1899: Passion Play of the Siwash Indians

The North American popular media of the time (books and newspapers) had a major fascination with the BC Catholic Indians’ major spectacle…

That is, the “Passion Play” depicting the final scenes in the life of Jesus.

I hadn’t known much about the origins of the Chinook Jargon “Passion Play” until reading this piece. Evidently it began as a wordless series of still-life scenes; only the hymns would’ve been in Jargon. In a handful of years it would go on to be a fully scripted play, as is documented in BC’s unique Chinuk Pipa (“Chinook Writing”) alphabet in the Jargon-language newspaper, Kamloops Wawa.

One small pointer — the Passion Play continued a half-century-old trend among Pacific Northwest Catholic missionaries to the Native people, of inventing visual presentations of Christian ideas. From the late-1830s Catholic Ladder onward, the priests found there was an interested reception for such learning aids, so these quickly became the traditional way to reinforce teachings given in PNW languages.

The St. Paul, Minnesota byline on the following is curious. Maybe that was the home base of the journalist who documented the event in the amazing detail you’re about to experience. I wonder who this writer was?

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How the Indians Took Their Parts.
Father Chirouse Produced the Play
in 1889 as an Object Lesson In His
Scheme of Missionary Labors, and
Its Success Was So Complete That
Preparations Are Under Way to
Repeat the Performance.

Written for the Evening Star. — Imagine Indians, performing the Passion Play! Picture to your mind, if you can, the solemn scenes of Christ’s passion presented in pantomime by ordinary redskins, and that, too, for the purpose of impressing the truths of Christianity more deeply upon their fellows!

Yet this idea was actually conceived by a missionary to the Siwash [sic; s(h)áwásh ‘Indian’] tribe in British Columbia a few years ago, and what is more, was actually carried out with great effect. Father Chirouse was the man who did it, and the play made such a success in 1889, that preparations are under way to repeat it.

When the priest, who is a French Canadian and a Roman Catholic, took up his work among the Siwash tribes he found them sorely in need of light. He labored early and late in the little chapels or the dingy, weather-stained tents which served for chapels, and after a time he found that his efforts were not bearing fruit of much promise.

It was comparatively easy to teach the Indians the verbal word of God, but when it came to an understanding of the real meaning of Christianity there was failure. It seemed as if the wonderful story of the Passion could not be brought clearly to them. In their own folk-lore they had many parables, many wierd [sic] stories of strange doings, and it was not long until Father Chirouse began to see that the suffering and death of the Savior was to them merely a tale, possibly told to illustrate a point.

Day after day he went among them endeavoring to impress the living truth upon their minds. He had had success in changing their moral views and had made of them moral men and women as Indians go. But he was not satisfied. There came to him in time what the good father considered a divine inspiration. It was a happy thought that bore happy fruit, and perhaps the father was right in placing its source where he did.

How the Inspiration Came.

One Sunday after morning mass, which was held in a small settlement named Seachel, the priest entered into conversasatlon with an old Siwash somewhat renowned as a medicine man. The language used was the Chinook, that universal tongue of the Indians and whites in the Northwest.

Ever mindful of his absorbing ambition in life, the teaching of the Savior’s passion, Father Chirouse repeated the old, old story to his companion, describing in detail the career of Christ and his ultimate crucifixion. When he had finally ended he glanced inquiringly at the aged Indian.

Sah-a-le Ty-ee klosche (Jesus good),” refilled the Indian rather indifferently. [sáx̣ali-táyí (t)łúsh (literally ‘above-chief good’) ‘God is good’.]

“But you believe that He suffered and died for our sins?” persisted Father Chirouse.

The Siwash thought awhile then with an inscrutable smile, he answered: See — ow-ist [sic], Pah-pah.” (I have eyes father.) [siyáxwəst, pápá ‘It’s the eyes, Father’; I notice that the writer, or the newspaper editor, or the typesetter, make it seem as if this man is saying the English command ‘see’ plus some Jargon!]


“No man-ich.” (But I did not see that.) [Apparently pidgin English ‘no’ plus nánich ‘see (it)’.]

“My son, my son, how could you see it?” exclaimed the priest fairly exasperated. “It happened almost nineteen centuries ago.”

Then he went away to think. Within three days a perfected plan rested in the brain of Father Chirouse. It was the plan of a play to be enacted by Indians for Indians, a play with living actors, and with scenes typifying the Passion of Christ.

He sought aid in prayer, and for three days and three nights invoked divine assistance, neither sleeping nor eating during that period. Then after resting awhile he began his task with confidence. His first duty was to select the actors. In the cast, if it might be so termed, he needed at least a score. Besides the saviour there were the disciples, Mary, Pilate, the guards and others. It was necessary not only to train Indians to take the parts, but what was almost as difficult, Father Chirouse had to find the costumes.

These had to be made in the village and by persons who did not know a tunic from a toga. Spears, uniforms, helmets, girdles and other paraphernalia were required together with a cross, stage and divers [sic] sets of scenery.

At first there was some Jealousy. Those given the minor casts were piqued because they had not been requested to take the more important, and those who had been left out entirely were inclined to find fault. Father Chirouse exercised diplomacy, however, and at the end of three weeks everything was in readiness for what in another walk of life would be termed a dress rehearsal.

The Programme.

The first performance was to be held in Seachel [sic, for Sechelt], the date given out being June 9, 1889. The news had traveled far and wide, and for several days before the specified time the roads and trails lending to Seachel were thronged with both Indians and whites. Visitors came from Vancouver and New Westminster, and from other places on the Canadian Pacific Railway. All the clergy in that section of British Columbia found means of rendezvous in the little native hamlet, and by the 8th of June the place had assumed the appearance of a booming city.

The morning of the 9th found a stage or platform erected on the bank of the river which flowed past Seachel. It was an ordinary woolen affair in its primary construction, but the deft hands of the Indian maidens had hidden the rough planks beneath a wealth of green foliage and beautiful flowers.

On all sides were strewn pine boughs and cones, and the balmy fragrance of balsam filled the air. The day was warm and bright and not a cloud marring the deep azure of the heavens. It seemed as if nature smiled on the scene.

The programme Father Chlrouse had arranged consisted of an open air mass to be followed by nine tableaux: One, the prayer in the garden; two, Christ before Pilate; three, the Scourging; four, The Crowning of Thorns; five. Carrying of the Cross; six, Meeting of Christ and His Mother; seven, Presenting Christ with a Trowel [this is a scene I’m unfamiliar with; can any of my readers explain?]; eight, the Crucifiction [sic], and nine, At the Foot of the Cross.

Each scene was to be in the form of a pantomime, none of the characters speaking a word. The allotted time was five minutes to each tableau with an interval of two or three minutes. There was no arrangement of curtains, no sliding scenes, no artificial effects. None were needed, indeed. The performance carried a solemnity and impressiveness not found in the theater.

At 10 o’clock, the hour set for the first tableau[,] an audience of fifty five thousand people had gathered, and the space around the platform was packed. Father Chirouse with his clerical assistants acted as manager, directors and stage hands and the opening scene took shape before the spectators.

It represented the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane accompanied by Peter and James and John to pray. The latter parts were taken by three Indian youths clad in roughly made costumes, but the character of the Savior was typified by a man of rather noble features and shapely physique. He was dressed with simple taste and wore a carefully made beard. His air was one of humility and it was plain to be seen that the importance and sacredness of his part had impressed him.

Great Effect Produced.

The platform had been set with a few boxed trees and covered with fresh grass. The three youths took their places at one end, reclining as if asleep. The Indian representing the Saviour knelt in the center with his hands clasped and his face uplifted to the blue sky above.

A low murmur came from the Indians in the audience, and a woman broke into hysterical wailing. It was evident the scene appealed strongly to them.

Ne-si-ka pa-pa klax-to mit-lite ko-pa sa-hale,” (Our Father which art in Heaven) cried one of the spectators, bowing his head. [nsayka pápá (t)łáksta míłayt sáx̣ali ‘our father(,) who is in heaven?’ — this is the typical Protestant phrasing, erroneously following English grammar in using the question-word < klaxta > as a Relative-Clause formant; compare the fully grammatical Catholic < Nsaika papa mitlait kopa
sahali > in Father Le Jeune’s “Catholic Manual”. The reporter is either quoting a non-Catholic attendee, or is cribbing from a published source such as JK Gill; both are entirely possible.

In the background partially hidden by the platform Father Chirouse and his aids were preparing the next tableau. An assistant in the audience began to chant a passion hymn, and while the intonation swelled into a resounding chorus the scene was changed.

Pilate in flowing robes, his face rather benign than stern, was seated upon an improvised throne. A crown and breast plate indicated his high office. Before him stood Christ bowing as if in token of obedience. In the rear were Jews and soldiers, some of the former evidently clamoring for Pilate’s decision. A low ripple of applause came from the audience, and then came another change.

This time it was the familiar scene of the scourging. Pilate stood up and watched with gloomy air wblle two of the Roman soldiers held their scourges over the bowed form of the Indian representing the Christ. To give added truth to the lesson, several red lines had been drawn upon the exposed back, and a number of the disciples prostrated themselves as if in an agony of grief.

Quickly following this without change of setting came the crowning of thorns which represented the fourth tableau. Then the scene was changed to represent the procession of Golgotha. It was before that point where the cross was given over to Simon, and the heavy burden rested upon the shoulders of the pseudo Savior who apparently staggered under the load.

By this time the emotions of the vast audience had reached a high pitch. Several of the priests were chanting loudly; the majority of the Indian women and some of the old men were crying and wringing their hands. On the outskirts native dogs had begun to bark, the whole creating a pandemonium which Father Chirouse hastened to check before proceeding with the sixth tableau. This he did by starting a hymn.

The Final Tableaux.

The sixth and seventh tableaux, the meeting between Christ and Mary, and the presentation of the trowel before the cross were given to the apparent satisfaction of the spectators. Then came the most important scene — the crucifixion. Until now the character of the Savior had been taken by an Indian, but it soon became evident that the two last scenes would be given with a wooden image of Christ. The Indian descended from the stage and removing the tawny beard and wig, secured a point of vantage from which he could witness the remaining tableaux.

Father Chirouse and his assistants produced from behind the platform a life-size figure of Christ. This they fastened to the cross and reverently raised it while the male choir chanted a hymn. The soldiers and the multitude as represented by the group of Indians on the platform assumed their respective positions. Finally the young Indian woman who, draped in white, and with long flowing hair, had been acting the part of Mary, knelt at the foot of the cross and clasped the wood with her arms. Thus she remained while the two Romans, one with the spear and the other with the reed bearing the eponge soaked in vinegar stood one on each side.

It was a good climax. The choir chanted brokenly, the vast audience moved restlessly, and the hubbub of groans and a great wailing broke the quiet.

As if to impress the scene even more strongly upon the Indians, Father Chirouse mounted the platform and in ringing tones repeated the story of the Passion. Then, at a sign from him, the greater part of the actors withdrew leaving Mary at the foot of the cross and several soldiers standing on guard. This was the ninth and last scene.

Five minutes later the platform was empty save for a young Indian who intoned in a sonorious [sic] voice the Lord’s prayer.

— from the Washington (DC) Evening Star of December 16, 1899, page 26, columns 3-4

This same article was reprinted, with an excellent illustration added (perhaps recopied from Kamloops Wawa), in a Georgia paper. Here is the extra visual:

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— from the Savannah (GA) Morning News of December 17, 1899, page 21, columns 4-5

What do you think?