The Nez Perce Project


Fr. Joseph Marie Cataldo, S.J., was among the Jesuit missionaries to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-nineteenth century. The Nez Perce Tribe in particular had his devotion. He translated into Nez Perce the Gospels as well as numerous prayers and hymns, some of which have lived to the present day in the memory of members of the Tribe. His translation work exemplified putting reason in service to faith, learning the culture and language of the people he served well enough to bring into it central texts of the faith. To facilitate the learning of the Nez Perce language, the Faith and Reason Institute has launched the Nez Perce Project.


Fr. Cataldo translated each Gospel individually into Nez Perce and also wrote a synoptic life of Jesus in Nez Perce, drawing on all four Gospels. He prepared a lectionary, prayers, hymns, and many other texts. In 1909 when he was seventy-two he handwrote a hymn book with seventeen songs in Nez Perce, complete with musical scores. This is evidently the oldest written record for words and music of any song in any native American language in all of North America. While most of the hymns and prayers are translations from Latin originals, he also wrote original songs and prayers in Nez Perce.

In 2008 Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, then President of Gonzaga University, authorized Dr. Catherine Brown Tkacz, his Special Consultant on Rare Books and Manuscripts, to mount an exhibition on Fr. Cataldo's translation work. This proved to be the starting point for a new collaboration with the Tribe. Several members of the Tribe honored the University by attending the exhibition's reception at which three of the hymns were sung. Some of the Nez Perce knew one of these hymns from memory, and the idea of producing a new edition of the hymnal was born. In Spring of 2009 all the hymns were sung at a workshop at Lewis Clark State College, with useful input from members of the Tribe and from other scholars in Nez Perce.

When Fr. Spitzer completed his presidency, Dr. Tkacz continued the work on her own and found a pair of anonymous donors to fund a student assistant who transcribed the musical scores into computer software in order to produce printable music. Dr. Tkacz also included several prayers in Nez Perce in the new edition. In 2011 the Faith and Reason Institute became the sponsor for this project. Another pair of donors, Patrick and Mary Griffith, generously funded the printing and mailing of this new edition in 2012.

In 2012-13, the 125th anniversary of Fr. Cataldo's founding of Gonzaga College, two presentations of the new materials were given. In the fall of 2012, the hymns were the focus, with a small group singing three of the hymns. In the spring of 2013, the prayers were the focus, and again some of the hymns were sung. Also, this website was launched in Fall of 2012, with a link to the YouTube recording of the 2012 presentation with singing.

Resources on Native American Texts

A wealth of texts in Nez Perce - and indeed in a wide range of other Native American languages - is preserved in the Archives of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, formerly housed in Special Collections at Gonzaga University. These archives are no longer available through Gonzaga University. This valued resource is currently being integrated into the holdings of the Jesuit Archives and Research Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Researchers are encouraged to contact the Center for a time estimate of when materials will become available for reference service.