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Cheyenne story of massacre and reconciliation mesmerizes Bethel audience

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Although convocation is a generally appreciated part of campus life at Bethel College, not much can make 300 students sit and listen in absolute silence. But Lawrence Hart can. When he sang a Cheyenne chant--sounds that Cheyenne peace chief White Antelope had made singing his death song at the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado Territory--in a Feb. 13 convocation, there was the proverbial pin-drop silence as the notes died away.

Hart, a traditional Cheyenne peace chief, a Mennonite pastor and a 1961 graduate of Bethel College from Clinton, Okla., briefly described the Sand Creek Massacre. On Nov. 28, 1864, a volunteer militia led by Col. J.M. Chivington (an ordained Methodist minister) attacked Black Kettle’s band, camped peaceably on Sand Creek, and murdered anywhere from 150 to 500 men (including White Antelope), women, children and elders.

Then Hart told about another attack on Black Kettle’s people at the Washita River in Oklahoma Territory, almost four years to the day later, on Nov. 27, 1868, by General George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. Custer’s men claimed to have killed more than 100 Cheyenne warriors, when in fact it was about 40 mostly women, children and elderly people, with another 50 taken captive. Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman Later, were among the dead. Lawrence Hart’s great-grandfather escaped.

One hundred years later, in 1968, Hart, his children and other Cheyenne living near the town of Cheyenne, Okla., took part in a centennial commemoration of the massacre, which white historians were calling "the last great battle between the U.S. Army and the Indians in Oklahoma Territory." The Cheyenne had reluctantly agreed to participate, on condition that they be permitted to bury the remains, on display in the local museum, of a Cheyenne child killed in the massacre.

The reenactment became too real when the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry, a group of men from California, joined the scene in authentic uniforms, shooting blank cartridges from authentic carbines and brandishing authentic sabers. Hart described the deep feelings of hostility this incident drew out of him, not least because the Cheyenne had not been told the Grandsons were taking part in the reenactment and they felt they had been betrayed yet again.

However, the reburial of the child’s remains proceeded. At the end of the ceremony, a gesture of reconciliation initiated by Cheyenne elders with Eric Gault, the commander of the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry, became deeply significant to Hart.

Hart’s presentation on "Reconciliation at the Washita," given at both Bethel and Hesston Colleges on Feb. 13, told a story that is not new, although probably few of the students sitting in the respective audiences had heard it. Many Mennonites first learned the story in 2001, when Bethel professor of history James Juhnke recounted it in an article in Mennonite Life and Hart himself told it on camera for a video produced by Mennonite Media called Journey toward Forgiveness. It also appeared in a book edited by John E. Sharp, Gathering at the Hearth: Stories Mennonites Tell (Mennonite Historical Committee/Herald Press, 2001).

As a Cheyenne peace chief, Hart stands in the tradition of peace chiefs such as Black Kettle, White Antelope and Lean Bear. Cheyenne peace chiefs did not carry weapons and tried to defuse tension using conciliatory words. In 1968, Lawrence Hart had been a Cheyenne peace chief for about 10 years. He knew he still had a lot to learn, he told his Bethel audience. One of the most profound lessons, which has stayed with him now for almost 40 years, was the experience near Cheyenne, Okla.

Hart was telling the story again to the groups of students to help promote a conference that will take place March 30-April 1 in Clinton. "Cheyenne, Arapaho, Mennonite: Journey from Darlington" is intended to celebrate and review the historical relationship and interconnected faith stories of Indian tribes and the first Mennonite mission begun 120 years ago when Mennonites went as educators to the Darlington Agency in Oklahoma. The Historical Committee of Mennonite Church USA is the conference sponsor. Hart, Juhnke and Sharp (an instructor in history at Hesston College), along with former Bethel English faculty member Raylene Hinz-Penner, are some of the planners.

A year ago, Hinz-Penner and Hart appeared together on Bethel’s convocation stage, where Hart told about a more than decade-long effort to have unidentified Indian remains repatriated to designated burial grounds around the United States, one of them at Clinton. Part of the conference will include a dedication ceremony for this burial site. Another planned event is a visit by all conference participants to the site of the Washita Massacre, now a national monument.

The Historical Committee of Western District Conference is sponsoring a bus trip that will take in some of the conference. Information is available from the Western District office. The web site for the "Journey from Darlington" conference is

White Antelope’s death song at Sand Creek, Hart said, was only syllables, but later Black Kettle added these words: "Father, have pity on me.... Nothing lasts long except the earth and the mountains."

"As a minister," Hart said, "when I hear these words, I have to compare them to the biblical text, from Psalm 90: ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.’"

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