Uncovering Native History in the US Capitol

The history behind a 19th century painting at the U.S. Capitol has been revealed, it's the oldest building in Idaho, the Cataldo Mission.

An interesting, historical painting has been hiding amongst thousands of feet of 19th century paintings in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Thousands walk past it, yet no one has known what this little painting represents or that it tells an incredible story dating back 165 years. Of all the murals and frescoes on display there, it shows the only building that still stands—it’s located in northern Idaho. In fact, it’s Idaho’s oldest building, the Old Mission of the Sacred Heart, or simply the Cataldo Mission.

That incredible history revolves around the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. They had heard of powerful medicine men, or black robes, and went to St. Louis to ask that the black robes come to live with them. Father Pierre-Jean De Smet arrived in 1842. A mission was built along the St. Joe River, but it flooded out and a second was constructed, the Mission of the Sacred Heart, near what is now Cataldo, Idaho.

Wikipedia/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Brady-Handy Photograph Collection

Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, 1801-1873) was a Catholic missionary to Indian Territory.

Italian Jesuit Antonio Ravalli arrived in 1850 and took over construction of this mission. Tin cans were adapted to create chandeliers, statues were carved by knife, the blue of the ceiling was from the juice of huckleberries. The work was done by the local tribe, the Schitsu’umsh, or the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. No nails were used in construction and yet it still stands, and is still used. The tribe makes an annual pilgrimage of roughly 50 miles from their reservation near Plummer, Idaho every August to pray and rejoice and remember that part of their history.

The painting of the Old Mission is in the Brumidi Corridors on the first floor of the Senate building. Amy Burton is assistant curator for the U.S. Capitol and had been familiar with this little painting, passing it frequently, but she was unaware of the history and location of the scene. A few years ago she was researching a 12-volume report, which was printed during the 1855-1861 era entitled “Pacific Railroad Survey.” It contained lithographs for eight landscape medallions. She recognized one of these unnamed medallions. She described it as her “aha moment.”

On July 29, Burton came from Washington, D.C. to the Cataldo Mission at the invitation of Idaho Senator Jim Risch. Burton, Risch and his wife Vicki, Coeur d’Alene tribal members and interested others gathered to hear the history and the almost miraculous discovery of this little landscape medallion. Burton explained the remarkable coincidences that led to identifying the landscape medallion.

Photo by Jack McNeel

Tribal Chairman Chief James Allan, Amy Burton is assistant curator for the U.S. Capitol, and Idaho Senator Jim Risch visited the Cataldo Mission on July 29 to hear the history and the story of the discovery of the landscape medallion.

Risch thanked the Coeur d’Alene Tribe “for hosting this event in this historic building that they built. It always gives me goose bumps when I walk in here and think about this building being the oldest structure in the state.”

“Cataldo Mission was built in 1853 by my family, my tribe. My people walked these shores and walked this land. My ancestors helped build this wonderful church,” Tribal Chairman Chief James Allan said. “When Ronald Reagan talked about that ‘shining light on the hill’ I think of the Cataldo Mission and what it means to our people, and the visions of the missionaries and what they wanted to do.”

“I’m humbled,” Allan commented, when he heard this site, which means so much to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, has held a special place in the U.S. Capitol for 150 years.

Photo by Jack McNeel

The Cataldo Mission was built in 1853 by members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

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