Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dakota War--VIII



I am deeply taken by the life and work of Rev. Stephen R. Riggs, Presbyterian missionary to the Dakota, who, by 1862, when the whole region descended into chaos, had worked among Native people in the Minnesota River valley for almost 25 years. In his memoir, Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux (1880), Riggs confesses painfully that when first he heard the horrific tidings of slaughter, he wondered whether all his work was in vain. “But often the thought came to us,” he says, “what will become of our quarter-century’s work among the Dakota. It seemed to be lost.”

My interest in Riggs arises from an understanding that perhaps no single cultural force was so intensely destructive of the Dakota way of life as the work of Christian missionaries. Confessing Jesus Christ as savior changed human beings, altered passions and behavior, and prompted those who did to renounce sinful ways they often simply equated with their own Dakota culture. I am myself a believer, and I know the impulse of the gospel imperative to go into all the world and preach the gospel, a command given by none other than the ascending Lord. I understand Rev. Stephen R. Riggs calling, and that of his contemporaries, who wished, more than anything, to bring all God’s children home to his love.

In 1862, there were dozens, maybe hundreds of Christian Dakota, some of them—maybe many of them—half-breeds. Those who were Christian believers frequently distinguished themselves by such behaviors as wearing the white man's clothes, cutting their hair, and becoming “farmer Indians.” In many cases, the traditionalists hated “farmer Indians” and mixed bloods just as deeply as they did the white people who’d stolen their land.

What makes the story even more confusing—which is to say, more human—is the fact that in the intense heat of all the horror, more than a few “Christian” Dakota became as savage any, as if their conversions had never amounted to anything more than a haircut.

On Monday night, when word of what was unimaginable first reached Riggs’ mission compound, forty miles away from the Lower Sioux Agency, one of those believers, a man named Paul, came to Riggs and his wife and begged for blue cloth, because he knew that only if he shed his white man’s clothes and returned to a breechcloth could he escape death at the hands of his own people. It must have been mystifying—and very scary.

That evening, Mary Riggs put her children to bed; but as more and more refugees, some of them hurt, came into the compound and told their stories, and as more and more of the “Christian” Dakota let the Riggs know that this fierce activity wasn’t simply some drunken spat, those people most in danger at the mission knew they had to act. Riggs led his people in prayer, and together they sang hymns, an Isaac Watts’ version of Psalm 46, “God is the refuge of his saints,” Riggs remembers.

God is the refuge of His saints,
When storms of sharp distress invade;
Ere we can offer our complaints,
Behold Him present with His aid.

Loud may the troubled ocean roar;
In sacred peace our souls abide;
While every nation, every shore,
Trembles, and dreads the swelling tide.

There is a stream, whose gentle flow
Supplies the city of our God,
Life, love, and joy, still guiding through,
And wat’ring our divine abode.

And then they left their homes behind, after midnight, almost completely unarmed, bound for an island in the river where they hoped they might be safe to ride out the ugliness.

The next morning, Riggs himself stole back to the compound to hear the latest reports. What he heard made it clear to him that the several dozen people in his makeshift, island refugee camp couldn’t safely stay any longer where they assumed they could.

When they left the next afternoon, afraid of ambush, they met other parties of men and women and children—some of them deeply traumatized, in shock, also trying to escape. A man wounded in an attack came up out of nowhere it seemed; they made room for him in one of the company’s few wagons.

Late that afternoon, the rain began and didn’t quit until the next day. “The first night we were out, some of smaller children called for home,” Riggs wrote. “The next night some of the older children would have cried had it been any use.”

By Thursday morning, as they headed for faraway Henderson, they were already out of food. They gathered wood from a grove, killed one of their cows, and roasted it over the fire. They had no utensils or pots and pans. And at that moment, a photographer escaping with them took this picture, one of the few photographs of the entire 1862 Dakota war.


On Friday, they abandoned their original plans when they came close enough—16 miles--to Ft. Ridgley and determined that they would seek shelter there. However, one of their number sneaked close enough to the fort, and what he found—burning buildings, masses of frantic homesteaders, considerable fighting—convinced him that the beleaguered company should return to the original plan, which meant, of course, more travel. They had no provisions, and, of course, they believed that at any moment they could be attacked. And about that, they weren’t wrong.

What was worse, however, was the steady witness they had to horrible destruction—as they stumbled along, they found burning homes, and frequent dead and burned and mutilated corpses. On the Sabbath, they came to a crossroads, where many others were congregated. In the presence of greater numbers, they felt at least somewhat safe—for the first time.

There are far, far more horrible stories than the story of the Riggs party’s desperate escape, but Riggs is a central character in this entire sorry tale. He’d studied the Dakota language and written a primer, a book you can still order from Barnes and Noble, Dakota Grammar with Texts and Ethnography, a book that not only describes the Dakota language, but provides the texts of traditional stories and myths from Dakota life.

He was a missionary who preached the gospel of Christ, a gospel that transformed new believers in ways that sometimes angered the traditionalists, as well it might. But he was not brutal or xenophobic. He was a 19th century American evangelical missionary, subject to all the prejudices we might assume someone from his era was. But he certainly didn’t hate the people he served.

And despite the fact that he and his wife and family had to run for their lives once the war began, he plays a continuing central role. He and his family left his mission compound behind, but he simply would not go away. Rev. Stephen R. Riggs will return.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Confessing Jesus Christ as savior changed human beings, altered passions and behavior, and prompted those who did to renounce sinful ways they often simply equated with their own European culture. Oh that it would have been so!