Program 302 – Elder Wisdom

Salish Woman and Children

Salish Woman and Children. St. Ignatius Mission, Montana. 1924. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frances Vanderberg

with Brian Bull

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Arlie Neskahi:
In 1841, Jesuits built a mission in the Stevensville area and introduced the Salish people to the Catholic religion. Some say the Salish viewed the black robed priests as powerful men, and joined the church, hoping the new medicine would help them in their conflict with the Blackfeet. Today, a majority of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people claim Catholicism as their religion, even though some still practice traditional Indian spirituality. On today’s Elder Wisdom, Brian Bull introduces Salish elder Frances Vanderberg, who shares stories of her life and faith.

Brian Bull:

At first, Frances Vanderderg wasn’t exactly thrilled to arrive at St. Ignatius convent near Mission, Montana.

Frances Vanderberg:

The first day I was there I remember I cried, because I wanted to be in the same dormitory as my oldest sister. She kept telling me, “You can’t be with me, you’re a little girl. I’m a big girl.” I said, “But I’m your sister.” And she said, “You have to stay with the little girls. Theirs is just three doors down.” But I remember I cried. I was mad at my mom, I was mad at my grandma, my yaya, for leaving me there.

Brian Bull:

The routine and protocol of the convent was a big change for the young girl. Vanderderg was accustomed to Salish sweat lodge ceremonies and prayers with her grandmother. Now she was far from family and living under the direction of nuns and classmates:

Frances Vanderberg:

Little older girls had to make sure our hair was combed good and we were dried good. We were in chapel by 6:45. Then we went to breakfast. From the third floor we went downstairs to the second floor and into the chapel. Then when we got through in the chapel with Mass, we went down to the first floor to the dining room. It was all single file. Some of the kids from the public school in town would make fun of us. They’d say, “look at them little kids walking single file, Ursuline style.”

Brian Bull:

Vanderburg says some nuns were strict and harsh. but many were kind and compassionate.

Frances Vanderberg:
There was one of them that used to run the candy store. We call it Mother John’s candy store. When one of us had gotten into trouble for whatever, she would know it. When we would go into her candy store, she would give us a fast hug and slip a piece of candy into our hand. She’d say, “you’ll be alright.”

Brian Bull:
One nun even gave her an appreciation of music. Vanderberg remembers how she’d eavesdrop on her piano classes.

Frances Vanderberg:
Then one day the door was open and so I sneaked in there fast and I was playing what I thought I heard them playing. Mother Teresa, she heard me. And she said, you like to play piano. I said, “Yes.” So after that, when she could, she would give me a signal to say, soon as you’re through eating and as soon as you get through with your duties in the dining room, come up to my room. So she gave me a few piano lessons.

Brian Bull:
In the seven years she was at St. Ignatius, Vanderberg says another gift was imparted on her through her frequent bouts with pneumonia and other ailments.

Frances Vanderberg:
An old priest used to come and visit me at the hospital – he’d bring me books. I could hear him. He had his walk. I could hear him from way downstairs. I knew a lot of people’s walk. I knew they were coming before they’d even. They’d get close to my room and I’d say, “Hello, so and so.” They’d say, “How did you know it was me?” I said, “I can see around curves.”

But this priest, he brought two books that were about wild dogs, kind of like Jack London. I didn’t like him at first but he persisted and to this day, I really believe that if it hadn’t been for him, I probably wouldn’t have the love of reading. When I’d be back in school, the nun that was my teacher noticed an improvement in my reading.

Brian Bull:
But these new skills weren’t so appreciated at home. Vanderderg says some of her traditional relatives would tear books, newspapers, and magazines out of her hands.

Frances Vanderberg:
They equated reading with laziness. But my grandma knew that we were going into a time when we’d have to know how to read. She said, “Some of it I don’t like, but you’re going into that world and I’m not going to be here, so you have to learn it.” She saw the importance of it.

Brian Bull:
Cultural conflict went both ways for Vanderberg. She began to compare the Catholic god with that of her Salish culture.

Frances Vanderberg:
Some of the conflict that I felt was going home one time and asking my grandma, about them nuns’ God, their God. She says, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, their God must be different than what we pray to.” And she said, “Why?” And I said, “Because when they talk about their God, their God is mean. Their God is ready to whap us or punish us.” And I said, “When you talk about our God, it sounds like our God is kind of like you,” I told her. And she laughed, she said “No.” I said, “If you came from God, then you must be partly like God, or our God.” I had to ponder that.

Brian Bull:
Vanderderg continued to learn traditions from her Salish relatives. And again, she saw contradictions and paradoxes between the two religions. The sweat lodge ceremony with its unique medicine was a ready example.

Frances Vanderberg:
The funny part of that is, though, we were told not to use some of these things. But the church in their masses, their high masses, here they are using incense. We used cedar to make it smell good while they’re praying. The church has their holy water, blessing everybody, and we have our water when we’re blessing. And I used to think, “What’s the big fight about?”

One of the things I like out of the catechism was their saying that god is everywhere. God knows you. God sees you. But the concept that the catechism lessons were the only reason God is watching you is to catch you doing something wrong. To me that’s not what I understood from my grandma. You know, being embarrassed when I said GHod was like her, or she was like God, because she was gentle. She was forgiving. She wasn’t vengeful.

Brian Bull:
Vanderderg began to see how two seemingly different spiritual paths often crossed, and combined into something meaningful. Dreams and visions had their role to play in both Christianity and Salish culture, which she saw once while her grandmother struggled to help a young Salish woman deliver a child.

Frances Vanderberg:
She was worried about it. She was tired. But the mother was tired too and she was getting scared for her. Anyway she decided to take a break and went to her teepee. She went out to sleep. She had this dream. This voice was talking to her and said, you have to get up. Talking of course in Salish, told her which way to go. You pick that medicine. You cook it, you boil it, then you give it to this woman that’s having a hard time with her birthing, her child. She woke up then. And anyway she got up, went and got this stuff, she said she never knew it to be medicine before. And she cooked it up, and gave it to that woman. Anyway, the woman finally had her baby. She’d say, “Dreams are our helpers. Listen to your dreams. They are a true gift from God, a guide.”

Brian Bull:
Vanderberg keeps both religions close and dear to her heart. She says she remains a Catholic because it’s helped her and many of her relatives through trying, difficult times. For Wisdom of the Elders, I’m Brian Bull.