, teach them the rudiments of Christianity and individualized farming, and eventually prepare them for citizenship".6

Grant believed that the Indians would respond to the various Protestant missionaries in the same way that they responded to Catholic missionaries. This turned out to be a grave mistake. The Catholic representative of the Pearce Policy Committee, Father DeSmet, was ignored at meetings: "Neither my presence, nor my demand in behalf of the Catholic missions, produced any effect. The plan for civilizing and evangelizing the Indians had already been decided upon by the President and approved by the Senate".7

Catholic missionaries were entitled to minister to forty missions but were only allowed to minister to eight. Grant favored some religions, such as the Methodists, and gave them more missions.

Once the Peace Policy was put into practice, things began to go wrong. "At one stroke, eighty thousand Indians, without being consulted, found themselves torn from the Church or exposed to apostasy".8 The Indians were confused when they found themselves without their Catholic missionaries and they were hesitant to deny their Catholicism for another religion.

Grant's Peace Policy was ill-conceived and poorly implemented, even from a policy point of view. The Encyclopedia of North American Indians summarizes the policy in these words:

The result was an effort to push different tribes onto limited land bases away from ancestral homes, and a failure to protect and feed Indians while they remained on the reservations. Tribes were left with little hope. Consequently, many chose to return to their homelands and fight against the changes the government tried to force on them.

The Peace Policy faltered in the mid-1870s because of the widespread corruption in agencies and resistance by the Indians. During the twenty years in which the Federal Government tried to implement the Peace Policy some of the most expensive and bloody Indian Wars occurred.9

Many of the Indians held firm to their Catholicism in spite of this policy. Their fidelity to the Catholic Faith is evident through the example of many different tribes. Finding it difficult to manage with the new ministers, the Indians sent their frequent messages to President Grant asking him to return their Catholic agents, their priests, and their Catholic schools.10

One such entreaty, made by a tribe of the Sioux, is found in Peter Rahill's The Catholic Indian Missions and Grant's Peace Policy: "The Indians had told the agent that every man, woman, and child of the Red Cloud nation wanted Catholic teachers".11 The majority of the Indians' requests were ignored by the government.

Ironically, many whites understood and supported the Indians' desire for Catholicism. Newspaper journalists and Indian agents both agreed that the Indians wanted to be and deserved to be Catholic. An agent, McGillycuddy, is mentioned in Peter Rahill's book as saying that "he would personally approve of the Catholic Church being admitted to all agencies because its form of worship had greater appeal to the red man than any other".12

The Chicago Times wrote: "If the Indian asks for this kind of spiritual meat, why give him a stone?"13 Another journalist, of the New York Freeman's Journal, wrote: "It is horrible to think that these Indians, who have immortal souls as well as the negroes lately set free, are divided into bands and placed under ministers of every denomination, regardless of their own wishes and convictions".14

The Indians proved their love for the Catholic Faith numerous times. An example of this is described in Apostle of the Rocky Mountains:

A Methodist minister who for some time had labored to turn Ignace, the chief of the Yakimas, from his faith, asked him one day how much he would want for changing to Protestantism.
"A big price", the chief answered him.
"Two hundred dollars?"
"More than that".
"Then how much? Five hundred, six hundred dollars?"
"Oh, more than that!"
"Indeed! State your price".
"The price of my soul".15


Yet another example of the Indians' devotion to the Catholic Faith can be found in a beautiful letter written by the Coeur d'Alènes to Pope Pius IX (Bottom of this page). Enclosed with the letter was a gift of money and an offer of the services of Indian soldiers to the pope. The pope replied tenderly to their letter and gave them his apostolic benediction as well.16

The faith of the nineteenth-century Indians was incredibly inspiring and moving, but what is even more amazing is the faith they passed down to their descendants of the twentieth century. Between the years 1994 and 1997, a special exhibit titled "Sacred Encounters" toured the western United States. This exhibit contained Indian artifacts and long-lost documents on the Jesuit missions. In Bozeman, Montana, at Montana State University, a special ceremony was held for the opening of the exhibit. Various dignitaries were invited, including academics and authors with an interest in the history of the Indians in the Northwest, members of the Society of Jesus, a representative of the King of Belgium (the native country of many of the original missionaries), and 1000 Salish Indians (the nation to which the Flathead tribe belonged).

The Young Jesuit who opened the ceremony made a very politically correct speech which was meant to agree with every person present. As one participant put it, the speech "offended nobody but God". Although the exhibit was about "Sacred Encounters", mainly those of the Indians with the Jesuits, the Jesuit speaker neglected to include a prayer or any acknowledgment of God in his remarks. When he had concluded his speech, the chief of the Salish Indians jumped to his feet, strode to the lectern and made the following statement:

"We will begin this ceremony with the prayers Father DeSmet taught our ancestors, The Our Father, The Hail Mary, and the Guardian Angel prayer!"

According to a participant, "Before the palefaces could begin to pray in English, the Indians began chanting these three prayers in the Salish tongue. The sound was thunderous!"17

Even when the Indians' religion and their very dignity were stripped from them, they held firm to the teachings of Catholicism. They were Catholic from the beginning, when they went in search of a priest to teach them the truth; and when Grant's Peace Policy was established and carried out, they still retained their Catholic identity.

All Catholics who wish to possess a firm and sincere love for God should be inspired by the courageous example of the persecuted Catholic Indians who demonstrated such an incredibly strong attachment to their Faith.

1 Behrmann, E.H. The Story of the Old Cathedral. St. Louis: Ross-Gould Co., 1956: 39.
2 Laveille, E. Apostle of the Rocky Mountains. Chicago: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 2000.
3 Ibid., 135.
4 Ibid., 125.
5 Ibid., 109.
6 Hoxie, Frederick E. Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
7 Laveille, 363.
8 Ibid., 364.
9 Hoxie.
10 Laveille, 366.
11 Rahill, Peter J. The Catholic Indian Missions and Grant's Peace Policy. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1953: 279.
12 Ibid., 278.
13 Ibid., 150.
14 Laveille, 364.
15 Ibid., 367.
16 Ibid., 367. The text of this letter and the pope's reply appear on the following page.
17 Father William Barnaby Faherty, SJ, historian of the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus, who attended the "Sacred Encounters" opening ceremony, from a lecture given by Father Faherty at the Museum of the Western Jesuit Missions in 2002 (transcribed by Bill McKenzie in a telephone conversation with Father Faherty).

Letter to Pope Pius IX

Following is the letter, mentioned in "The Price of Their Faith", written by Vincent, of the Stellam family and Andrew Seltis, of the family of Emote from the tribe of the Coeur d'Alènes to Pope Pius IX. At the time this letter was written, the Vatican was under siege by Victor Emmanuel, who determined to take over the papal states and all of the possessions of the Church. In 1870, he seized Rome and the papal troops were defeated. Thus the Coeur d'Alène tribe's offer of money and troops to their beleaguered pontiff.

Most merciful Father, it is not temerity, but love which moves us to write to you. We are, it is true, the most humble of all the Indian tribes, while you are the greatest among living men. But you were the first to cast a look of pity upon us. Yes, Father, thirty winters ago we were a savage people, miserable in both body and soul until you sent us the great Black Robe, Father DeSmet, to make us children of God through baptism. We were blind, and you sent him to open our eyes. Many of us were still in darkness when Father DeSmet left us; then you sent us another Black Robe, our good Father Nicholas, who came and lived with us and awakened us, directing us in the path that leads to heaven. And how many other Fathers have you not given us to teach us and our children the law of God and make us better Christians.

Hence, Father, hearing that you are in affliction, we wish to thank you for your charity, and express to you our great love and deep sorrow in learning that some of your wicked children continue to cause you suffering after having robbed you of your house.

Although we are only poor Indians, ignorant of the amenities of life, we regard such conduct as a crime. Only fifty years ago, we ourselves were still savages, but would not have dared to act thus had we known that the dignity and the power of the pope comes from Christ. For this reason we have prayed and will continue to pray with all the ardor poor Indians are capable of, for thee, Father, and for the entire Church. Moreover, having come from our various camps to assemble the mission church, we have for nine days said many prayers and performed acts of virtue which we offer to the Heart of Jesus for thee. This morning we counted our acts and devotions and found they numbered 120,527. Judging this insufficient, we offered our own hearts for our excellent Father, the Pope, in the assured belief that this offering will not be rejected.

We have a number of soldiers, not trained for war, but to keep order in our camp. If these men can be of service to the Pope, we offer them joyfully, and they will esteem themselves fortunate in being able to spill their blood and give their lives for our good Father Pius IX.

And now may we tell our fears and misgivings? The sellers of whiskey are daily drawing nearer. We fear to betray our Savior in taking back the hearts we have given Him. Help us, and strengthen us by thy prayers! But our dear children are still to be pitied because they are more exposed; not so much our sons, who have real fathers in the Black Robes, but our daughters, who as yet have no kind mothers to look after them. We have often asked for a Black Robe for their sex, but our voices are too weak to be heard, and we are too poor to do more than ask. Who will send us good mothers to instruct our daughters and strengthen them against the enemy that draws near, if not thou, who hast always had compassion for us, even when we were pagans?

These are the sentiments of our hearts, but as we poor Indians attach little value to expressions of feeling unless they are accompanied by material gifts, we have collected dollars and small coins, that we may give you, so to speak, a piece of our own flesh, as a measure of our sincerity. Notwithstanding our poverty, to our great surprise we have been able to collect $110.

And now, Father, once again allow us to open our hearts. Oh, how happy we would be, despite our unworthiness, could we receive word from your lips, a word that will help us and our wives and children to find an entry into the Heart of Jesus!

Vincent, of the Stellam family
Andrew Seltis, of the family of Emote


Pope Pius IX's Reply
Beloved Sons, salutation and apostolic benediction!

The devoted sentiments which you, in the simplicity of your hearts express, have caused us great joy. Your sorrow over the attacks made against the Church, as well as your devotion and filial love for the Holy See, is a striking proof of the faith and charity that fill your hearts, attaching you firmly to the center of unity. For this reason we feel certain that your prayers and supplications which rise unceasingly to God will be efficacious for us and for the Church, and we accept with deep feeling of gratitude the offering of your generous charity. The hand of God protects those who seek Him sincerely, and we believe that your good words will obtain the grace to resist the dangers of corruption that threaten you, and the spiritual help which you desire for your daughters. We beg God to complete in you the work of grace, and to fill you with His choicest blessings. As a presage of this and a token of our gratitude and paternal favor, we give you from our heart the apostolic benediction.

Given at Rome, near St. Peter's, July 31, 1871, in the twenty-sixth year of our Pontificate.
Pius IX, Pope

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