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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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The Indian Priest
Father Philip B. Gordon
Chapter 11 - Mission at Reserve

by Paula Delfeld
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

Father Gordon's arrival at Reserve was not attended by any ceremony. One of his parish members, Katie Gohke, is still living there (in 1975). Katie is eighty-three now and a widow. She remembers the Indian priest well.

Katie says, "Father Gordon came to Stone Lake. That's where the Soo Line was. My husband was working in the store at Stone Lake. He came one day and asked if I could feed Father Gordon dinner."

"I said, where is Father?"

"He is down to the store. I just want to know, will you give him dinner here?"

I said, "I'll feed him then."

So Katie gave Father Gordon his first meal at Reserve. She didn't remember what she served, probably roast beef. After that she was busy with her large family and did not have an opportunity to associate with the priest very much but she says everybody like him.

Katie must have been very busy with thirteen children of her own, plus two children of relatives whom they raised. She has over a hundred grandchildren.

Other Indians at Reserve also remember Father Gordon. Charlie Coons, who had a store and the post office, was not a Catholic, but remembers Father Gordon and said he was a good man. Charlie's friend, Benny Isham, said he always went to church at Reserve and he liked the priest.

"He built the church there, but it wasn't finished when he left."

When Father Gordon came to Reserve, the church of St. Francis Solano, which the Franciscan missionaries had built many years before, was still standing. It was a log building begun in 1881, complete in 1885, and later enlarged.

The missionaries had converted several hundred Indians from paganism and two churches had been built on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, on at Reserve and one at Post, as well as several, outside the reservation, which were later given over to white Catholics.

By tribal action, the Indians had voluntarily given lands for the missions, and the Indians themselves furnished the labor and materials for the churches.

The Most Reverend Joseph M. Koudelka had appointed Father Gordon missionary to the Chippewa Indians in January 1918, at the suggestion of Cardinal Bonzano, Apostolic Delegate.

Among the Indians living on the reservation, were Steve Grover (Go-shens), Anakwat (The Cloud), and Billy Boy, pagan Indians who became good friends of Father Gordon. They were greatly respected for their age and wisdom. The orator of the band was Billy Boy who lived in Reserve and, as the priest said, was a master of Chippewa language.

"It is a beautiful and sonorous language, full of original terms of lofty similes. There is as much difference between the common language of the reservation and that of the great orators there is between the slang of our street Arabs and the literary idioms of our best writers."

It seemed logical to Father Gordon to be in charge of six Indian missions. Besides the one at Reserve, there were two on the Lac du Flambeau, one at Mud Lake in Rusk County, one at the mouth of the Yellow River, one at Old Post on the west branch of the Chippewa River.

As he later wrote in his memoirs, since he was "a Chippewa Indian, an enrolled member of the tribe, speaking the language, related by blood to many of the members of the tribe, reared with the Indians in their own haunts, the appointment seemed fitting and in keeping with the idea of a native clergy for the aborigines of the country."

He believed he was where he belonged and felt he was conducting his work successfully. But it was not long before a government investigation took place. Father Gordon was annoyed and unhappy about the report from Commissioner Cato Sells. On April 5, 1920, he sent the following telegram to the Honorable Joseph P. Tumulty, President Wilson's secretary, and also sent a copy to the bishop at Superior.

"In report just received from Commissioner Cato Sells an investigation recently conducted on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, reported by Inspector Lipps in a most unfair and unjust way. Unless the President directs within forty-eight hours a reinvestigation to take place within the next ten days which must be based on fact and reliable data instead of uncatholic prejudice and malicious anti-catholic bigotry and gross allegations I must call the attention of the whole Catholic hierarchy to this rabid anti-catholic proceeding and by pen and voice tell twenty-nine million Catholics and upright Americans of our country of this unfair, unjust, un-American, and decidedly anti-catholic piece of administration; also an apology is due us from Inspector Lipps for his trying statements and misrepresentations. Wire me at once in Hayward, Wisconsin."

Father Gordon's good friend, Senator Lenroot, wrote to Cato Sells on June 5, 1918, "I wish to state in this connection that Father Gordon can be absolutely relied upon in every respect and that he is the greatest power of good that there has been among the Indians since I have been in Congress, whish is now nearly ten years."

"He is an Indian himself, and a Catholic pries of the very highest ideals, of absolute integrity and full of enthusiasm for the welfare of the Indians… and in matters concerning this reservation you will find him of very great value in giving to the Department disinterested information concerning the various problems that arise."

Father Gordon not only cared for his six missions, but he visited the Potawatomi Indians of eastern Wisconsin, who long had been neglected by the government and the missionaries. Dr. Carlos Montezuma, a noted Chicago physician, accompanied him to the Potawatomi reservation, where they discussed plans for a mission.

Dr. Montezuma was a full-blooded Apache, a fluent writer and speaker and a 33rd degree Mason. He wore his hair quite long and for this reason he has a namesake still living at Reserve. When 'Monty' Diamond was born he had unusually long hair. Father Gordon said, "Here is a second Montezuma" and that was the name he received.

Among other well-known guests the priest entertained was Eamon de Valera, who became prime minister of Ireland. He was honored by the Indians and received an Indian name. In return De Valera presented a number of rifles to the Indians. These were treasured by the Indians, and no doubt at least some of them are still being used.

When De Valera died on August 29, 1975, at the age of 90, a St. Paul paper mentioned the fact that he was an Indian chief.

Father Gordon encountered further trouble. In 1921 the old church burned. Katie Gohke saw it burn. She says, "Father Gordon was away at the time. The steeple got struck by lightening and then it went right down into the church. It was 11 or 12 o'clock. I think part of it was a log building. It was a big, long building."

The Indian priest now faced the tremendous task of building a new church in a parish were "a dollar looked like a thousand." He personally collected $30,000 from friends of the Indians. Clarence Wise, banker of Hayward, financed large loans on unsecured personal notes. Later, his son, Tony, did much to help the Indians.

Father Gordon dreamed of a church that would combine the old Indian symbolism and the ideals of Catholicism. He said this would be a "connecting link which would sagely bring Indians from paganism to Catholicism… it is the only way to reach the Indian heart."

The Indians were enthusiastic about the new church. They picked granite rock from the fields and the woods of Reserve, carried them to the building site and split them. It was slow work and the roof was covered with building paper until it could be completed. Father Gordon planned to use rough cedar shingles, called 'shakes' for the roof. These were to be hand-hewn from the immense stumps that stood beside the lake on Reserve was located.

The priest's friends were always ready to help. Alexander C. Eschweiler, Milwaukee, architect, planned the building but the head carpenter and two masons were Indians.

A newspaper article describing the church said, "… Indian psychology has been taken into consideration in working out the symbolic designs of the stained glass widows by George W. Mueller of Milwaukee Mirror and Art Glass Works. Realizing that few of the Indian parishioners were able to read, Mr. Mueller planned the windows so that each shall speak to the Indians in familiar terms. They contain the rising sun, many arrows, crossed calumets and tobacco, and above the pipes and arrows, the cross."

The hand-hewn rafters in the interior of the church were stained in brilliant reds and blues and orange, which the Indians loved. Deerskin hung in front of the confessionals and at the entrance of the altar. The alter cloths were woven by the Chippewa women with characteristic designs and Indian symbols woven into the fabric.

Adjoining the church was the pastor's residence, built in the shape of a teepee, the pointed wigwam of the early Indians. This had a lighting system and a bath with hot and cold water - unheard of marvels among the Indians.

All during the building process, Father Gordon was available to help in any part of the construction. The architects, the window designers, or anyone else doing any work in connection with the building, sought his advice in interpreting Indian symbols and suggesting way in which they could be combined with Catholic teachings.

The roof of the church was not finished when Father Gordon was transferred and it saddened him to think of the beautiful church as well as the Indians' souls were being neglected.

"Yes, my people are dirty, looked at through white men's eyes," Father Gordon said, "But they have no training or facilities for being otherwise. Thirty-five percent of them are affected with tuberculosis and they know nothing of how to stop it ravages."

But he was justly proud of the seventy boys under his care who volunteered for service in France, seven of whom gave their lives for a cause which they understood only dimly but which they believed was just because the good priest said it was.

"I never want to leave Reserve," he said. "This is the work I love and understand and I ask as my only reward greater appreciation on the part of the white men of the Indians' problems. Oh I might want to go to Chicago once in a while to see Babe Ruth play baseball, but I hope to live and die among my people."

In spite of all the poverty and sickness, however, the Indians loved to dance and would continue for weeks in not restrained. The priest's father was quite modern in his ideas, but his Indian mother loved the old ways and appeared on ceremonial occasions in full regalia.

The year 1923 was disastrous for Father Gordon. It is notable for the destruction of the parish at Post when the Chippewa Flowage project was completed. Father Gordon later wrote: "In 1923, the Northern States Power Company, a powerful corporation, rendered useless the other mission church located at Post, Wisconsin, by reason of the construction of a reservoir which flooded the Catholic mission grounds and inundated some 250 Catholic graves. The writer engaged at once with his characteristic vigor and vigilance and almost overheated vim in correspondence and controversy with the Indian Department officials at Washington D.C. under whose permission the reservoir was constructed and with officials of the Water Power Company' and endeavored in vain to interest the Bishop of Superior in whose name the church property lies, in the matter of proper redress for the poor Indians as well as damages and respect for the sanctity of Catholic graves and church."

A controversy had been going on for years between the Indians and the company officials. But eventually, Indians were obliged to give up their homes, Indian graves, sacred to them, were flooded, the Indian church abandoned and the Indians were grieved and puzzled.

Father Gordon wrote, "Naturally, the Indian pastor was in the midst of this fight sticking out his neck many times publicly and privately. A voluminous correspondence is evidence of the tremendous efforts he made in behalf of the Indians."

"Here, too, and naturally, the disfavor of the public utilities with their corps of attorneys, officials, lobbyists, etc. associated therewith, was incurred. Still, many new friends were made and thus the disagreement raged."

As an example of the repercussions of such an event, the priest said, "I was asked to address a district convention of the Women's Clubs who was meeting in St. Croix Falls. We took the occasion to ask the women as good citizens to ask for a complete U.S. Senate investigation of the whole Chippewa Flowage project."

Father Gordon had difficulty continuing his talk because of opposition from the floor, and just managed to read his resolution (which the meeting subsequently adopted).

He said, "Following this appearance, the speaker was soundly berated by two of the members of the convention (females). Later he discovered that the two good women were employees of the Public Utility at Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He was accused of obstructing 'progress' and civilization."

Early in 1923, Father Gordon had been appointed to the Secretary Work's Committee on Indian Affairs, a committee of one hundred Americans who were asked to come to Washington to formulate an Indian policy. The committee was directed to meet in December.

The meeting brought together a rather unique group of Americans - General Pershing, Rabbi Stephan Wise, Mary Roberts Rinehart, the authoress, Oswald Willard, Major General Hugh Scott, William Jennings Bryan, Nicholas Murray Butler, Bernard Baruch, Governor Pruess of Minnesota, Dr. Charles Eastman and others.

According to Father Gordon, "The activities caused the Indian Bureau some worry and efforts were initiated to silence the voices crying for justice. Indians were instigated to complain, allegations arose, were reported, refuted, 'investigations' made."

At this time, Father Gordon wrote a paragraph for the Superior Telegram, which was copied by Notre Dame University Bulletin and many Catholic and secular newspapers.

He wrote, "It is an old trick of the Indian Office to blacken the character of an Indian that happens, not withstanding the retardation caused by the Indian Bureau, to rise a little above the ranks. So as soon as an educated Indian begins to deplore the conditions of his brother Indians, the Indian Office dubs such a one as a disturber, an agitator, and lately he is placed in the Bolshevik class. The whole Indian Bureau system of managing Indian business to the detriment of the Indian but for the benefit of a few greedy and voracious whites is the most dramatic autocracy in existence the world over. Gradually through assistance of the American press, the generous-hearted and justice-loving American people are learning something of the present day Indian government humbuggery and deceit practiced by the Indian Office forces."

He went on to tell the plight of the Indians, but his pleas were to no avail. Father Gordon was finally retired from the Indian missionary work. The relentless destiny of the Indian could not be reversed.

In September of the same year, 1923, the last meeting of the Society of American Indians took place in Chicago. Father Gordon had been elected president of the organization. The society was violently anti-Indian Bureau. They criticized the bureau severely and called upon the American people for its total abolishment. Naturally, the activities of the group aroused the ire of many government officials who were working in the Indian office.

But the event, which Father Gordon thought brought events to a climax came in November 1923. The newly elected U.S. Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota toured the northern part of his state. He visited the Chippewa Indians. On his return he asked Father Gordon to meet with him and talk over Indian matters. They met in the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The priest said, "Outside of the picture in the newspaper, not much resulted except that the Senator was shown to be a fine friend of the Indians."

However two months later, early in January 1924, Father Gordon received an urgent call from an old missionary at White Earth, Minnesota, Benedictine Father Aloysius, who had been with the Indians for forty years. He asked Father Gordon to come up at once and make a private survey of the deplorable conditions prevailing among the Indians.

Father Gordon responded immediately and after a week's visit, returned to the Twin Cities with a briefcase full of accounts of extreme distress and near starvation.

He presented the facts to Clubs, particularly the Catholic Women's Club in Session in Minneapolis. He also contacted Governor Pruess and other state officials and even stirred the Red Cross to some activity on behalf of the Indians in Minnesota.

"Naturally," he said, "the Indian Office was severely taken to task and a controversy raged, the writer himself was not spared. He was characterized as an agitator, a demagogue, and a dangerous character.

Despite a multitude of friends, there were factions who opposed the Indian priest. Interests he had opposed began a bitter campaign against him, even using some of his own people against him. Although he had staunch friends, "the shadow of amazing and overwhelming duplicity of government inspectors and employees often darkened the sun."

He describes the termination of his stay at Reserve as follows:
"Meanwhile, in September 1923, some disaffected Indians, mostly non-Catholic, led by a renegade Indian who had served a term in State prison and aided and abetted by certain government agencies… filed absurd and ridiculous charges affecting the personal conduct of the writer. The subsequent 'investigation' of the government officials disclosed nothing and the Bishop himself conducted and undertook a secret inquiry… the complainants publicly known to be irresponsible and even immoral. Two of the complainants have now admitted by affidavit that the matter was the characteristic American 'frame-up.'"

Father Gordon "secured the services of a reputable lawyer, Mr. Felix Steckymans, 640 Burnham Building, Chicago, Illinois, who carefully went over the complete charges, (Note: All of the charges were not known to us until three years later) found nothing criminal among the allegations and nothing substantiated unless the poor judgment, too willing to admitted by the writer, he considered worthy of a charge. Mr. Steckymans made several visits to the Reserve home of the missionary, conferred with numerous Indians and whites, including several of the actual complainants and reached the conclusion that the charges were so indefinite as to be ridiculous and were false. He so informed Bishop Pinten."

The following January 1924, the Right Reverend Pinten asked Father Gordon to resign his Indian Mission in Reserve, "for administrative reason, advancing no other reason except to say, 'you will be sorry' … finally threatening."

Thus Father Gordon ended his work at Reserve, as he says, "without controversy and without complaint and without bitterness."

He returned to other areas of Indian work and in May 1924 he was appointed pastor of St. Patrick's Church, Centuria, Wisconsin. It was "a period of unforgettable memories, of total disillusionment, of anguish of friends."

Father Gordon had been informed that four delegations of Indians called on the bishop and six or seven hundred signed a pathetic petition. But their plea to "Come back, our son, come back," was ignored by the authorities. (The priest believed the number of delegations was exaggerated and possibly two would be closer to the truth.)

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