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.

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Big Hole, Montana

Still trying to catch up with our first week on the Listening Path.

We were staying in Salmon, Idaho for a couple of nights last week and took one day to drive up to Big Hole, Montana, a very moving site on the Nez Perce trail we’ve been following most of this week.

Chief Joseph Awoke to Gunfire on Aug. 6, 1877

In an historical nutshell: The original Nez Perce Indian Reservation was created by a treaty in 1855 and included a big chunk of Idaho as well as the Wallowa Mountain region of northeastern Oregon. After gold was discovered, another treaty was drawn up in 1863 to move the Wallowa band over to Idaho and reduce the reservation by 90%. Those who would not sign (including Chief Joseph’s band from the Wallowas)–about 800 people and 1,000 horses–fled on a journey of 1,300 miles pursued by the U.S. Army in 1877. They travelled from Oregon to try to reach their allies the Crows in Montana but got no help there. Then, they decided to join Sitting Bull in Canada. The Army finally caught up with them in Montana just 40 miles from the Canadian border where the now famous Chief Joseph gave his “I will fight no more forever speech.”

The Nez Perce had already had several skirmishes with the Army but after passing safely through the long Bitterroot Valley into Montana they believed they were free. They erected their lodges, gathered food, put their ponies out to graze while children played along the Big Hole River. They danced and sang long into the night. Early the next morning they were attacked in their sleep by Army regulars and a number of volunteers from the Bitterroot Valley, who in some cases had recently sold supplies to the Indians as they passed their communities.

As shots ripped through their tipis many were killed in their sleep. The battle raged right in their camp as Nez Perce warriors rallied, holding off the U.S. soldiers to allow the women and children to run and hide in the willows. Many, many women and children were killed when the Army set fire to the tipis. The Nez Perce had to leave their wounded lying on the ground as they fled.

We found this a very moving site. With the help of survivors tipi poles were erected and show the specific lodges of many who were camped there that night. Members of the Nez Perce tribe gather here on Aug. 6 every year to commemorate and honor the lives of those who died there. When we met with some of the Nez Perce Presbyterians later, one of the women told us she would be there this year.

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Our First Week on the Path

It has taken a while to find a place to reflect on our first week on sabbatical. We are now in Joseph, Oregon at the Wallowa Lake Lodge for our first opportunity for rest and reflection. The past week has been a blur of driving through the gorgeous landscapes of Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Oregon.

After leaving Taos last Sunday we spent the night in Chama, where we saw a shaggy bear atop a dumpster on the way into town. Monday, after our last taste of New Mexico beans and green chile, we drove through Durango and up to the picturesque Silverton, Colorado, an old mining town. We were surprised by the American flags everywhere you looked. Maybe, it was because it was just after Fourth of July but the whole town was festooned with flags.

Americanismo was alive and well in Silverton, Colorado

We wandered down the street, the whistle of the narrow guage railroad sounding off every little while and found the Mining Museum. I liked this image of what used to be called a pan handler (panning for gold that is.)

Pan Handler

Having a Native Americn perspective on our minds the sign out front of the museum that gave the history of the area caught our attention. It read:

“Captain Charles Baker led a party into this wide valley in 1860 in search of silver and gold. The land was owned by the Utes and off limits for settlement until the siging of the Brunot Treaty in 1874, when the floodgates opened and prospectors by the hundreds poured into the ‘Shining Mountains.'”

From a Ute perspective the story was surely more painful and complex as we were to see when we visited the Chief Ouray museum the next day.

From Silverton, we traveled over a gorgeous (and scary) pass into Ouray, Colorado. In the hot springs there closely guarded by a doe we soaked while the blessed rain came down that night.

On our way out of Ouray the next morning we pulled off near Montrose to see the museum built on the grounds where Ouray and his beloved Chipeta last lived before being moved to the distant reservation in southwestern Colorado.

Chief Ouray and Chipeta

Ouray, it turned out, was half Apache, half Ute and was raised in Taos in an Hispanic Catholic family. The homesite, where he had an Hispanic servant, a door bell, crystal and china, was Ouray’s attempt to prove that Indians could live in a “civilized” way.” One of the quotes inside the museum caught my eye. Ouray said, “The homeland of the Ute People will always be homeland in our hearts even though it is inhabited by others now.”

As we drove through the rain on to Provo, Utah we talked about how inexorable the replacement of Indians by Whites in the West was. Whether they fought or cooperated, the outcome was the same.

In the next few days we’ll catch you up with our travels. We noticed Marilyn Bowen, a Nez Perce Presbyterian Commissioned Lay Pastor has commented on our blog. We’ll fill you in with the details later. Thanks, Marilyn for a wonderful visit.

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My Lord, What a Morning

Rev. Buddy Monahan in Kit Carson Park with Carol.

What a beautiful day it was last Sunday as Wayne and I were sent off by both the congregations in Taos. Everyone offered music from hillbilly to clarinet to Mariachi to African. Buddy Monahan preached one heck of a sermon, regaling us with tales of his childhood growing up Presbyterian and Choctaw in Oklahoma. Raymond Naranjo, Santa Clara Pueblo, drummed and sang for us and our own choir pulled out all the stops.

Wayne with Rev. Richard Gould who'll be holding down the fort.

We are so grateful and really still feel the wind beneath our wings.

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Leaving churches, dogs and Taos Mountain Behind

One of our last walks with our dogs in Taos before our journey.

Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf.

Native American Proverb

Over one year ago, Wayne and I began to imagine a sabbatical from ministry and wrote a grant to the Lilly Foundation to help us and his two congregations in Taos, NM. The foundation asked us to think about “what would make your heart sing.”

We thought about this a long time and decided that we wanted to return to our experiences of ministry to Native Americans and that we could do that along the route we usually follow when we go home to Oregon and Washington to visit our families. We could follow our now familiar path through five or six Western states but with the extra time allowed by the grant we would visit tribes from here to Alaska and back again.

In the grant application we wrote, “On this journey, called “The Listening Path” we will return to the heart of Wayne’s first call to ministry among Native Americans. Our path will follow the footsteps of Christian missionaries of the 19th century who carried the gospel not only into the lands but into the consciousness of the indigenous people. We hope to witness to Native voices telling their own stories of earth and spirit, of suffering and conquest, and of tradition and faith. We wish simply to be present, in the Native way of education, listening without questioning, emptying ourselves to whatever truth, wisdom and humanity awaits.

Wayne wrote, “I have come to believe that the healing and restoration of souls is at the heart of Christ and his church. True soul work (there is also much “play” in it) is the practice of listening, the very posture of spirituality.

“In my first ministry as pastor of a Presbyterian Church on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, I sensed that the brokenness and suffering of indigenous peoples coupled with their undying kinship with their land and cultural lifeways has much to teach about the message of Christ and the healing of creation.”

We described the people that we have ministered to these last 20 years saying that the Presbyterian Church introduced the Protestant version of the gospel to Navajos, Hispanics of Northern New Mexico and Native Alaskans through an overlapping mission effort. For a century, Presbyterian missionaries played a pivotal role in altering the religious understanding and practices of people who still had to find ways to live within their traditional cultural context. For much of Wayne’s 20 year ministry we have lived in this Western mission field, we raised our three girls in Fort Defiance and Yuma, Arizona and then here in Taos, all places where little white kids were in the minority.

The sabbatical is an open door to new perspectives for mission for us, for our two congregations at home in Taos and, we hope, for the broader church. Our exploration will allow us to look at other faith traditions⎯Catholics, Episcopalians and Russian Orthodox⎯ to see their approaches, to listen to Native Christians and observe their worship today.

Our itinerary is determined by where our families live and the location of Native congregations nearby in Nez Perce country in Idaho and Oregon, Alaska’s Inland Passage, the Seattle and Olympic Peninsula areas, the Oregon Coast and back here in the Southwest.

In November, we got the good news about the grant. We’ve been planning, reading, thinking, researching ever since and finally, we are off in just a few days. This blog will be a place for our friends, family and congregations to follow along in our journey. As the grant is for clergy rest and renewal, we’ll be doing a lot of that, too.

We love our life in Taos but relish the opportunity to open up some new places and spaces in our minds and hearts. Come along with us on a new adventure.

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