The Museum as Sacred Place

Jack McNeel
12/19/11

In the 1700s, Chief Circling Raven of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe had a vision of men in black robes who would come to the tribe. Chief Shining Shirt of the Pend d’Oreille Tribe in Montana had a similar vision. Both men were long dead when Father Pierre-Jean De Smet arrived in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana in 1841. A year later the Jesuit priest traveled westward to meet with the Coeur d’Alenes. Other Catholic priests came soon after and a small mission was built in 1843 along the St. Joe River. It proved undesirable due to springtime flooding and a new mission was begun in 1848. This mission was built by members of the tribe under the guidance of missionaries and was completed in 1853. They had limited tools and no nails, yet that mission—the Sacred Heart Mission—still stands.

In the 1990s a massive exhibit documenting this meeting of two sacred worlds—the Christian faith and the indigenous beliefs of the Native Americans—was created. It has now been reassembled, supplemented with modernized technology and it is a permanent exhibit at Old Mission State Park on Coeur d’Alene tribal lands. A new visitor center has been built to house Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet and the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West. Cost for the project was $3.26 million with many organizations and individuals contributing.

Items from numerous prestigious museums, such as the National Museum of the American Indian, the Holy Names Heritage Center and many others are now on loan there. Visitors walk from room to room through nine scenes with videos and music playing in addition to the static displays. There are Native American items such as early clothing, bags and dolls and there is a seven-minute audiovisual program of the spiritual world of the Salish tribes. Another scene reflects life of the tribe before the missionaries arrived and a later scene reflects the early Reservation Era. There are numerous items from the Catholic Church including a letter by Father De Smet, a Bible from that period, a polished chalice and the centerpiece is a re-creation of the Mission on Christmas Eve in 1842. Other items came from Father De Smet’s birthplace in Belgium and one scene documents much of his life with the Indians.

Old Mission State Park, also called the Cataldo Mission, is managed by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, yet is owned by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. The Roman Catholic Diocese had owned the buildings and land around them since the mid-1800s. In a unique agreement in 2002, ownership of the land and facilities were transferred to the tribe because of the long historic and spiritual connection to the Coeur d’Alenes. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also the most visited heritage park in Idaho, with more than 100,000 visitors each year.

The 18-acre park includes the new building housing the Sacred Encounters exhibit, the 1853 mission building, an 1887 parish house, two cemeteries, plus trails through the grounds with interpretive panels and audio stations. Every August 15 the Coeur d’Alene Tribe hosts the Feast of the Assumption Pilgrimage. “This display will rival any Smithsonian display in Washington D.C.,” Nancy Merrill, director of Idaho’s Department of Parks and Recreation, says. “This is a special place. It is a sacred place, and you will have a sacred encounter when you walk through those doors.”

Father Tom Connolly retired last year after serving and living with the tribe for 33 years, but he’s still active in Indian events and was asked to speak at the dedication. He told of the problems early missionaries saw, of tribes “just flooded over with white settlers” and how Father De Smet had a beautiful vision of reducing this white contact “where they could make adjustments in their own way and in their own time. That was his dream for these missions in what he called the Rocky Mountains.”

The tribe moved south and west and erected a new mission at what became known as Desmet, Idaho where they were less farther away from prospectors and miners. “These tribes had a beautiful spirituality which was based on the kinship of all creation,” Father Connolly says. “People in Western culture see people as one level and the animals and the earth to be merely used. [The tribes] found their power in their spirituality.

“There has been this relationship in spiritual ways and economic ways through all these years in a gradual integration of two different cultures, at times beautiful and powerful and helpful, while at times really difficult and painful. We’re here today to overlook some of those painful times of the past, to celebrate the wisdom and beauty of the tribal leadership in bringing these two worlds together. It really is a sacred encounter.”

Tribal elder Felix Aripa summarized what many were feeling that day. “It’s good to be here. We’re all here like family. We’ve finally finished our work. We want to extend this unity with the rest of the world.”

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