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Crossing borders to common ground: Poet’s biography of peace chief a journey of personal discovery

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As a poet, an essayist and a teacher of writers (from college undergraduates to medium-security prison inmates), Raylene Hinz-Penner has done plenty of publishing. However, when her first full-length book came off the press this month, it was a volume, she says, that “I never intended to write.”

Cascadia Publishing has just released Hinz-Penner’s Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite. It is part biography, part memoir and part church history without completely fitting any of those categories.

When Hinz-Penner, an instructor of English at Washburn University in Topeka, spoke to a local audience late last fall at Life Enrichment, an educational series for senior citizens held at Bethel College, about the process of writing the book, she said, “Recently for a writers’ conference at Bluffton, Ohio, I talked about [what it took] to write this book – there, I emphasized borders rather than common ground.”

Those borders, she says, included geography (Hinz-Penner grew up in southwestern Kansas, Hart in west central Oklahoma); gender and age (Hinz-Penner is “a 50-ish woman” and Hart “a 70-ish man”); culture (Hinz-Penner is white, of European Mennonite immigrant descent, and Hart is a Cheyenne peace chief); and, as mentioned above, genre.

However, the seeds for the book and Hinz-Penner’s role in it were first sown at the burial service of Hinz-Penner’s aunt, Ruth (Hinz) Fransen, which Hart, a Mennonite pastor, conducted in the Bergthal Mennonite Church cemetery near Corn, Okla., in 1997. There, Hinz-Penner says, she first began to realize the shared heritage of two peoples, the immigrant Mennonites and relocated Cheyennes. She wrote a poem about that particular event, titled “Ceremony.”

The experience began to root and flower in Hinz-Penner when, on May 24, 1998, Hart gave the commencement address to Bethel’s 105th graduating class. Both Hart and his wife Betty are Bethel graduates (1961 and 1957, respectively) and Hinz-Penner’s husband, Doug Penner, as Bethel College president at the time had invited Hart to speak at commencement that year.

One of Hart’s images in that speech made a powerful impression on Hinz-Penner. He called his presence on the Memorial Hall stage that afternoon an “axis mundi” – a connector between earth and heaven infused with the sacred, also symbolized by the Christian cross and by the center pole of the lodge built for the Sun Dance ceremony.

“I began asking theologians and Mennonite historians why they weren’t writing Lawrence Hart’s story,” Hinz-Penner says. “In my head, I had located the teller of the story in the discipline of history – frontier, Mennonite, Cheyenne. I thought a person of Native American descent should write this story.”

Then one day, Hinz-Penner simply decided to go to Clinton, Okla., where Hart lives, and interview him. “My people are Southern, we’re Oklahomans – we talk,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can figure this out if [Lawrence and I] talk.’”

Part way into the interview, she says, she realized she hadn’t done her homework – she didn’t know even the minimal chronology of the Oklahoma Cheyenne story. She began reading Cheyenne history. She went back for more interviews.

“I had a few questions, but I let him lead me,” she recalls. “I really did not want to come with preconceived historical notions and fit Lawrence into a historical context, pre-reading him. I wanted to hear firsthand how he saw his life – to hear Cheyenne lifeways and history from him.”

Finally, she began to write. But “I found I was writing my story of discovering his story,” she says. “Early on, an editor took a look at a book plan and a couple of chapters and told me I had better figure out whether I wanted to write his story or mine, to get myself out of the book.

“I sat on this and brooded for six months,” she continues, “and realized I couldn’t write a traditional biography nor did I want to. I didn’t want all the details for footnotes. I didn’t want to dig out all the intricacies of Lawrence’s life or to psychoanalyze him. I just wanted to follow a tribal story as he saw it. I wanted his voice on the page. I wanted his wisdom. He is 73 years old. I wanted to hear how he saw his journey. And I wanted to record it as I heard it. By now, I loved trying to get into words what was happening in the interviews and that included what was happening to me.”

Hinz-Penner decided, she says, that she could not tell the story of Lawrence Hart “with the energy or spirit I wanted it to have” unless she recorded her own journey of discovering Hart’s life journey.

“Maybe the important discovery for me in writing this book was the way that story itself became the driving force for me as a writer,” she says. “I could not write Lawrence’s story without writing my own. It became my own tribute to the power of life stories. Eventually, I saw that also important in my writing this book was sharing with readers the experience of my own discovery of the Cheyenne people’s history and ways, with Lawrence Hart as a manifestation of that lifestyle.

“Had I recognized [at the time] what I was doing, I probably would never have done it,” she says. “I interviewed a renowned Cheyenne peace chief who was modestly reluctant to tell his story, sworn to secrecy on many tribal matters, reared in an oral tradition in which the storyteller is free to adapt his story to the situation and the teller. At my request, not his, I taped his stories long before he had any trust in me.”

Hinz-Penner would tape an interview with Hart, type the transcript and then follow up references with research. Sometimes that included retracing Hart’s physical steps. She went to the Four Corners area in Colorado where a young Lawrence had accompanied his grandfather, John Peak Hart, to minister to the traditional enemies of the Cheyenne, the Ute Mountain Utes. She visited the first and prototypical Indian boarding school site (now a war college) in Carlisle, Pa., where Hart’s grandfather attended. She went to events where Hart spoke and read many of his speeches in written form. She interviewed Betty Hart.

“I could have interviewed many people about Lawrence but chose not to do that,” Hinz-Penner says. “I simply wanted to follow his voice where it led me.”

As the book took shape, Hinz-Penner looked for images that would hold it together. Among them were the axis mundi as well as sacred ground, which became the title, and values she and Hart held in common.

“Chief Hart and I shared some key experiences that made this kind of a project more possible,” she says. “We share a faith and a denomination. We share Mennonite traditions and are alums of the same Mennonite college. I have often thought about the Apostle Paul’s unity passage in Ephesians: ‘one body and one Spirit, . . .one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God . . . (4:5).’”

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