Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Inquiry

“I have been like a little child, uneasy, feeling about in the dark after something, but not knowing what...”—Nez Perce Chief

“(God) has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him...” —Acts 17:26,27

 In 1833, four Nez Perce Native Americans journeyed from what today is Northern Idaho to St. Louis. Missouri—over 3000 miles—and petitioned General William Clarke (of Lewis and Clark fame) to send someone to their people teach them about God. They reminded Clarke that their fathers had heard of God’s book through him many years before when he and the Corps of Discovery wintered with them (1805).

Tradition has it that as early as 1820 Iroquois Indians, educated in Catholic schools in the East, had visited these tribes. Other Christians—voyageurs, trappers and explorers—had contact with the Nez Perce. Benjamin Bonneville, Peter Steen Ogden, David Thompson, Simon Fraser and others that passed through the region in the early 1800s, though rough–cut, were God–fearing men who prayed, read the Bible and conducted worship services for their men while the Nez Perce looked on. These “brushes” with faith only heightened their desire and eventually drew them to send the deputation to St. Louis to Clarke, who was then Superintendent of Indian Affairs.

One of the best sources for this meeting is William Walker, an interpreter for the Wyandott Indian Nation, who wrote the following letter to a friend, G. P. Dishoway of New York. It was later published in The Christian Advocate and Journal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in January 19, 1833.

Immediately after we landed in St. Louis on our way to the west I preceded to Gen. Clarke’s, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to present our letters of introduction from the Secretary of War, and to receive the same from him to the different Indian agents in the upper country.

While in his office and transacting business with him, he informed me that three chiefs from the Flathead Nation were in his house and were quite sick, and the one (the fourth) had died a few days ago. They were from the west of the Rocky Mountains…The distance they had traveled on foot was nearly three thousand miles to see Gen. Clarke, their great father, as they called him, he being the first American officer they ever became acquainted with, and having such confidence in him, they had come to consult him as they said, upon very important matter…

Gen. C. related to me the object of their mission and, my dear friend, it is impossible for me to describe to you my feelings while listening to his narrative. I will here relate it as briefly us I can. It appeared that some white man had penetrated into their country, and happened to be a spectator at one of their religious ceremonies that they scrupulously perform at stated periods... He informed them that men toward the rising of the sun had been put in possession of the true mode of worshipping the Great Spirit.

(He informed them that) they had a book containing directions how to conduct themselves in order to hold converse with him; and with this guide no one need go astray, but everyone that would follow the directions laid down there would enjoy, in this life, his favor, and after death would be received into the country where the Great Spirit resides and live with him forever.

Upon receiving this information they called a national council to take this subject into consideration. Some said, “If this be true, it is certainly time we were put in possession of this mode and if our mode of worshipping be wrong and displeasing to the Great Spirit, it is time we had laid it aside. We must know something more about this, it is a matter that cannot be put off.”

They arrived at St. Louis, and presented themselves to Gen. C. The latter was somewhat puzzled being sensible of the responsibility that rested upon him; he however proceeded by informing them that what they had been told by the white man in their own country was true. Then went into a succinct history of man, from his creation down to the advent of the Savior; explained to them all the moral precepts contained in the Bible... (and) informed them of the advent of the Savior, his life, precepts, his death, resurrection, ascension, and the relation he now stands to man as a mediator, that he will judge the world, etc.

Poor fellows, they were not all permitted to return home to their people with this intelligence. Two died in St. Louis,[1] and the remaining two, though somewhat indisposed, set out for their native land. Whether they reached home or not is not known… If they died on their way home, peace be to their manes. They died inquirers after the truth.

Yours in haste,

Wm. Walker

In the spring of 1832, the two survivors took passage for home on the steamboat, The Yellowstone, and George Catlin, the celebrated explorer and artist, who was a passenger on this boat, painted portraits of the two men, the originals of which now hang in the Smithsonian.

One of these pilgrims, the man known as "No Horns on His Head," died en route. Only the young man, "The Rabbit Skin Leggings," lived to reach his home on the Clearwater.

Catlin remarked on the occasion:

“Hee-oh'ks-te-kin (Rabbit Skin Leggings) and H'co-a-h'co ah'cotes-min (No Horns On his Head) are young men of (the Nez Perce) tribe. These two young men…were part of a delegation that came across the Rocky Mountains to St. Louis, a few years since, to enquire for the truth…

Two old and venerable men of this party died in St. Louis, and I traveled two thousand miles, companion with these two young fellows, towards their own country, and became much pleased with their manners and dispositions. The last mentioned of the two (No Horns on His Head), died near the mouth of the Yellow Stone River on his way home, with disease which he had contracted in the civilized district; and the other one I have since learned, arrived safely amongst his friends, conveying to them the melancholy intelligence of the deaths of all the rest of his party; but assurances at the same time, from General Clark, and many Reverend gentlemen, that the report which they had heard was well founded; and that missionaries, good and religious men, would soon come amongst them to teach this religion, so that they could all understand and have the benefits of it.”

To be continued...


[1] The two men who died were buried in St. Louis. Their burial records read:

The 31st of October, 1831, I, undersigned, did bury in the Cemetery of this Parish the body of Keepellele, or Pipe Bard of Nez Perce of the tribe of the Chopoweck Nation called Flat Heads, age around 44 years, administered Holy Baptism, coming from the Columbia river beyond the Rocky Mountains. Edm. Saulinier. Priest

The seventeenth of November, 1831, I, undersigned, did bury in the Cemetery of this Parish the body of Paul, savage of the Nation of the Flat Heads, coming from the Columbia River beyond the Rocky Mountains. Roux. Priest.

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