Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 16:3 (Summer 1996). Copyright © 1996 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Although DeSmet loved native people, believed in their innate goodness-even idealized them in the case of the Flatheads-and tolerated their cultures, he did not fully understand their life ways and failed to grasp how they perceived the easy Christianity he offered them. A belief that Indians could shed their culture and become fully "civilized" in twenty years proved exceptionally naive. Most of all, with the evidence right before his eyes, DeSmet seemed to miss the greatest irony in his life: that in attempting to save the Potawatomie, Osage, Sioux, Arikara, Mandan, Kalispel, Flatheads, Blackfeet, Crow, and Spokane he himself unwittingly abetted their dispossession and destruction.

Most of us fail to see or accept our own contradictions; to expect more of DeSmet is to expect too much. The more crucial question is whether his biographer has detected ambiguities and dilemmas in a noble, admirable life. Robert Carriker has. This, coupled with thorough research and graceful writing, makes his book the best biography of JeanPierre DeSmet yet written.