“When I drive past this place it gives me a good-hearted, happy feeling,” says Quanah Matheson ’04, cultural resources director of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. At what is now Old Mission State Park, just off Interstate 90 at Cataldo, Idaho, Matheson is taking a breather from the rush of last-minute details prior to opening a major historical exhibit.

A graceful, whitewashed chapel, the Mission of the Sacred Heart, completed in 1853 and the oldest building in Idaho, tops a grassy knoll at the state park, but down below, the tribe has just completed a modern museum that is now the permanent home of an exhibit marking a powerful moment in tribal history—the arrival of Jesuit missionaries, the Black Robes, and the conversion of Indians to Catholicism.

This story is told in Sacred Encounters: Father De Smet & the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West, a landmark exhibition first assembled in the 1990s by historian Jacqueline Peterson, who recently retired from teaching Native American history at WSU’s Vancouver campus.

When Sacred Encounters first appeared as a Class A traveling exhibition touring the United States and Canada, its space requirements were so large it could not be shown anywhere near the Coeur d’Alenes. (What was then the Cheney Cowles Museum in Spokane staged a small preview, Peterson says.) Yet its unique and intimate examination of the mingling of two faiths and two cultures lent it such power that tribal members made the five-hour drive to see Sacred Encounters at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, where it opened, and at Tacoma.

“It is important to get the Native American perspective,” says Jeanne Givens, a Coeur d’Alene Tribal member who was appointed to a tribal committee formed to work with Peterson to help shape the Coeur d’Alenes’ side of Sacred Encounters. “For so many years, exhibits have been strictly about what non-Indians think of Indian items and of Indian history. So Jackie’s approach was refreshing, and it was exciting.”

The impact of the exhibit was so profound, says Ernie Stensgar, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council at the time, that the tribe took the unusual step of seeking to purchase Sacred Encounters from the University.

It was a long process, taking more than a decade of negotiating with state, national, and European entities, working out arrangements with 50 museums and private collections to secure the loan of the artifacts, and raising $3.26 million for a museum with proper security and environmental controls to display the fragile objects. It culminated with a grand opening at Cataldo October 15, 2011.

And while the exhibit is filled with artifacts, from Indian-made beaded Bible covers to gleaming gold chalices from De Smet’s native Belgium, Sacred Encounters is not static. In a design by the renowned Richard Molinaroli (who did both the original and the new version for the Coeur d’Alenes), visitors walk through nine “acts” or rooms, enveloped in a rich audiovisual environment.

Ambient nature sounds fade into Coeur d’Alene singing, which fades into Gregorian chant and Latin prayer. Sacred Encounters, Peterson says, is “about dialogue. About two separate worlds. About two separate ways of thinking and believing coming together. We couldn’t allow all this gold and silver from the Catholic tradition to overwhelm the Native story. We had to create two pathways.”

The dialogue does not shy away from touchy topics. While there is much joy in the initial conversion—as evidenced in De Smet’s letters to superiors, and in the fact the Coeur d’Alenes remain predominantly Catholic—there are also oppressive episodes of priests creating the Soldiers of the Sacred Heart to enforce religious strictures against Native singing, dance, and activities such as stick games. The boarding school constructed at the village of Desmet could be a lonely and harsh experience for Coeur d’Alene children. One priest demanded the Coeur d’Alenes destroy “Indian things,” Givens says, by bringing moccasins, beadwork, and cradleboards to a public burning in Desmet.

“This is an honest exhibit. It is important not to tell a distorted history,” Matheson says. Especially, he adds, “at a place like Cataldo where people took their children, took their grandparents. Everybody went there and just wanted to pray together. Their prayers are still there; that feeling is still there.”

Peterson says she was deeply affected by the experience. “I came to really respect this tribe, and Indian people in general, for their capacity to forgive the unforgivable.”

There was much delight in the “sacred encounter” with the Jesuits, she says, but also, “I think there was a lot of hurt and a lot of anger and a lot of disappointment. At the same time, the dignity of these people in the face of really unrelenting oppression, the dignity is what finally shines through. And then that understanding, that deep understanding that you simply have to forgive human frailty… . This isn’t even Christian; it is much deeper than that. Something really, really fundamental, I think, to the way Native American people live and believe.

“And to tell you the truth, I think the Jesuits themselves were changed by this,” Peterson says. “What they didn’t understand—or maybe they did understand—is that the Coeur d’Alenes took elements [of Catholicism] that meshed with their existing beliefs and pretty much put the rest aside.”

His family on his mother’s side has been deeply Catholic since the Jesuits arrived in the early 1840s, Matheson says. A grandfather, Don Matheson of the Puyallup Tribe, carried a more traditional spirituality into the family, and today, Matheson says, “I go and pray both ways. There are no lines drawn in my understanding.”

Quanah Matheson ’04: Anthropologist for his tribe

Growing up, Quanah Matheson was captivated by the iconic ancient civilizations of the world—the Inca, the Maya, ancient Egyptians.

“All those cultures fascinated me. You know, the pyramids and everything,” Matheson says. But when he attended Washington State University in the late 1990s, Matheson still wasn’t sure what direction to take. “So I took an introduction into world archeology—I think it was called Archeology of the World—and I really enjoyed it and looked into the fields of it and decided that’s where I wanted to go.”

Hooked, Matheson ’04 graduated with a degree in anthropology. Little did he know, he says, that it would lead to a career delving into an ancient civilization that is exceedingly close to home: his own Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Even before graduation, Matheson worked for the tribe during summers, helping preserve and catalog culturally sensitive sites. After graduation, he was hired as the tribe’s first anthropologist, a service previously contracted out.

The late Richard Mullen, a tribal member, watch-dogged and safeguarded significant cultural sites and handled the repatriation of artifacts and human remains even though the Coeur d’Alenes had no dedicated cultural office. After his death in 2004, the tribe formalized Mullen’s groundwork and named Matheson its first cultural resources director. The department has expanded to include cultural resource management, language, and historical testimony.

It’s not the pyramids, but, Matheson says, “it’s really interesting to come across ancient sites because you can feel, if you’re sensitive to it, you can feel and understand the energy. You can imagine kids playing, people working on things…people living their lives and what they left there for us to come across—it’s like a good blessing in my eyes to touch some of the things they were working on, like mortars and pestles, tools and obsidian.”

If you go—Old Mission State Park is just off Interstate 90 at Cataldo, Idaho (Exit 39), 58 miles east of Spokane. Sacred Encounters is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Entry fee to the park (which grants access to the exhibit and to the historic chapel) is $2, $1 for students, $5 per family. Info: 208-682-3814.