Black Robes Enter Coyote’s World


Black Robes Enter Coyote’s World

Chief Charlo and Father De Smet in the Rocky Mountains

Sally Thompson
Foreword by Myrna Adams Dumontier and Greg Dumontier

400 pages
14 photographs, 54 illustrations, 8 maps, index


December 2024


$36.95 Pre-order

About the Book

Black Robes Enter Coyote’s World brings to life the complicated history of Jesuit missionaries among Montana’s Native peoples—a saga of encounter, accommodation, and resistance during the transformative decades of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Sally Thompson tells the story of how Jesuit values played out in the lives of the Bitterroot Salish people. The famous Black Robe (Jesuit) Father Pierre Jean De Smet actually spent little time among his “beloved Flatheads.” Instead, he traveled extensively between the Pacific and the Rockies, mapping the pathways and noting the valuable resources. His popular writings helped spark the westward movement of white settlers.

Thompson picks up the story of the Salish peoples and black-robed missionaries at a Potawatomi mission on the Missouri in 1839 and follows their intertwined experiences throughout the lifetime of Salish chief Charlo, who eventually cursed the day white immigrants came into his country. Chief Charlo attributed the missionaries’ disconnected beliefs and exploitative actions to their status as orphans rejected from their place of creation, as he had learned from the story of Eden. Despite Charlo’s valiant efforts to protect his homeland, the Salish endured a forced removal from their beloved Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Reservation in 1891. Charlo died in 1910, just before the massive giveaway of more than half of the Salish’s treaty-guaranteed lands through implementation of the Allotment Act. Despite it all, his people endure.

In this up-close account of the Bitterroot Salish people during the lifetime of Chief Charlo, Thompson examines the fundamental differences in the ways Euro-Americans and Native Americans related to land and nature.

Author Bio

Sally Thompson is an anthropologist and cultural heritage consultant. She formerly served as founder and director of the Regional Learning Project and as Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act specialist for the University of Montana, Missoula, where, on occasion, she teaches traditional ecological knowledge. Thompson is the author of People before the Park: The Kootenai and Blackfeet before Glacier National Park and Disturbing the Sleeping Buffalo: 23 Unexpected Stories that Awaken Montana’s Past.


“I wish everyone in western Montana would read this book. It presents an honest and respectful view of Séliš history.”—Johnny Arlee, Salish elder and spiritual leader

“Here is a history of the American West as seen in the intertwined lives of a Jesuit missionary and a Salish chief. Sally Thompson presents an intimate, blow-by-blow description of the transformation of the lives and lands of the Salish people in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley from the 1830s through the turn of the century. It is a story of prophecies gone wrong, good intentions gone bad, and the clash of spiritual beliefs and values. Readers will be captivated by this epic, tragic story and its final message of endurance, survival, and hope.”—Annick Smith, author of Homestead and Travels with Bruno

“Sally Thompson has put together an outstanding historical narrative that reveals diligent research and surprising discoveries through imaginative storytelling. The organizational device of employing the two stellar lives of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet and Chief Charlo of the Flathead Nation, opens a rich archival vein of documents, both oral and written. The result of their shared transitional experiences makes for insightful reading.”—William E. Farr, author of Blackfoot Redemption: A Blood Indian’s Story of Murder, Confinement, and Imperfect Justice

“Sally Thompson has an almost supernatural ability to move between the white (Euro-American) and Native worlds with ease, understanding, and empathy. She uses that remarkable talent, along with original Jesuit journals and deep knowledge of Native tradition, to bring new understanding to the American West. Unlike so many portrayals, this West is not a world of good guys and bad guys, but one of complex interactions over many years between different worlds. One of the most distant and last Native nations to face an influx of whites, the Bitterroot Salish and their story, as rendered by Thompson, offer a vivid and emblematic journey through the tremendous cultural shifts that occurred on this continent. Black Robes Enter Coyote’s World is essential reading to understand the American West.”—Peter Stark, author of Gallop Toward the Sun: Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison’s Struggle for the Destiny of a Nation

“As a result of a long Montana residence appreciating the Native peoples—plus much wholly-new research—veteran anthropologist Sally Thompson has written a book no one else has been able to write. A dual biography of Bitterroot Salish leader Charlo and Jesuit missionary/colonizer Pierre Jean De Smet, Black Robes Enter Coyote’s World lays out two competing ways of seeing the same Earth—one nested in the ancient continent, the other transplanted and utterly certain of its correctness. The result is a great story, beautifully-told, with more than a touch of pathos.”—Dan Flores, New York Times best-selling author of Coyote America and Wild New World

Table of Contents

Overview Map
List of Illustrations
FOREWORD by Myrna Adams Dumontier and Greg Dumontier
Introduction: Midstream Moment
  • Chapter 1. Separate Worlds
  • Young Charlo (1830-1840)
  • Iroquois Trappers (1814-1825)
  • How Peter Jan De Smet Came to the Rockies (1801-1821)
Chapter 2 Westward Ho
  • De Smet Arrives in America (1821)
  • President Monroe Sets the Stage (1817-1822)
  • When One Door Closes (1823)
  • Illness and Indecision for a Wavering Jesuit (1827-1837)
Chapter 3. Like Braided Streams
  • The Search for Black Robes (1831-1839)
  • De Smet’s Return to the Jesuits (1837-1838)
  • Potawatomi Mission (1838-1839)
  • Yankton Diversion (Spring, 1839)
  • A Chance Encounter (Fall, 1839)
Chapter 4. Prayer and Possibility
  • Escape Plan Materializes (Winter 1839-1840)
  • Rocky Mountain Rendezvous (Summer 1840)
  • To The Oregon Country (1841)
Chapter 5. Black Robes Enter Coyote’s World
  • A Heartfelt Welcome
  • Last Leg
  • Valley of Red Willows
Chapter 6. Reshaping Coyote’s World
  • Place of Wide Cottonwoods
  • Becoming St. Mary’s
  • First Winter
  • Surprises Await
  • Seed Planting
Chapter 7. Covenant with Creation
  • Religion and the Source of Belief
  • Medicine and the Practice of Religion
  • The Basis for Learning
  • True Conversion of Belief and Lifeway
Chapter 8. Straddling the Divide
  • In the Name of Ignatius Loyola
  • De Smet Departs St. Mary’s
  • Indians in the New Territory of Oregon
  • St. Mary’s Demise
Chapter 9. Atop a New Divide
  • Expansion and Contraction
  • Treaty Makers Bound the World
  • Treaty World Takes Hold
  • De Smet Returns to the Rockies
Chapter 10. Native World Turned Inside Out
  • Terrible Transition
  • Hungry and Haunted
  • The Gold Nugget Road
  • Shifting Sands
Chapter 11. Disillusionment and Despair in the Salish Country
  • Wasps’s Nest.
  • Two Worlds Colliding
  • Considering Options
  • A Wide Divide
Chapter 12. The Shrinking World
  • A New Voice with a Bullhorn
  • Little Food to Dig or Snare
  • End of an Era
  • Politics of Removal
Chapter 13. Shadows Abound
  • Garfield’s Betrayal
  • Fewer Options
  • Missing John Owen
  • Like A Wolverine
  • No Mincing of Words
  • Nez Perce Scare
Chapter 14. Charlo’s Lament
  • The Ghost of Garfield
  • Charlo Goes to Washington
  • Paradise Lost
  • Reservation Blues
Epilogue. The Worlds We Carry

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