Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide

By George E. Tinker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Pierre-Jean De Smet
Manifest Destiny and Economic Exploitation

But what appeared to interest them mare than aught else, was prayer (religion);
to this subject they listened with the strictest, undivided attention. They told
me that they had already heard of it, and they knew that this prayer made
men good and wise on earth, and insured their happiness in the future life.
They begged me to permit the whole camp to assemble, that they might hear
for themselves the words of the Great Spirit, of whom they had been told such
wonders. Immediately three United States flags were erected on the field, in
the midst of camp, and three thousand savages, including the sick, who were
carried in skins, gathered around me. I knelt beneath the banner of our country,
my ten Flat Head neophytes by my side, and surrounded by this multitude,
eager to hear the glad tidings of the gospel of peace. We began by intoning two
canticles, after which 1 recited all the prayers, which we interpreted to them:
then again we sang canticles, and I finished by explaining to them the Apostles'
Creed and the Ten Commandments. They all appeared to be filled with joy,
and declared it was the happiest day of their lives.

—Pierre-Jean De Smet1

The 1972 Ye Galleon Press reprint of Pierre-Jean De Smet's Origin, Progress, and Prospects of the Catholic Mission to the Rocky Mountains includes an afterword that calls the author “the most famous missionary to the western Indians.”2 The preface to the 1978 reprint of Oregon Missions only somewhat more modestly ranks De Smet as the equal of Junípero Sena, the Franciscan in California, and Eusebio Kino, the Jesuit in Arizona.3 Whatever our final analysis here, biographies of De Smet clearly tend toward the hagiographic, from the pious romanticism of Helene Magaref4 to the more scholarly treatment with lavish footnotes by fellow Jesuit E. Laveille.5 Even the non-Catholics H. M. Chittenden and A. T. Richardson, in the 150-page introduction to their four-volume collection of De Smet's letters and writings, display a romantic attachment to their subject and his exploits.6 Interestingly enough, the Jesuit historian of the American Jesuits, Gilbert J. Garraghan, SJ, has written the most critical interpretation of De Smet's work.7

Yet the De Smet story and his resulting fame are curiosities that call for considerable analysis beyond that provided in the standard hagiographies. First of all, the actual time he spent with Indian people in Indian country was extremely short. Second, the missions he was directly responsible for initiating were actually failures, collapsing within three and ten years of start-up, respectively. Any critical explanation of De Smet's enduring and endearing fame must

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