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The History of Christian Missions on Indian Reservations
In the mid 1800’s, amid turmoil between Native Americans and encroaching white settlers, the United States Government established a “Peace Policy.” The goal of the policy was to relocate Indian tribes from their ancestral homes to land set aside for them. These land allocations are known as “reservations.” The policy also called for religious men, nominated by churches, to oversee the Indian agencies and to teach Christianity to the native tribes.
The key to the Government’s desire for Indian assimilation was by the process of education. So, in addition to having regulatory power and maintaining churches, several Christian organizations took the opportunity to setup schools within the reservations. The Jesuits founded numerous Catholic missions among the Plains Indians, including St. Stephens.
By the late 1870s, the reservation policy was regarded as a failure, primarily because it had resulted in some of the bloodiest wars between Native Americans and the United States. By the end of the 1800’s, all religious organizations had relinquished their authority to the federal Indian agency. However, the schools and churches remain.
How the St. Stephens Indian Mission and School was Founded
There are approximately 550 Indian tribes in the United States and 310 reservations. This means that like the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, some reservations are shared. Wind River is shared by the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone.
Chief Black Coal of the Northern Arapaho spoke of the U.S. government’s Indian Assimilation Program in 1878 saying, “This was the country of my fathers, now dead and dying. We love our children. We very much want a good school house, and a good man to teach our children to read your language, that they may grow up to be intelligent men and women, like the children of the White man. And then, when Sunday comes, we would be glad of some good man to teach our children about the Great Spirit.”
Soon after, Bishop James O’Connor, the Catholic Bishop of Omaha, heard that the Federal Government was planning a school for Indian children on the Wind River Reservation at Fort Washakie. O’Connor contacted the government and offered money to outfit the new school and arranged for a new mission to be headed by Father Jutz. However, when Jutz arrived on the reservation, he found that the Indian Agency had assigned the school to an Episcopal minister.
Undeterred, Father Jutz recognized that the school was mainly serving the Shoshone on the southwest section of the reservation, so he contacted the Arapaho in the East to see if they would be open to having their own school.
In 1884, Father Jutz sent a letter noting the construction of “a school and dwelling house” which served as chapel, sleeping quarters, kitchen, reception room, and workshop – St. Stephens Indian Mission.
Read a history by the Eastern Shoshone daithi4.tripod.com/id4.html
Read a history by the Northern Arapaho daithi4.tripod.com/id3.html
Visiting St. Stephens Church, School, and Museum
St. Stephens Church is an operating Catholic church. It features beautiful Native American art and stain glass windows. The old boys dormitory and classrooms rebuilt after a fire in 1928, now serves as a post office, community center, museum, and gift shop.
For more information:
St Stephens Indian Mission Foundation
P.O. Box 278, St Stephens, WY 82524
See more things to do in Wind River Country at windriver.org