Friday, April 19, 2013

More on Missionaries--and on Catholic and Protestant "Ladders"



For whatever reason—maybe the wonderful cover photo—I have kept the Spring 1996 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly by my bed, and pick it up from time to time to look at the fine drawings and paintings of Father Nicolas Point, and to follow those first Jesuits on their 1840 journey to Flathead country in Montana—and their departure in admitted failure just ten years later.

Elizabeth White writes of their early contact and early successes, which she attributes to the similarities between Catholicism and traditional Indian culture: oral liturgy, sacred wine and pipe, sweat lodge and church. The mission’s ultimate failure had to do with deeper life views—the Indian belief that man is part of nature and the Christian/European stories of/beliefs in serpents and other evils lurking in nature. The notion that Christian powers could not be added to traditional powers of nature and native spirit but must supplant them was also puzzling  to the Indians. Finally, the reverends’ attempt to bring the Blackfeet into their fold was too much for the Flatheads, and these first European missionaries gave up and moved on.

Catholic Ladder
Last night I read for the first time the last essay in the issue, a piece on “Catholic Ladders” by Kris White and Janice St. Laurent. These Ladders were teaching tools, originally of wood with four sides which could be carved or painted with symbols of Christianity. Sun, moon, stars, angels, the story of creation, Adam and Eve, the years of Christ and the decades of human history, the temple of Solomon, the Ten Commandments, were represented symbolically and figuratively in visual shorthand for the words and stories of the Bible. Eventually, the Ladders were put on paper in increasingly large layouts with more ornate depictions of the sources and lessons of Christianity.

This, it seems to me, was a brilliant strategy. The visual mnemonics of the ladders were a short step from the knotted ropes (called Quipu in some texts) that many tribal people used to keep track of seasons, time, and significant events in tribal life. They could be shown to a crowd, touched and moved easily from meeting to meeting, village to village.
Spalding "Protestant" Ladder

There is a picture of the only known “Protestant Ladder,” which was designed by Henry Spalding and drawn by his wife, Eliza. It was two feet wide and stretched six feet, and was colorfully painted. The Spaldings were of course the first missionaries to the Nez Perce. The note on Eliza’s drawing and remembering that Old Joseph’s daughter, the one who married white trapper Joseph Gale, took the Christian name Eliza caused me to look for more about one of the first two white women to travel the Oregon Trail (the other being Narcissa Whitman).

Eliza was as committed to the mission movement as was her husband, and she proved to be a natural teacher.  Her school at Lapwai was, I read, “different than many of the other missionary schools in the west.  She did not require her pupils to bathe, dress in ‘white’ clothing, or cut their hair.  In addition, she taught in both English and the Nez Perce language.” How common sense and practical; no wonder she was more popular with the Nez Perce than was her preacher husband!

Eliza becomes a more interesting character when we learn that she had some doubts about her faith after the massacre of the Whitmans. But she did go on to teach and administer other schools in the Willamette Valley. It makes one a little sad that she died young, at 44. Maybe her impact on mission schools would have been greater and their worst abuses diminished had she had another 20or 30 years to work on it.

That is speculation of course. But one piece of information from that Oregon Historical Quarterly is not. While one Catholic Ladder in the text prominently features the beginnings of the Church, Eliza’s (and Henry’s) Protestant Ladder depicts the pope tumbling off into the fires of hell. Whatever difficulties the Catholic and Protestant missionaries had among the Indians did not keep them from feuding with each other!


NOTE: for info on the Spalding Protestant Ladder, go to:  http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/historical_records/dspDocument.cfm?doc_ID=1BD1D5D9-CBEA-5E8B-C0609C63D5C881B1

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1 comment :

  1. An amusing commentary on the missionaries who wanted to "civilize" the native Americans even as they squabbled and behaved badly toward each other. It was ever thus...
    Molly

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