Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions reveals the life of an Italian Jesuit as he worked at three missions in the northern Rocky Mountains from 1874 to 1878. Meticulously translated and carefully annotated, the letters of Father Philip Rappagliosi (1841–78) are a rare and rich source of information about the daily lives, customs, and beliefs of the many Native peoples that he came into contact with: Nez Perces, Kootenais, Salish Flatheads, Coeur d’Alenes, Pend d’Oreilles, Blackfeet, and Canadian Métis. These never-before-translated letters reveal the shifting, sometimes volatile relationship between the missionaries and the Native Americans and also provide a window into the complex lives of the Jesuits.
After requesting to work among the Native peoples of the American West, Rappagliosi arrived at Saint Mary’s Mission in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana in 1874, where he spent much time among already converted members of the Salish Flathead Nation. The energetic Rappagliosi journeyed next to Canada to visit some Kootenai Indian bands and then was reassigned to Saint Ignatius Mission, where he interacted with the Upper Pend d’Oreilles Indians. Rappagliosi’s final and most difficult assignment was at Saint Peter’s Mission among the Blackfeet in Montana, who were not converts. There he became embroiled in disputes with a controversial former Oblate priest, and foul play was suspected in his death at the age of thirty-seven.
Robert Bigart is a librarian emeritus at Salish Kootenai College. He is the editor of Over a Century of Moving to the Drum: Salish Indian Celebrations on the Flathead Indian Reservation.