The Sacred Heart Mission and “Benign” Cultural Colonization

Father Pierre De Smet, the Jesuit missionary andexplorer of the American West, described the Coeur d’Alene Indians upon his first encounter with them in 1842 as extremely receptive to his Christian message. De Smet baptized twenty-four adults and many small children among the Coeur D’Alene people during that first visit. De Smet left after a few days, but sent his Jesuit colleagues later that same year to stay with the Indians over the winter and to establish a Catholic mission among them.

Father Anthony Ravalli, a Jesuit missionary and architect from Italy, designed and led the construction of the Church of the Sacred Heart from 1850–53, and the Coeur D’Alene people provided much of the labor necessary to complete the project. Father De Smet’s later writings contain numerous references to the Sacred Heart mission, and he often stayed there during his travels between missions.

On one occasion in 1863, Father De Smet stayed at the mission for six days and wrote about the changes occurring with the growing presence of white miners and settlers. He referenced a report by a U.S. Army captain that claimed that the only “salvation” for Indians would be “to be removed far, far from [the] presence [of the whites]” and that Indians “can never exist in contact with whites.” Father De Smet himself condemned this suggestion of removal and wrote, “May heaven preserve [the Coeur d’Alene Indians] from contact with the whites!” His advocacy for Indians, however, was predicated mainly on their conversion and faithfulness to Christianity.

The legacy of Pierre De Smet and his Jesuit missions, including Sacred Heart, is a subject of debate in the current postcolonial era. Traditionalist historians and biographers generally portray Father De Smet as a heroic explorer and a savior to the native peoples of western North America, specifically one who sought to understand and honor native culture. However, as theologian George E. Tinker writes, “Any Euroamerican’s understanding of or appreciation for Indian cultures was subject to severe cultural limitations.” Pierre De Smet may have tried to understand Indian culture, but ultimately the Jesuit approach was to quickly “impose European cultural values.” De Smet himself actively sought to use his missions to reorganize Indian civilization into a sedentary society that could better receive Christianity. So while De Smet himself was not directly involved in the removal and extermination of Indians (in fact he spoke against it), the cultural colonization of which he was a part was aimed at eroding Indian identity and culture. The Mission of the Sacred Heart, like other colonialist European or American religious ventures, should be viewed as a tool of western imperialism.

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31732 S Mission Rd, Cataldo, ID 83810