Nez Perce Country With Corbett Wheeler

Friday, July 22, after our visit to Big Hole, we drove through the long and stunning Lolo Pass over the Bitterroot Mountains, following the Lochsa River which meets the Clearwater in the heart of Nez Perce country. This was the route the fleeing Nez Perce had followed from their homeland pursued by the U.S. Army.

Lolo Pass through the Bitterroot Mountains

In Kamiah on the Nez Perce reservation we met with Nez Perce Presbyterian elder Corbett Wheeler, who gave us a tour of the mission site at First Presbyterian Church.

Corbett Wheeler at the Second Presbyterian Church where he grew up. He is now a member of the North Fork church where his father moved him when he was young. "They needed elders over there," he said.

We stood in the cemetery out back, where some of the earliest missionaries and Nez Perce parishioners are buried. Many of these were relatives of Corbett, who called himself a “full-blooded Presbyterian.” His great-grandfather, Rev. William Wheeler, who died in 1918, was buried there. He was one of the very first ordained native pastors.

First Presbyterian Church in Kamiah, Idaho

Across the road from the church, which Corbett said was once surrounded by a village, was the log cabin home of the well-known Presbyterian missionaries, the MacBeth sisters (good Scottish name, but maybe problematic for missionaries if you know your Shakespeare).

Later that afternoon we followed Corbett to the Second Presbyterian Church just a few miles away. Like Taos and Ranchos, these two churches are linked but have separate histories. Second Church was established for the exiles, or non-treaty Indians who fled their homeland. Though the rift that was created by that event was mentioned in several films we saw, Corbett didn’t seem to think that it was an issue so much now. The churches share a pastor and all six churches on the reservation often get together and camp together every summer.

Second Presbyterian Church was established for the exiles, those who had followed Chief Joseph and had been sent to Oklahoma. Chief Joseph was never allowed to return to the Nez Perce reservation.

At Second Church we met with Marilyn Bowen, Nez Perce elder and commissioned lay pastor. Marilyn is a grandmother who works with youth, often preaches (they call it presiding), travels from church to church on a Sunday, and has been with Nez Perce groups on Presbytery mission trips among native peoples in Guatemala and Costa Rica.


We learned from both Marilyn and Corbett that balancing change and tradition is as much a challenge for them as for us. They were both very open and progressive thinkers who are deeply loyal but believe in the future of the church. Their congregations sing in Nez Perce and though they don’t bring much traditional practice into worship, some of the girls had been learning hymns using Indian sign language. Marilyn described one Sunday when they put on their traditional regalia to perform a hymn for the congregation, which met with great approval.

We stayed in Lewiston, Idaho that night before heading down to Granite, Oregon for the wake for Carol’s father.


About Carol Mell

Photo Encaustic Artist
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