The Wild West of Yester-Year

Louise Siuwheem
By Rachel Kovaciny

You’ve never heard of Louise Siuwheem before? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either until I ran across an article about the oldest building in Idaho, the Cataldo Mission, built with the help of Louise and her family. That led me to reading more about this remarkable Native woman and the influence she had on the people of her whole tribe.

In April 1842, a Jesuit priest named Father Pierre-Jean De Smet arrived among the Coeur d’Alene tribe in what is now Idaho. The chief hailed his arrival as a fulfillment of a vision had by his father, the great Chief Circling Raven. The vision involved angels in black robes visiting the native people from heaven to teach them of a great spirit, and a robed Jesuit missionary seemed to fit that vision. The Coeur d’Alene tribe welcomed the priest and his teachings. No one embraced Father De Smet’s Gospel message more fully than the chief’s daughter, Siuwheem (sometimes spelled Sighouin). Her people revered her for being a wise and gentle woman, and when she and her Spokane husband Polotkin asked for baptism, many of their people followed their example. 

After being baptized, Siuwheem and Polotkin took on the names Louise and Adolph and pledged all their worldly goods to helping Father De Smet and his fellow priests. When the Jesuit priests built a new mission near Lake Coeur d’Alene, Louise moved her husband and their three sons onto the grounds so they could assist the priests in every way. Louise worked as a translator for the priests, even translating hymns and various Bible passages into her native language. Eventually, the missionaries made her the head teacher at their mission. Not everyone in the tribe converted to Christianity so readily, and Louise would boldly confront her tribe members who spoke against the missionaries. Stories exist of her confronting medicine men in their own lodges. And there are legends she even saved her tribe twice from war with neighboring tribes.

It is said that, when a large Spokane war party attacked her village, Louise Siuwheem picked up a wooden cross, held it above her head, and advanced to meet the warriors. Her people followed behind her, and the sight of a woman marching unafraid to meet them so confused the Spokane warriors, they retreated and never menaced the village again. There is another legend that says a Nez Perce war chief challenged the Coeur d’Alene to a battle, and her people chose Louise to give their response. She told the chief her people were Christians now and not interested in war, and they would not fight the Nez Perce as long as the Nez Perce stayed on the other side of the lake. But that, if attacked, her people would defend themselves. Her speaking convinced the Nez Perce war chief to change his mind.

We cannot confirm those legends by any records or documentation, but the Coeur d’Alene tribe has handed them down for generations, praising Louise Siuwheem for being a wise, brave leader who helped and protected her people. We know that she was an open, loving woman who adopted two disabled children whose parents did not want them. She opened her home to any who needed counsel, love, or shelter. Because she dedicated much of her time and wisdom to aiding young people, her people called her “Good Grandmother.” 


Louise Siuwheem died in 1853, surrounded by loved ones singing a hymn. Her entire tribe mourned her. They buried her on the grounds of a second Jesuit mission she and her family helped build, the Cataldo Mission. Every year, Coeur d’Alene tribespeople still travel to this mission in mid-August to honor her memory. Though no one knows just where her grave lies anymore, her great-granddaughter had a monument erected at the mission in 1985 in memory of Louise Siuwheem and all she did for her people.