Missions — Native Voices from Tribal Legacy


INTRODUCTION: Indigenous Views on Missions

By Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies

Lewis and Clark opened the West to waves of settlers who would follow in their wake.  Missionaries were among some of the people moving west, opening the Oregon Trail, prior to the California Gold Rush (and after). Missionaries were more than just people seeking land to settle; they sought a special relationship with American Indian nations.  They purposely went to settle near and even among tribes, hoping to convert them to Christianity. While some might have had selfless goals, they typically dismissed the fact that Native peoples had their own religious beliefs and practices. Their objective was to change many aspects of the Native American ways of living, including their dwellings, their clothing, their hairstyles, how they obtained their food, what they ate, and more. Missions typically had schools associated with them that worked to erase many of the traditional life-ways. This was a major feature of a very disruptive form of colonialism.

Christian missionaries had the U.S. government’s backing, as the United States became ever more determined to expand and take in growing numbers of new states. The government believed that the missionaries would help smooth the transition, which would involve taking land away from tribes, concentrating them in less desirable areas, and trying to get them to become farmers and live like Europeans. The conversion was not just going to be religious; it was meant to have a full Americanizing effect. Perhaps some in the government and among the missionaries felt this was going to have a benign, even a beneficial effect, totally failing to foresee or own up to the pending cultural trauma and genocidal actions that were taken to bring about the desired domination. If people resisted, they were seen as unfriendly or hostile, rather than reasonably defending their own way of life.

In 1869, something called the Peace Policy solidified the union of federal government and missionary purpose, leaving the missionaries to oversee the reservations. This was when, as mentioned in one of our testimonials, the various churches involved in missionary activities divided the West between them, establishing their own jurisdictions. In addition to the other denominations already mentioned, Quakers also became more involved at this point. The military, which had earlier controlled more of the reservations, ceded some of their authority to the missionaries. The hope for “peace” (in the name of the new policy) was connected to the expected “success” of missionaries to pave the way for the increasing settlement of Euro-Americans. But coercive and aggressive tactics, combined with the threat of punishment for resistance, hardly brought peace to the West. In 1871, the treaty system gave way to a more hegemonic federal government stance toward tribes, and through much of the 1870s efforts to push tribes to occupy ever smaller and more remote lands was often met with violent resistance.

For our primary sources relating to the theme of Missions, we have chosen five short testimonials from the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial’s Tent of Many Voices. These testimonials, in both video format and with transcripts, are hosted on the Tribal Legacy website at the University of Montana, in Missoula. These accounts were told by individuals from a range of tribes: Umatilla, Salish-Pend d’Oreille, Nez Perce, Shawnee, and Grand Ronde. They encompass both positive and negative experiences and draw from memories across two centuries.


Sample “entry” questions:

In the first testimonial, what does Antone Minthorn (Umatilla) say about the “opening of the Oregon Trail”?  How should we think of the impact of Lewis and Clark compared to the subsequent opening of the Oregon Trail along the Columbia?

According to Mr. Minthorn, what happened in the Cayuse War (1847–1850), and what was the result? Did the hanging of five Cayuse warriors bring lasting peace?

Are you surprised that the Salish or Pend d’Oreille might go seeking the “Black Robes” (Jesuit missionaries) to come and live among them?  How does Joyce Silverthorn explain this in the second testimonial?

In the third testimonial, Allen Pinkham (Nez Perce) says that his ancestors were curious about how the missionaries had the ability to write, how they could pass around pieces of writing, and how the next person could read it and know what it said, word for word.  They wanted to learn how to do this.  How did this lead to a misunderstanding?

Mr. Pinkham mentions how one of his ancestors went to St. Louis in his desire to learn reading and writing.  Can you imagine what that experience might have been like for him, way back in 1830 or 1831? (See more information about St. Louis in the glossary, below.)

In the fourth testimonial, when Mr. Pitcher (Shawnee) says “women and men were equal within the Shawnee tribe,” what does he mean?  Why was this a problem “between Shawnees and Europeans,” in his view?

In the fifth testimonial, by Kathryn Harrison (Grand Ronde), we learn of competition between Catholics and “Christians” (Protestants) to reach their community first.  Apparently, the Catholics won the competition and still are the dominant European faith in that community. Ms. Harrison says “they did a good job.”  But she also tells a story about a girl who died, and what is the moral of that story?  Is it pro-Catholic?

Why would the Grand Ronde people have allowed “Father Crockett” to stay and become “a real good friend”?


Sample “essential” questions:

Mr. Pinkham says that “it may have been true to a certain extent” that some of his people wanted to learn about the Bible. And he says that when his tribe was “inundated by missionaries” it was “good” and “bad also.”  How would you explain his ambivalence on the topic?

When one culture group tries to convert another culture group (as compared to their own people) to a new type of religion, what does this imply? What are the implications of the missionary impulse across the Plains, Mountains, and along the Columbia, when viewed from Native perspectives?

In communities such as Grand Ronde, where Catholicism made major inroads, how do we learn that the Native community still retains some of its own beliefs?


Sample “big idea”:

Religious beliefs and practices can be complex.  Different faiths can intermingle.  Individuals and families can have their own ways of interpreting faith and practicing it. Do you know of people who practice a religion of European origin while also retaining some of their own indigenous beliefs and practices? Do you find any examples in the testimonials?


Sample “enduring understandings”:

The testimonials we have sampled from the Tribal Legacy oral history archive reveal that there are many points of view, not just one “Indian” response to missions. Some tribes strongly resisted evangelization, while even these and others gradually allowed new religions to penetrate their communities.  What Mr. Pinkham calls “power” may have a great deal to do with the responses to the ever-growing presence of missionaries and missionary schools in or near indigenous communities. Some missionaries might have been seen as bringing power to the community (e.g. literacy) along with the new faith.  As Ms. Harrison shows, people would be kind to a priest who was kind to them, and yet they would hold onto their belief in their own Creator, who still held power for them.

Power dynamics were also skewed under colonialism, with the federal government backing the formation of states and supporting the emigrants who filled the new positions in those state governments.  It would take time for tribes to find organized ways to effectively press for their rights in the face of these unequal power relationships. Treaties (discussed elsewhere) could both help and hinder in those uneven power situations.


Place-based considerations:

Again and again, we see the importance of considering the experience of each tribe, in its own surroundings, and the way each one faced the various dimensions of settler colonialism on their own terms. We see the Cayuse, having been harassed by the volume of emigrants on the Oregon Trail, which cut right through their territory, becoming fed up with the intrusions and attacking the Whitman mission. We see that the Salish-Pend d’Oreille had experience and contact with the Iroquois, from whom they heard positive things about the Jesuit missionaries, leading them to invite the Black Robes to their community. Other Salish sources say that the Iroquois were actually the first to introduce the Christian religion and encourage missionary work among the Salish. This is a very specific, place-based experience.  But timing can combine with the place to produce significant historical markers; Catholic priests were in the West earlier than the Protestant missionaries.


A journey of healing:

Some observers of the missionaries’ impacts on indigenous ways of life might find inspiration in resistance efforts, such as we saw among the Cayuse, who wanted nothing to do with the new faith that the Whitmans tried to introduce.  Perhaps less inspirational but also part of the human condition and contributing to survival, were coping mechanisms that we can see in people’s interaction with missionaries’ activities. Some observers might take pride in the welcoming nature of many early encounters and some families’ resulting satisfaction with Christianity (even as they continue, often, to value indigenous expressions of spirituality, too).


Who’s Who, What’s What, Where’s Where:

Black Robes“: This term, referencing the garments that the men wore, refers to the “Society of Jesus” (aka Jesuits), a Roman Catholic religious order founded in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola, who was a Spanish soldier. They received a charter from the Pope in 1540 to go out and evangelize other peoples. They arrived in the Americas after other Catholic orders and therefore ended up going out to areas not already evangelized (Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians had already claimed many of the bigger indigenous cities of the Americas). The earliest members of the Black Robes were French missionaries in what became Canada; they arrived in 1625. They would also enter into what is now the United States. For example, Old Ignace was an Iroquois leader who embraced the Jesuits’ faith and began proselytizing for them; he went with a group of his people to the Bitter Root Valley (now Montana) to settle among the Salish and encourage them to accept Christianity, eventually helping them seek out some Black Robes from St. Louis to come and teach them in the Bitter Root Valley.

Blacktail Eagle (Nez Perce): Also known as Waptastamana, Blacktail Eagle, was the youngest son of Red Bear (see this separate entry).

Cayuse Tribe (or Liksiyu):  The homeland of this tribe, of the Wiilatpuan language family, spans what is now northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington state and is associated with the Columbia River region since time immemorial. They have close associations with the Nez Perce and Walla Walla, and early Euro-Americans on the scene thought they were all one tribe.  The word Cayuse comes from the French term, cailloux (“Rock People”), an indication that the first contact with non-Native people was with French fur traders. When the horse became prevalent in this region in the 18th century, the Cayuse traveled more and were exposed to hunting buffalo and using teepees. A measles epidemic hit the tribe very hard in 1847 in the area of the Whitman MIssion, when about half the tribal population died. Exasperated by the disease and death, fed up with eastern emigrants coming through their territory, and disliking the mission, the Cayuse went to war against the settlers between 1847 and 1855, when the Cayuse were defeated and made to relocate to the Umatilla Reservation.

Cayuse War (1847–1855): A series of conflicts between the Cayuse nation, emigrant settlers, and the U.S. government stemmed from the ravages of epidemic disease, such as measles, territorial intrusions, and unwelcome missionary efforts.  The wars were settled with the creation of reservations.

Crockett, Father (Catholic Priest): Adrien-Joseph Croquet (1818­–1902) was a missionary in the Oregon territory between 1860 and 1898.  See the book by Fr. Cawley, mentioned under Additional Resources, below.

Gender:  Rather than relating solely to a scientific biological differentiation, gender refers to socially defined roles and status accorded to men, women, and non-binary individuals. These perceived roles and status levels relate to social or cultural groups’ ways of interpreting biological difference and imbuing it with their own subjective meaning, which may or may not be borne out in a scientific, objective study. Varying gender norms will be found in different tribes.

Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes:  The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon includes 27 tribes whose homeland stretches from Washington, through much of Oregon, and to the northern boundary of California. The reservation was established in 1855, and because the people who were brought together spoke multiple languages, a shared language called Chinook Jargon (also called Chinuk Wawa) emerged. Tribes that were removed from more distant parts to the reservation came from Chasta (aka Shasta), Chasta Costa, Kalapuya, Molalla, Rogue River, Klickitat, Chinook, Tillamook, and French-Canadian Iroquoian.

Please see the confederation’s own web page about its history and museum for further information.

Hudson’s Bay Company: This fur trading company was incorporated in 1670 by English Royal Charter and operated in areas that are now part of Canada the U.S. (borders were vague at different times). Headquarters for fur trading was located at York Factory on the Hudson Bay, but the trappers and traders fanned out deep into tribal territories. In fact, Euro-Canadians learned their fur trading skills from tribes, and depended upon these skills for their survival in early times. Trading posts were also to be found across the West. Another fur trading company, based in St. Louis, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, was the one with which the Spaldings and Whitmans traveled west.

Iroquois Adoptees: In 1820, the Hudson’s Bay Company brought some Iroquois from Canada into the Bitter Root Valley in what is now Montana. Some of the Iroquois remained and were adopted into the Salish Tribe. It was this group that introduced Christianity to the Salish and the Nez Perce. In the 1830s, the Salish and the Iroquois made four trips to St. Louis to induce some Black Robes to be the teachers for the tribe. The first Jesuit priests arrived in 1841.

Kalispel Tribe (or Pend d’Oreille): This tribe lives in Montana speaks a language that is part of the Salish linguistic group.  The second name for the tribe is pronounced “pond-oh-RAY,” and it is a French expression dating from the time of French fur trappers. The Kalispel wore round shell earrings, and the French term refers to the dangling earrings.

Nimiipuu or Nez Perce Tribe:  The reservation for this federally-recognized tribe is located today in north-central Idaho, and it has more than 3,500 citizens.  But a National Historic Park for relating to the Nez Perce crosses Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, in recognition of the historical and contemporary movements of this tribe with the purpose of fishing, hunting, and trading.  This tribe is one of the four Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission member treaty tribes. The famous Chief Joseph (c. 1840–1904), whose surrender was accompanied by the sentence, now famous, “From where the sun stands, I will fight no more forever,” was the leader of a Wallowa band of the Nez Perce.  For more about the tribe’s history, visit their own history web page.

Red Bear (Nez Perce): Hohots Ilppilp, or Red Grizzly Bear, shortened over time to Red Bear, was one of the tribal people who canoed down the Clearwater River to meet Lewis and Clark, according to an interview with his grandson Wottolen, or Hair Combed Over Eyes, with the great-grandson, Many Wounds, interpreting.  Red Bear was a chief, known for being a brave warrior and a prophet. The historic meeting took place where Lewiston, Idaho, is now located. Follow the link to Red Bear (above) to read more about this encounter. Red Grizzly Bear was the twelfth signer of the Treaty of Walla Walla (1855).

St. Louis:  St. Louis, Missouri, became the capital of the Louisiana Territory in 1805.  It had been a distant outpost of Spanish and French colonialism, but came under American domination after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) even became territorial governor for one year, beginning in early 1807 (after his return from the expedition to the coast of Oregon). In 1812, the territory was renamed the Missouri Territory, and St. Louis remained its capital.  An influx of population from the East quickly transformed the town from 1,200 people in 1804, to 4,600 in 1820, when statehood came.  This pattern would be replicated in other towns, as emigrants from the East continued to head west.  An interesting feature of St. Louis in this period was the switch from a predominantly Catholic population (Catholics dominate in Spain and France), to an increasingly Protestant one (with Baptists, then Methodists, then Presbyterians, and finally Episcopalians coming in and building churches). All were there, at the so-called “jumping off place” (i.e. a point from which to launch expeditions, as St. Louis came to be called) and ready to send missionaries to the West.

Salish: The Salish comprise a group of tribes with a linguistic connection. The Coast Salish live in the coastal areas of the Northwest, taking in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, while the other Salish formed the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and have an association with the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

Shawnee Tribe: The origin of the Shawnees was in the Eastern Woodlands, but they have lived in different regions (e.g. Ohio, Oklahoma, Kansas), having their homeland disrupted by emigrants moving west. Part of the tribe was united with the Cherokees in the 19th century, receiving some land allotments and citizenship in the Cherokee Nation, but in the year 2000, their status as a separate nation was restored.

Spalding, Eliza (1807–1851): One of the first Euro-American women to arrive and settle west of the Rockies, Eliza Spalding was a schoolteacher and a devout Presbyterian. She joined her husband on the journey west and helped him settle in what is now Idaho, with the intention of helping with the mission school among the Nez Perce. She has been said to have been something of an intermediary between her husband, who was less well-liked than she was, and the Nez Perce, whom she strove harder to understand even if she united with Henry Spalding with the idea of devoting “her life to educate the heathen,” which provides a window onto the limits of her understanding.

Spalding, Henry H. (c. 1803–1874): Traveling west with a fur trading company, Spalding was one of the first Americans (after the Lewis and Clark expedition) to arrive into the region of what is now Idaho and Washington, west of the Rocky Mountains. He was a Presbyterian missionary who did not graduate from his seminary in Ohio, but nevertheless received an appointment as a missionary to evangelize among the Nez Perce (and when he was dismissed, due to criticisms of his behavior in 1842, he continued in the missionary role, and later got reinstated). In the period, missionaries were supervised by an “American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions,” which felt it had the authority to make and rescind appointments. Apparently, the West was still a foreign land, from their point of view. Spalding and his wife teamed up with the Whitmans and traveled west together with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (based in St. Louis). But they eventually the two couples established separate missions. Spalding introduced the first printing press into the territory (1839), developed a script for the Nez Perce language, and used it to translate parts of the Bible.

Waiilatpu (“Place of Rye Grass”): A Cayuse community, near the Walla Walla River and not far from the Blue Mountains, was 25 miles east of Fort Wallo Wallo in the Walla Walla Valley. This became the site of the Whitman Mission. Wild food, which was abundant in this region before the Euro-American intrusion, was much preferred by the local Cayuse nation. When emigrants began coming through in large numbers, eating the food, this was a source of contention. The Whitman Mission established here was also resented locally. The push by missionaries for the Cayuse to take up agriculture ran counter to their beliefs.

Whitman, Marcus (1802–1847): A missionary from New York who had trained for two years to get a degree as a physician, first came west in 1835 and returned with his new wife, Narcissa, a few years later. He established the Whitman Mission in Waiilatpu in the same year. He learned the Cayuse language, but he had trouble converting the Cayuse people, who resisted European ways. They did not wish to become farmers, and when the missionaries tried to press new ways upon them, tensions grew, leading to the Cayuse War.

Whitman Mission (1836–1847): Six miles west of present-day Walla Walla, Washington. The constant traffic of emigrants heading west passed through this mission, located in Cayuse territory, near what is the border today between southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.  The intrusion into their territory was a major annoyance to the Cayuse, leading to significant tensions. In 1847 a measles epidemic killed half of the local Cayuse, but a smaller proportion of the settlers, which made the Cayuse suspicious of Whitman, who was supposed to be a healer. The result was the Whitman Massacre when the Cayuse became fed up and attacked, killing fourteen people.

Whitman, Narcissa (1808–1847): Born Narcissa Prentiss, she was a teacher of physics and chemistry in New York and then a Protestant missionary who established a mission near what is now Walla Walla, Washington. She and Eliza Spalding were reportedly the first Euro-American women that the Cayuse tribe had ever seen.




Additional Resources:

Cawley, Fr. Martinus, Father Crockett of Grand Ronde: Adrien-Joseph Croquet, 1818–1902, Oregon Missionary, 1860–1898 (Lafayette, OR: Guadalupe Translations, 1996).

Heise, Tammy, Religion and Native American Assimilation, Resistance, and Survival,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Nov. 2017.

Higham, Carol L. Christian Missions to American Indians,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia, May 2016.

Pearson, J. Diane, The Nez Perces in the Indian Territory: Nimiipuu Survival (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008).