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Mennonites and Indians explore historic connections

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CLINTON, OKLA. -- When Lawrence Hart, a Mennonite pastor and a Cheyenne peace chief, visited the Limmat River site near Zurich where early Anabaptist leader Felix Manz was drowned, he couldn’t help but remember another of his spiritual ancestors, Black Kettle. Hart told the story as he stood on the banks of another river, the Washita in western Oklahoma, where Black Kettle--who was also a peace chief and whom Hart calls, with Manz, "one of the great martyrs"--died, shot down by members of the Seventh Cavalry under the leadership of General George Armstrong Custer on November 27, 1868. Standing around Hart were participants in a conference sponsored by the Historical Committee of Mennonite Church USA, "Journey from Darlington: Cheyenne, Arapaho, Mennonite."

The conference was organized to review and celebrate the historic relationship and interconnected faith stories of American Indians and Mennonites. The General Conference Mennonite Church initiated the very first Mennonite mission in 1880 when Samuel and Susanna Haury went to the Darlington Indian Agency school near El Reno in what was then Indian Territory.

According to Hart, 2006 is the 110-year anniversary of the founding of the first Indian Mennonite church. The official date is 1898, when the first solid walls went up, Hart said. But he and his wife, Betty, date the founding of the church from 1896, when M.M. Horsch began holding services in brush arbors along the Washita River and Turtle Creek.

All of the plenary sessions of the conference, except for the visit to the Washita massacre site and a building dedication, took place in the exhibit hall at the Frisco Conference Center in Clinton, Okla., where the speakers stood onstage under a small brush arbor meant to commemorate those early days of Mennonite mission.

The conference, held March 30-April 2, was full of references to Indian and Mennonite relationships that went beyond those that can be identified by dates.

Raylene Hinz-Penner, an English faculty member at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., gave the conference’s opening address. She spent the last four years interviewing Hart and writing Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Lawrence Hart, Mennonite, to be published in November by Cascadia Publishing.

The ancestors of the Cheyenne people crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to North America millennia ago, she said. Some Mennonite ancestors came to North America from places not far from Siberia.

Despite vast differences in Mennonite and Cheyenne culture and experiences, Hinz-Penner said, "the peace tradition of the Cheyenne-Arapaho people seemed to confirm the destiny of these two peoples to meet on the Great Plains.

"I see this conference as an exploration of destiny, and of our journeys separately and together," she continued. "I found Lawrence Hart to be calling me home to my own Mennonite roots and values through his values and traditions."

Friday and Saturday afternoons of the conference were devoted to concurrent workshops dealing with topics such as Rudolphe Petter, the Swiss linguist and Mennonite missionary who first translated Scriptures and hymns into Cheyenne, led by Willis Busenitz, Busby, Mont.; Cheyenne influence on the poetry of Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr, the daughter of missionary J.B. Ediger, led by Ann Hostetler, Goshen, Ind.; traditional foods of the Cheyenne, led by Betty E. Hart; basic Cheyenne language, led by Lawrence Hart’s sister, Lenora Hart Holliman; and a comparison of Custer and Samuel Haury, led by James Juhnke, North Newton, Kan.

In her workshop, Kimberly Schmidt, associate professor of history at Eastern Mennonite University, presented a new theory with which she is working, that the sewing circles started among Cheyenne women by Mennonite missionary women helped the Cheyenne women preserve and perpetuate their long-standing sewing society culture, through which they used to prepare the buffalo robes that were so important to Cheyenne life and economy.

One of the plenary speakers, Clyde Ellis, professor of history at Elon (N.C.) University who has done extensive work with Kiowa-Apache-Comanche life and culture in southern Oklahoma, seemed to support Schmidt’s theory.

Unlike most academics, who tend to see Christianity as incompatible with Indian culture and tradition, Ellis believes that Christian missionaries and the establishment of churches helped the Indians, who were being forced onto reservations under President U.S. Grant’s "peace policy" of the late 1800s, to "find avenues for respect, influence and leadership."

The church helped to nurture a sense of community and identity among Indian peoples, he said. They came to Christianity with strong spiritual/religious traditions and, for the Kiowa, Apache and Comanche at least, found "the Jesus way a good way for Indians to travel" and that doing so didn’t "necessarily mean giving up all Indian-ness."

Both James Krabill, Elkhart, Ind., an executive for Mennonite Mission Network, and Beth Graybill, Lancaster, Pa., chair of the Historical Committee, noted that the story of the historical relationship between Mennonites and Indian people is not one with which people from the "Mennonite Church" part of MC USA are familiar.

Graybill said that the conference had made her realize "as a person of Anabaptist/Mennonite faith, that’s my story as well." She spoke of the value of hearing about "how God has moved through the missionaries, sometimes in spite of them. This is a different view from the predominant university one" of missionaries as colonizers and oppressors, she said.

James Juhnke, another member of the planning committee, said that he found the conference to be "a great success." One reason was what he saw as "the trajectory from tragedy toward reconciliation. We didn’t get stuck wallowing in guilt about what’s been done. Return to the Earth gives us something we can do now."

The day after visiting the site of the Washita massacre of 1868 (Lawrence Hart was instrumental in having it declared a national historic site in 1997), conference participants joined in the dedication of the Return to the Earth repatriation and reburial site at the Cheyenne Cultural Center just outside Clinton.

Through Return to the Earth, Mennonite Central Committee and 70 other faith-based groups will assist in burying Indian remains declared to be "culturally unidentifiable" in four regional cemeteries around the country. One of these--the first to be dedicated--will be located on the property of the Cheyenne Cultural Center.

Conference participants stood on a concrete pad that is the foundation of a building--to be raised by Amish volunteers--that will house remains before they are ceremonially reburied. The dedication began with five Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs blessing the foundation. It included remarks from Hart, representatives from the Oklahoma Indian Methodist Conference and the Council of Presidents of Religions for Peace USA, and Sherry Hutt from Washington, D.C., overseer of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

"Let the people go home," Hutt said. "That’s what NAGPRA is all about--giving place to those who have no place to go. The law calls them ‘culturally unidentifiable,’ but the ancestors know who they are."

At the end of the dedication ceremony, everyone was invited to take home a Return to the Earth study guide, with the hope that Mennonite congregations will become involved in the project through prayer support, financial gifts and building the square cedar boxes that will hold the remains.

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