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The De-Conversion of Catharine: An Indian Woman Turns Away

Updated on August 1, 2014

Faith Like A Child

As a young child of four, Catharine, obedient to her father, her Salish tribe, and the Jesuit priests, converted to Christianity. Baptized into the faith, she followed every rule dictated by the church, becoming a beacon of proper Christianity for her community to follow. Nicknamed “Faithful Catharine” (22), she epitomized the goals of the Catholic missionaries, converting without questioning and believing without doubt. Her conversion was most likely a result of the universal character of children. As Jesus’ words in the New Testament say “Let the little children come unto me[1]” and other verses about childlike faith give indication of faith’s appeal to children. Biblical scholars interpret these words to indicate that all people, children AND adults, should embrace a simple faith that blindly trusts and believes. As a child, Catharine would have had a simple, blind trust in the wisdom of her father and the elders among her tribe. She had little choice in her conversion; however, the priests promised her father “we shall teach your child great happiness. She will be among the precious on earth” (21). This firm belief in the promise of happiness and victory played a persuasive part in swaying Catharine’s heart. Unfortunately, the promise could not be fulfilled. Ironically, as the Bible says “hope deferred makes the heart sick”[2]. In Catharine’s case, she hoped for a brighter future. She believed the promises. The deferment of that hope caused her soul the sickness of disillusionment and discontent, leading to her eventual de-conversion. Catharine saw the un-fulfillment of this promise in the poverty and desolation of her people, the disdain of her husband, and in the waywardness of her sons.

[1] Matthew 19:14

[2] Proverbs 13:12

Hope Deferred

Throughout the book, examples were given of a future for the Salish that did not materialize in a bright, carefree, successful, happy, or wealthy existence. The Catholic priests said that baptism brought happiness. The Indians followed all of the rules, went to church, sang about Jesus “and still the world grew no better. The sons stole horses and drew knives and the old people saw no hope” (131). Catharine’s village faced immense poverty, sorrow, loss, and desolation within its boundaries. Her conversion led to Catharine seeing the world as “one day was like another…at the end of many days, a world of confusion, dread, and emptiness” (22). In Chapter 3, further insight into the situation of the Salish people was given from the merchant George Moser, who settled amongst the Salish people with the hopes of getting rich quickly, but instead found that a boom never occurred, the Indians grew more in debt, and the Indians were slowly starving as the land was eaten up by over-hunting, commerce, and increased population (28-29). The old traditions were lost as the Catholic Church denounced the Salish Indian’s practices as savage, deviltry, and completely wrong. Chapter 6 described the stripping of the Indian traditions through the “whipping” practice substituted with confession (50) and in the story of Big Paul where justice could not prevail when old laws and new laws conflict. Once the missionaries converted the Salish, new laws were put into place, but not followed, nor enforced, and instead of a new generation of order; chaos, sloth, greed, disobedience, and lawlessness ensued. Mr. Parker, the Indian agent, said of the Indians that their helplessness could not be assuaged because he “was hampered by a system which penalized initiative and by the Indian’s own poor understanding of what was expected of them” (151). Little in ways of education on spending and saving money, hard work, and wise investing was given to the Indians. With minimal ways to earn money or keep money, poverty became a way of life. As the population grew, hunting grounds diminished, as did the fishing supply in the local rivers and lakes. The Indian side of town was described as having “sway-backed cabins, rag-stuffed windows, refuse strewn about” (35), with little sanitation, and filled with “unused building falling into disrepair” (138). Max looking over the land, described it as “much had been wasted, much destroyed, and men would have been richer if they had been satisfied with less” (82). In other chapters, the reader can see clearly that the church’s promise had not been fulfilled as the Salish Indians endured a survival with limited and dwindling resources and no respite from the poverty they were suffering. Parker further illustrated the situation by saying

“few had barns, fewer had any affairs at home. Indeed, few had enough food at home to feed their bellies. When their own store gave out they went visiting, and when their relatives have nothing left, they all come to see the agent” (153).

Despite her husband’s wealth, Catharine identified strongly with her Salish community. Their poverty and loss was hers, as well. The church failed Catharine and her community bringing her one step closer to turning her back on the Christian faith.

The missionaries’ promise of great happiness did not come to fruition in Catharine’s relationship with her husband, Max Leon. Instead of great happiness, she married a man who remained distant from her. Emotionally distant, Max and Catharine did not share a relationship where they confided all that was in their hearts with each other. Physically distant, save for the eleven couplings resulting in their eleven children, Catharine and Max lived apart. With no evidence as to the cause of their divide, the reader witnessed a couple who was physically and emotionally separate. Catharine, living in her small cabin, even refused to speak English (10) to her husband when he came to visit. Her stubbornness did not help solve the problem, nor did it add to her husband’s understanding of her as a person. In a scene where Max listened to Catharine hosting a dinner with older Indians, he heard the stories and conversation, and reflected that “why was it that after forty years he did not know these people and was not trusted by them” (75)? Some indecipherable wall was erected between this pair, impenetrable by any compromise. With such a lack of communication on both sides and an unwillingness to bend, it was a small wonder that there was no fulfillment in their marriage. The slightest inference for reconciliation came upon Max’s death, when Archilde shared with Catharine her husband’s wish for her to move into the big house. Even in this case, although Catharine seemed to forgive her husband, this reconciliation came too late for any physical or emotional rejoining to take place. Once again, hope was deferred and a promise of personal happiness remained an unlikely prize to grasp. This delayed satisfaction opened Catharine’s eyes more to the ways in which Christianity was not bringing contentment or happiness.

A Sick Heart

Happiness was not to be Catharine’s either in her relationship with her children. When Archilde returned home, he was viewed by Catharine as a son who had abandoned her. He was not there to hunt or fish for her, thus he must be shiftless in his pursuits and up to no good. Her son Louis, horse thief and criminal, only visited when he had a need for food or money. Her other children, aside from Agnes, were not mentioned except for their absence as a disappointment to their father, Max. Max had hopes his sons would remain with him and work the land, and that he would be able to pass along the legacy of hard work, land, and a successful farm. Max’s hopes included the wish that his sons would “know how to work for (their) own good” (86). Similarly, Catharine had hopes that her sons would be not only successful, but would stay near home, would honor the traditions, and would care for her in her old age. Her initial hopes when she was still following the faith of the Catholic Church were that her sons would be saved from hell; however, as she began to wander away from Christianity and peer into her past paganism, the fear of hell dwindled and her hopes for her sons turned towards their maintenance of traditions. When Louis visited Catharine and Archilde on their hunting trip, Catharine complained that Louis only came when he was hungry (119). She called her son quarrelsome, a fool, and wished that he could be like Archilde, “the best son” (123). When the game warden accused Louis, Catharine essentially told Louis to grow up, act like a man, and accept the consequences for his actions. The greatest loss of all for a mother came when the game warden shot Louis.

“The old lady labored in the depths of a mountain of thought. Her life came before her eyes to perplex and sadden her. A son is part of your body and when a son dies you have to ask yourself: how is it that I am still here? Why do they take only part of me?” (130-131)

The death of Louis was a catalyst for Catharine. Catharine’s vengeance in murdering the warden, resulting in her unalleviated guilt, was the turning point leading her to the eventual renunciation of the Christian faith, her de-conversion. As she and Archilde stood over the two dead bodies, her wish for Louis was to bury him in consecrated Christian ground. At this point, her crisis of faith was still leading her to accept and desire the Christian tradition of burials taking place in the Catholic graveyard lest Louis’ spirit wandered as a tortured soul, unhappy. As a Catholic, she would see him again, only if he was buried in the church’s graveyard (129).


When her guilt could not be assuaged by confession in the Catholic Church and she was plagued by continual nightmares of her unhappiness in Heaven and her inability to be invited into Indian Heaven, Catharine took the final step in renouncing her Christian faith, de-converting from Catholicism and returning to her pagan faith of the Salish people pre-missionary invasion. Her communion with the elders in the Salish tribe helped maintain the traditions in her memory and soul. In a private ceremony with the old chief, Modeste, and other Indians, Catharine shared the dream she had. In true literary fashion, the story moved full circle to re-welcome the banned Indian custom of whipping the guilty party to cover the fault with the whip (49). Catharine’s repudiation of the faith was a bold step as she allowed the elders to whip her, publicly confessing her murder of the game warden, and allowing the “red stripes” (211) to absolve her of her wrong-doing.

Upon her death bed, Catharine requested the chief, Modeste, to be by her side, denying the Catholic priest entrance to give her the death mass, as custom would expect. In her weakness, she was unable to truly express her rejection of the Catholic faith and Archilde rose to her defense to inform Father Jerome that his services were not needed. In this instance, Catharine’s son could not have been a disappointment to her, having not abandoned her in her final hour and speaking up to ensure that her last wishes would be honored. This may be seen as a positive consequence to her recanting the faith: returning to paganism restored her son’s duty to her.

A Return to Hope

Regrettably, Catharine’s refutation of the Christian faith bore no tangible fruit. The Christian faith failed her as the church was unable to keep its promise for a happy tomorrow; however, aside from the dreamless sleep (121) and her own sense of satisfaction, her reversion to paganism did not heal her community’s poverty and loss, mend her relationship with her husband, or repair the breach with her other children. The Jesuit missionaries promised hope and could not furnish that to the Salish people. Hope continually was deferred for Catharine as she saw her people fall into poverty, as tradition was lost, and as her family relationships were torn asunder. Faith in the church was not the answer. The church disappointed her, thwarting her hopes for future happiness. She de-converted in the efforts to return to the tradition of her people, resting in the hope that she had as an Indian, but not as a Christian.

Did Catharine make the right choice?

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