Nez Perces and Missionaries

They are generally well clothed in their stile …. ‘ So every white man who ever wrote about the Nez Perces till it was time to steal their lands. They were superior Indians, they made no trouble, they liked and admired white men.

Their desire for instruction in the mysteries was genuine and paramount, as clean as the desire of these Christians to give them what they wanted. Both desires were simple and altogether hopeless. The heritage of nineteen hundred years of thought and practice was at the disposal of the Christians, proved accurate to the minutest subdivision of a mil scale. The first step, the step on which all subsequent ones depended, was to bring souls to God. Teach the Flatheads and Nez Perces God, Jesus, immortality, primordial guilt, the history of the Jewish monotheists, redemption, transfiguration and crucifixion and resurrection, the majestic poem in which western man has embodied his understanding of how his fate works out. Teach them baptism, repentance, the seeking, the knowledge of God’s presence, the wish for oneness, the sacrament of God’s body and blood, misericordia and magnanimity, the metaphor and symbolism in which western man has expressed his understanding of what life means. That was the step on which all others must be added.

The Indians receiving instruction were men of the age of polished stone. Their minds had a metabolism, a systole and diastole, circuits of afference and efference and affect, which had come down a long evolution quite incomparable to the aggregate which we whites have chosen to call the consciousness of western man. Their poems and metaphors and symbolisms, their myths of awe and wonder and man’s aloneness and the immensity of the universe and the soul groping for meaning in the night watches – had no impress that came down from the herdsmen of Asia Minor through a long refinement to worshipers in fourteenth-century cathedrals and on to John Calvin, whose vicars were now on Green River. When they were told about Jesus they must think of Him as, say, one of the young men who for many tribes come up a vine through the hole in the earth and start looking, through the wars and sorceries of the world, for their father the sun. Grace abounding or the consciousness of God’s presence, or sin, or contrition, or charity, or what you will, could reach them as  idea only by reference to concepts which had been painfully integrated in the thinking of a different kind of man, a man whose intelligence had a different content and a different functioning, and at that a savage.

They tried, both Indians and whites. There they stood, the seekers and the bearers of truth. Marcus Whitman, this moment taking his first step down the path whose end he reached on November 29, 1847, has the full charge of irony implicit in the nature of men’s relationships. We must not diminish it by forgetting in the intricacy of Christian thought that what these Indians wanted was the philosopher’s stone, and that what they expected of it was guns and scalping knives and blankets and glass beads and metal tools.