One Heart: The Kinship of Jesuits and Salish Peoples over 175 Years

By Kate Vanskike

The sky was streaked with vibrant purples and oranges, the sunset painting itself around Cataldo Hall, which reverberated with the sounds of drumming and singing and laughing. Then, quiet. A beloved elder with long, gray braids recited the “Our Father” in Salish. It rang rugged and rough, soft and melodic. It was a sound that united the ancient Catholic faith with the journey of the Interior Salish tribes.

This was the gathering of 140 members of Native American tribes from Flathead Lake in Montana to Puget Sound, at Gonzaga University to celebrate their 175-year friendship with the Jesuits.

Together, the Jesuits and their Native friends formed a spirit choir. (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by.”) One could say that at the center of that unbroken circle was Father Pat Twohy, S.J., whose adoration for and from the Native peoples was palpable.

“Dear ones, it’s an amazing history we have shared, always learning from each other,” Fr. Twohy said. “It’s wonderful to think of the generations of teachers and elders who held on to the heart of their original spirituality and to the heart of Catholicism in spite of the limitations of the messengers.”

“I tell younger Jesuits that you couldn’t have a greater privilege than to be with the Native people. Nothing even comes close to being with you as learners, to learn your sacred way of life on this Earth.”

Father Scott Santarosa, S.J., provincial of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, shared, “I have never walked with Native peoples – that’s not my history. But I have walked with people who are different than me, who have let me be with them in moments of grace and in moments of failure.

“At the end of it all, we are one. One in Christ,” said Fr. Santarosa. “The same Creator God made all of us. By inviting us into your lives, you have taught us all that.”

“Bringing us together – that’s what the Jesuits do.”
Ernie Stensgar, Coeur d’Alene Tribe

“I get inspired when we start every meeting with a prayer. We honor the spirit of our ancestors because we remember what we were taught,” said Ernie Stensgar, a councilman in the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for 35 years. “That’s what we’re doing today, honoring 175 years with the Jesuits. When I pray, I always include the Jesuits – thanks for them helping us along the way.”

Stensgar said he marvels at the comingling of spiritual practices. A funeral he attended on the Yakama Reservation included the Seven Drums for the Natives, the Rosary for the Catholics and another prayer offered by a Presbyterian. He said, “We worship in different ways, but together, in respect for each other’s ways of worshipping.”

The Arrival of the “Black Robes”

The Sky

147-2-01a Jesuit Oregon Province Archives. Unidentified: possibly a Crow Chief with Father Cataldo

Dr. Joe McDonald would say he has been shaped, in large part, by the presence of Jesuits, who had in earlier days been called the Black Robes. A member of the Flatheads (Bitterroot-Salish tribe) in Montana, McDonald is the founder of the Salish Kootenai College and longtime supporter of education for Native Americans. But before he was old enough to care about such a noble cause, he was surrounded by the Black Robes: He knew them from preschool and hospitalizations for his asthma, from his grandmother’s funeral Mass and Sunday afternoon stick games at St. Ignatius Mission.

At the gathering at Gonzaga, he shared the history of the Jesuit-Native connection.

An Iroquois “evangelist” nicknamed “Big Ignace” arrived in Western Montana in 1812 and began sharing with the Flatheads a vision of men coming in long, black robes who were going to have special power. He had a great deal of spiritual infl uence, teaching the Our Father and the principles of Christianity, the sign of the cross and other symbols of the Catholic tradition.

“Nothing even comes close to being with you as learners, to learn your sacred way of life on this Earth.”
Fr. Pat Twohy, S.J., to members of Northwest native tribes

Eager to have more Black Robes come, Natives sent a delegation of four braves back to St. Louis. Two of them died shortly after arriving, and the other two never made it back to the mountains. It was a long wait for the Black Robes to return. After four delegations to St. Louis and multiple deaths, Little Ignace met Father Jean Pierre DeSmet in 1839, who provided him with a letter to deliver to the bishop in St. Louis. Father DeSmet, who was so impressed with their passion for the Catholic mission, wrote, “For the love of God, my very reverend father, don’t abandon these souls.”

The bishop responded by sending Fr. DeSmet as the apostle of the Northwest. In 1841, he celebrated his first Mass with the Bitterroot-Salish tribe.

Along with the 10 Commandments, says McDonald, “Jesuits taught us how to grow crops, use cloth to make things, build homes.” In later years, the Jesuits “continued to play a big role in communications between the tribes and the government during times of major political change.”

As history has shown, the influence of the white man on the Natives often has been destructive and dehumanizing. Despite this truth, those who have been connected closely to the white men in the black robes have immense gratitude for the Catholic teachings that were shared and handed down, generation to generation.

“We are so glad the missionaries came and taught us about God,” says McDonald, “and that Jesuits have continued to have a strong presence among the Natives in the West.”

GOD: In Salish

Explaining the concepts of God is hard enough in a language and culture you understand. How is this accomplished among a foreign culture with a language you do not speak? Linguists around the world know it’s a long-term process involving storytelling, miming and a number of other innovations.

Johnny Arlee, a Flathead tribal member, has spent the last 40 years helping to preserve the Salish language. Here are a few things he shared about the ways religious concepts are conveyed in Salish.

Many Native Americans refer to the Catholic Mass as “The Big Prayer.” That was easy. But when the interpreters and the priests first started describing God, that was more challenging. Ultimately, the English speaker explained God as the maker, the creator, and the Indian said that was the same as the Salish root word for “work” – to make happen. Determining the appropriate translation for the Holy Spirit proved even more difficult, and resulted in many words being made up by interpreters.

Today, thanks in part to Arlee’s work among many tribes and schools, there are hundreds of people speaking and reading Salish, which earlier in his lifetime was thought to be limited to less than a dozen.

THERE’S MORE TO JOHNNY ARLEE and his translation work. Read about his role in the filming of “Jeremiah Johnson” with Robert Redford, and how it fueled his commitment to the preservation of Salish.


Under the direction of Raymond Reyes, associate academic vice president and chief diversity officer, Gonzaga continues to develop its vision for supporting the Native tribes of the region and continuing the relationship established by the Jesuits 175 years ago. Here is a snapshot of some current efforts:

Center for American Indian Studies: a support system for regional tribes. In addition to hosting Salish Language Gatherings, the center organizes an annual graduation celebration for Native Americans in the community. Twice, Gonzaga has hosted the National Tekakwitha Conference to address what it means to be Catholic and an American Indian or First Nations member.

Degree programs: a minor in Native American Studies and an American Indian Entrepreneurship Master of Business Administration

Partnerships: The College of Arts and Sciences has collaborated with the Upper Columbia United Tribes to lobby on behalf of the Columbia River Treaty (restoring health to the Columbia basin in negotiations with U.S. and Canadian governments); the School of Education offers an annual symposium on Rethinking Native American Education with and for educators; and Gonzaga School of Law provides the Indian Law Clinic.

For more information, contact

Wendy Thompson, Director of Tribal Relations:

Gonzaga Connections

Many thanks to the Kateri Northwest Ministry Institute, a leadership training for Native American Catholics, for its ongoing mission and sponsorship of the “Walking in the Light” celebration of 175 years of friendship between Jesuits and Native Americans of the Northwest.