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When Native American, Jesuit Worlds Intersected : Museums: ‘Sacred Encounters’ exhibit explores the 19th-Century experience of Western Indians with European missionaries.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most Angelenos have never heard of Pierre Jean de Smet. Or of Red Feather, war chief of the Salish Indians.

Now they can. A major exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County tells, in dramatic detail, the story of the 19th-Century encounter between a band of Jesuit missionaries, led by Belgian-born De Smet, and the Native American Salish and Coeur d’Alene tribes.

Historian Jacqueline Peterson, who spent seven years putting together the traveling exhibit, said the holiday season is an ideal time to see “Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet and the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West.”

That is not only because we have just finished celebrating Thanksgiving, commemorating early encounters between colonists and Native Americans. And not just because the exhibit includes a dramatization of an unusual 1842 Christmas Midnight Mass in a Coeur d’Alene chapel, she says.

“This is the first time the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded a museum exhibit of this scope dealing with religion, particularly Christianity,” said Peterson, of Washington State University in Vancouver.

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“That is a reflection of the very careful way in which Americans all try to pay close attention to the separation of church and state. But it’s ironic, because spirituality is such an important dimension of many people’s lives. And there is such a tremendous interest in Native American spirituality.”

Peterson, who has worked in the field of Indian history for more than 20 years, said the exhibit is complex and defies stereotypes. In exploring the collision of European and indigenous beliefs, and the wrenching changes they brought for native and newcomer alike, she worked with more than 100 Native American, Jesuit and academic consultants and made several major discoveries of art, maps and artifacts.

But “Sacred Encounters,” which will be on display until January, was intended to be more than the sum of its artifacts. “I have tried to create something that visitors will go home and dream about--an encounter of the heart,” Peterson said.

Designed by Richard Molinaroli known for his Smithsonian Institution exhibits, the presentation is intended to be lifelike, visually stunning and thought-provoking, something unusual for a museum show, Peterson said.

The De Smet story unfolds in nine scenes and reaches back in time to two worlds, the European Catholic world of De Smet and the sacred world of the Salish.

But viewers also see videotaped interviews in which contemporary Salish and Coeur d’Alene elders and other cultural leaders talk about their missionary past, Christianity and the survival of Native American traditions and identity.

The exhibit also includes more than 200 drawings, photographs and artifacts--some priceless--from the United States, Canada and Europe that juxtapose the traditional and the modern, and show the blending of cultures.

In discussing Native American history, Peterson is careful to distinguish the missionary experience of the Salish (sometimes called Flathead) and other Northwest Indians from the often coercive and brutal experience of the Indians in California, which she characterized as “conversion at the point of a bayonet.”

“By contrast, the Northwest peoples themselves initiated the search for missionary teachers of this new religion,” she said. “They had a tradition of prophecy telling of fair-skinned men wearing long black robes who would bring a new religion. It would contain a new moral code and bring about peace between the tribes but mark the beginning of the end of all the native people living on the land.”

And the Jesuits, she said, “were relatively culturally sensitive--in 19th-Century terms. Or you could say they were very shrewd and sophisticated in understanding how culture works. They learned the Indian languages. They didn’t demand that Indians give away their culture.”

Peterson’s goal is for the exhibit to provoke such ambitious questions as: “Where is the sacred?” and “What is the nature of conversion?”

“The Indians didn’t cast off their most fundamental beliefs,” she said. Rather, “It’s like sewing glass beads onto deerskin clothing. For most, Christianity added to--but did not replace--Indian ways of approaching the sacred,” she said.

The historian said that holds true today. “You can go to Salish communities and see an Indian Mass that incorporates sweet grass and sage, and Catholic hymns and prayers in Salish. And then, Jesuit missionaries in Indian regalia dance at the powwows that follow.”

“Sacred Encounters” opened in October at the Natural History Museum, with religious ceremonies and celebrations in which local tribes, including the Gabrielenos and Juanenos, were host to dignitaries from the Salish, Coeur d’Alene and other tribes of the Northwest.

Vee Salabiye, a Navajo and librarian of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, attended the exhibit’s opening. Salabiye said she was struck by the fact that the museum inaugurated the exhibit with a private ceremony that included a traditional blessing by an elder. “Most museums don’t think to do that,” she said.

“For the museum to bring people from the Northwest to come and talk to us about how they felt (about the missionary experience),” she said, “was like bringing us into a friendship with them.”

The exhibit continues through Jan. 8. For the museum address, hours and admission fees, call (213) 744-3381.


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