Visions of Chiefs Shining Shirt and Circling Raven:
“So Great a Cloud of Witnesses”

By John K. Ridgway SJ

“So great a cloud of witnesses” declares the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1) In the late 1700s, writes Fr. Thomas Connolly (ORE), Chief Shining Shirt of the Pend d’Oreille tribe in Mission Valley,Montana, and Chief Circling Raven of the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho had visions that men in black robes would come who, invested with a crucifix and a great prayer, would teach new religious truths having important impacts on the people. They did. Still do.

From 1841-1887 and beyond, those visions inspired the founding of missions serving Native American peoples – Plains, Plateau and Coastal cultures – throughout the Pacific Northwest. Those early missions made up the Jesuit Rocky Mountain Missions, known today as Rocky Mountain Mission-Northwest (RMM-NW), a ministry of the Oregon Province that strives in partnership with Native and other peoples of the Pacific Northwest to serve the missions and parishes within its domains. In October 2007 I had the privilege to catch glimpses of the Chiefs’ visions. I encountered treasures of the legacy of “so great a cloud of witnesses” in many gracious, hospitable people, as well as in mission churches and rectories, parish halls and homes, community centers and cafés, cemeteries and landscapes, recollections and photographs.

My encounters arose in response to a two-pronged request by Native members of the Rocky Mountain Mission Commission: (1) that availability of Ignatian spirituality be expanded among the communities of RMM-NW; and (2) that ongoing avenues be explored for integrating Ignatian and Native American spiritual traditions. Resulting from conversations with my provincial and the director of RMM-NW, Fr. Patrick Twohy (ORE), I willingly accepted the assignment of working toward implementing the RMM Commission’s appeals.

One of my initial undertakings was a 31-day, 2,677-mile tour of the 12 missions of RMM-NW: from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation (Oregon) through the Coeur d’Alene (Idaho), Flathead, Blackfeet and Fort Belnap Reservations (Montana) to the lands of the Spokane and Colville tribes (Washington), and then to the Swinomish Reservation (Washington). My goals were to see first-hand each mission, to listen and learn, and to inquire about what I could do to help people deepen their ongoing faith relationships with the Creator and Jesus through prayer and spirituality.

This endeavor entails a two-way dynamic: while the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian prayer can enhance the lives of Native Americans, the rich and sacred spiritual traditions of Native peoples have much to contribute to, and indeed teach, the Ignatian heritage and its practitioners.

I experienced facets of the bountiful legacy of Chiefs Shining Shirt and Circling Raven, which I encapsulate here as: heart and heritage, hinterlands and horizons, hidden and hallowed.

Heart and Heritage

“For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Matt 6:21)

Heart and heritage encompass so great a cloud of missionary witnesses who have served among and with Native Americans for nearly 170 years to make present the love and power of Jesus and the values of the Gospel: Jesuits Peter DeSmet, Nicolas Point, Joseph Joset, Anthony Ravalli,Urban Grassi, Adrian Hoecken,Charles Regis, Joseph Carignano, Herman Schuler, Edward Griva, Egon Mallman, Mike McHugh, Dick Mercy and more. The historical record discloses that a prime motivator of the early Jesuits’ zeal and commitment to their missionary labors in the face of hardship and perils was the heart: a love for the Indian people.

A letter penned by Etienne de Rougé SJ from St. Ignatius Mission,Montana, on May 4, 1882 evinces the joy and loving care that characterized the missionaries’dealings with the Native people. “Their piety,” declared de Rougé, “is edifying and comforting, and certainly I would not change my place for any other position”(Robert J.Bigart, ed. “A Pretty Village: Documents of Worship and Culture Change, St. Ignatius Mission,Montana, 1880- 1889”).

In a July 31, 1887 article published in The Catholic Review,Fr. Anton Kuhls asked rhetorically: “Who could suppress his emotions in the presence of such [Indian] children, and who would hesitate to honor and love them as children of saints . . .?”(Bigart).This love finds expression in the epitaph inscribed on the memorial stone at the resting place of Jesuits in the tribal cemetery at Sacred Heart Mission in DeSmet, Idaho: “In life and in death among those they loved.R.I.P.”

The combined service of the 14 Jesuits currently serving on RMM-NW exceeds 253 years. Repeatedly, when I asked those men what impels them to remain on the missions– in one case for over 45 years – the answer is often some form of: “I love the people,” “My heart draws me to be present among these people,” and “I stay because I do not want to abandon the people.” Robust hearts ministering to and with robust hearts. “We love our priests”aver the people.And vice versa. Hearts both rugged and tender. Capacious,generous hearts embracing gladness and grief, boldness and fear, blessing and tragedy, understanding and uncertainty.

My conversations throughout RMM-NW disclose that issues of concern, and considerable heartache, among Native communities include addictions and frequent household instability; worries about youths who are spiritually deficient and conflicted about priorities and values; disquiet about those adult members who lag in religious participation and/or who struggle with preserving for themselves and their families conventions of cultural heritage and identity.

Concomitantly, I encountered in every community expressions of a lengthy heritage of resolute commitment to the sacred and spirituality, to the Creator and Jesus and the Spirit, to creation and creatures; a stout awareness of relational bonds across geographical and tribal lines; delightful humor and hearty laughter; honor accorded to elders; friendly and welcoming hearts, words and gestures; a vigorous yearning for spiritual wisdom, strength, healing and light; and gratefulness.

When conversing about her tribe’s economic and political difficulties, a Native elder also conveyed a sense of gratitude: “I’ve got a shirt on my back, firewood in my shed, a hot meal, and I’m still here.” I, and all the Society, are beneficiaries of the treasured mission heritage bequeathed by our brother Jesuits and the endearing Native peoples who embrace each other’s hearts. They did. Still do.

Hinterlands and Horizons

And for all this, nature is never spent / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things – Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur

Another “deep down” grace of my journey was nature’s bravado of brilliant beauty across a 1,280-mile-wide canvass of mission territories with their assorted landscapes, colors, textures, contours and dimensions. St. Andrew Mission, Pendleton, Oregon, shrouded with “blankets” of wheat fields spread out against the Blue Mountains and blazing crimson sunsets. Sacred Heart Mission, DeSmet, Idaho, situated in the fertile Palouse with expanses of wheat, blue grass and lentils pushing to the horizon. St. Ignatius Mission, St. Ignatius, Montana, cradled in the valley peering vertically into the dramatically snow-capped Rockies. St. Anne Mission, Heart Butte, Montana, nestled in the spectacular crescent basin etched by the sharp lines of the Rocky Mountain ridge with its constantly shifting light and shadows. St. Paul Mission, Hays, Montana, framed by prairie valley, forested hills spotted with evergreens and golden aspens, the Little Rockies and Mission Canyon, all under Big Sky.

The Spokane and Colville Reservations, Washington, laden with pine trees, lakes, the Spokane and Columbia Rivers, summits and dells, and blonde needled tamaracks. The Swinomish Reservation,Washington, situated on Fidalgo Island in the picturesque Upper Skagit Valley surrounded by Puget Sound and her majestic San Juan Islands, the Cascade Mountain divide, the Skagit River, evergreen forests, and the Swinomish Channel.

One can understand why early missions were situated in, and frequently relocated to, areas like their current ones in which Native peoples – whose tribal names often related to water – had settled: places with ample water and timber, game and other food sources, shelter and farmland, and geographical accessibility.

Hidden and Hallowed

“For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible.” (Mark 4:22)

A recurrent realization during my visitations was the largely “hidden and hallowed” apostolic devotion of my brother Jesuits serving somewhat anonymously throughout RMM-NW. The daily routines of the Jesuits and others on the missions reflect Jesus’ “hidden life.”One of the Jesuit “elders” described his work among the people as “being present,” one to one. Quietly. Respectfully. Empathically. In ways that often defy utility statistics and efficiency curves.

A great many Jesuits do not see, and I think really do not know of, the apostolic “worlds” of mission Jesuits. While, to be sure, conditions vary from locale to locale, recurring realities include harsh weather, coupled with challenges to cool hot churches and heat cold ones; lengthy travel distances often required to obtain fresh foods and other staples, clothing and healthcare; spartan amenities and budgets; staffing shortages; remoteness from other Jesuits and province events; demanding travel schedules between mission stations on Sundays; more-than-average difficulty – sometimes impossibility – in securing substitutes to allow for an annual retreat and/or sufficient vacation; and sometimes weeks in between days off.

Yet they persevere – many for three decades or more – largely out of love for the people and a sense of dedication, perhaps inspired and sustained by their forebears: DeSmet, Joset, Ravalli, Griva, Regis, McHugh.

Chiefs Shining Shirt’s and Circling Raven’s visions still impel Native Americans and Jesuits to collaborate in living the Gospel of Jesus under the banner of “a crucifix and a great prayer.” “So great a cloud of witnesses” continues to shower salutary blessings on mission Jesuits and mission communities. In the words of a Salish expression: ?a lemlmtš k?s cic “you have arrived; I am thankful.” They did. Still do.

Ridgway (ORE) is pastoral assistant for Rocky Mountain Mission-Northwest and a Parochial Vicar at St. Ignatius Parish, Portland, Oregon.

Sources Consulted

Robert J. Bigart, ed. “A Pretty Village: Documents of Worship and Culture Change, St. Ignatius Mission, Montana, 1880- 1889” (Pablo, MT: Salish Kootenai College Press, 2007).

Thomas E. Connolly SJ. “Visions of Chiefs and the Iroquois Connection: The Northwest Tribes and the Catholic Way” (Pastor, Sacred Heart Mission, DeSmet, ID).

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