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Nez Perce leader is also a Presbyterian pastor

Mary Jane Miles energized to serve God and serve Nez Perce. Photo courtesy of the Nez Perce Tribe Communications Office

By Mary Stamp

At 83, Mary Jane Miles serves two churches as an ordained Presbyterian minister, is vice president of the Nez Perce Tribal Council and dances at powwows.

To combine her Christian and Nez Perce traditions and values was once not possible. Missionaries told Nez Perce to give up their cultural practices and beliefs when they became Christian.

Mary Jane not only weaves together traditional Christian and traditional Nez Perce values and practices, but also shared how she did that in her dissertation about the intersection of those traditions for the doctoral degree she earned in 2014 from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Jeremiah 33:3 is the basis of her call to ministry, which she received at Camp Spalding. The verse says: "Call to me and I will answer. I will show you great things, things you would not imagine," she said.

"God is a big God and continues to amaze me," Mary Jane said. "I have seen things I never thought I would see. I have abundant blessings as I serve."

Many Nez Perce are Christian because the Nez Perce once believed white men would bring "The Book." Missionaries came. Two teachers, MacBeth sisters—Sue, who came in 1873, and Kate, who came in 1879—taught scriptures to seven young men who were ordained and went to different tribes to share the Gospel, Mary Jane said.

Many Nez Perce became Christian. Today about half the tribe—mostly older people—are Christian, and half—mostly younger people—are returning to the traditional roots of the Seven Drums.

Mary Jane seeks to bridge the divide.  At funerals, the traditions are combined at times.

"I merge the Seven Drums and Christian service, because I see our common values," said Mary Jane, sharing insights from her dissertation on being a Christian Indian. "I am a Christian minister and wear a wingdress skirt when I dance at powwows.

"I realize Jesus was from the tribe of Judah and a tribal person," she noted.

"I am proud to be Nez Perce. I realize I did not need to leave my cultural roots behind to go to church," she said. "There is beauty in the regalia people make and wear to dance. There is spirituality in hunting and fishing traditions when we hunt or fish to provide food to feed our family. There is spirituality when women dig roots and celebrate the first roots of the year."

She sees the similarity with Old Testament records of festivals of the Israelites taking animals and plants from the land for food.

"We are tied to the land, as they were tied to the land," Mary Jane said.

Another shared value is relationships with people. Nez Perce revere their extended family and call each other relatives, even those not in their family.

"If we grew up together in the same home, we call each other 'my sister' or 'my brother.' We call each other relative names," she explained.

Traditional Nez Perce legends are about the river and animals, who are "our four-legged brothers. Nez Perce have a high regard for creatures," she said. "Christianity shares those values. Job 12: 7-13 begins, 'Ask the animals…the birds in the sky…the plants of the earth, and they will teach you.'"

Mary Jane was living in an elder complex when she felt called to ministry.

A churchgoer all her life, she grew up on a ranch in Kooskia before moving her senior year to Lapwai.

"Summers in high school, I visited my aunt in Riverside, Calif., near Hollywood. She invited her nieces to work as maids in the homes of the glamorous. Auntie taught us how to dress and have good posture," Mary Jane said, commenting that her aunt had no children. Later she learned that girls at the Riverside Boarding School were sterilized.

After high school in 1958, Mary Jane went to Bacone Junior College in Muskogee, Okla., a Christian school for Native Americans from many tribes. Because an uncle gave her piano lessons from first grade on, she thought she would be a musician, but changed to social sciences after working a summer in Albuquerque for Save the Children Foundation.

After she left the Southwest in 1963, she did secretarial work while going to night school at Lewis and Clark State College in Lewiston. She moved from secretarial work to the reservation library, where she became interested in Native American history.

In the 1980s, Mary Jane earned a bachelor's degree in social science and began working as a behavioral counselor at the tribal clinic in Lapwai.

By then her adult son was an artist who traveled with an American Indian dance group.

"Teaching the Bible with no education, I asked the church if I should go to seminary. They said yes. I moved from a senior center to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena," she said.

"In 1998, I went to Pasadena. I had loved the Los Angeles area and wanted to go back. After graduating in 2000, I was ordained at the annual Talmaks Camp Meeting for the Indian churches. After a year, I was called to serve a church on the Navajo Reservation. Five years later, I was called to serve a Tohono O'odham Nation community in Arizona on the Mexican border."

When her son, who worked in Hollywood as a fashion designer for TV soap operas, became terminally ill, she brought him home to Lapwai in 2008. In grief, she stayed to get back on her feet.

Second Presbyterian Church in Kamiah asked her to be a supply preacher after the pastor left. Then First Presbyterian called her in 2009. She has served those churches since then.

In 2015, she ran for the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, concerned that older people needed assisted living and nursing care. She served two three-year terms and was chair for two years. After losing an election, she remained active and ran again, aware that the council needed to be reminded about care for elders.

"The Lord has put the call on my heart and has given me energy," Mary Jane said. "I enjoy the people, but we lost many to COVID and are losing younger people to cancer."

All of the 20 to 30 people in each of the two churches she serves grew up in the area, except those from Youth with a Mission.

Mary Jane has been involved with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women since she went to a summer conference on violence against women at Vancouver Theological School and learned from members of the First Nations of Canada. She continues to support that effort.

"Indian women's worth is often overlooked. The lack of respect for women and the overlapping layers of tribal and community justice systems are behind in their justice for women," she said. "Native women, however, are rising up to educate themselves and join the fray to seek justice."

"Nez Perce are remembering our legends, the bedtime stories my grandmother told me. The legends were about coyote and brother salmon who gave his life so we could eat. Salmon would go from Selway Falls to the ocean and then make it back through dams to the creek at Selway Falls, where they would spawn and die," said Mary Jane, who is proud of the young people studying and speaking the language to keep it alive.

She did not learn the Nimiipuu language because her parents did not speak it with her. They wanted her to go to school and be proficient in English.

"So as tribal chair, I asked young people to tell me what to say in Nez Perce. I would begin by telling who I am," she said.

Mary Jane is grateful for the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest's campaign to raise funds for repairs to keep the six Indian churches safe places for people to gather and worship. Those churches are hosting the Sept. 21 presbytery meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Clarkston.

For information, call 208-791-1338 or email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September 2023