In 1875, the year before the Battle at Little Big Horn, a 30-year-old single woman named Mary C. Collins, living in eastern Iowa, accepted an appointment as a missionary/teacher on the Great Sioux Reservation of the Dakota territories. She had wanted to go to Micronesia, but when she failed the physical exam because of what the doctor called weak lungs, she accepted a teaching position offered her at a place the Lakota had called “Ti Tanka Ohe,” on the east bank of the Missouri River, several days’ travel north of the nearest town of any size, Yankton, South Dakota.
One day that very first week while resting on her 300-mile trip to the mission, Miss Collins left the wagon on which she was riding, and took a short walk toward a telegraph line. “I went off my myself to be near the pole,” she writes in her autobiography, “and I could have hugged it as it seemed to me a hand reaching back home. . .so far away.”
There were, she reports, many things she never forgot in those first years on a windblown and spacious world of grass and clouds and eternal sky. But one event seems remarkable.
In 1877, totally unprepared, she found herself terrifyingly alone, on horseback, in the very eye of a full-fledged prairie blizzard. She was on the path to a small school for women that had just been established, no more than three miles away when the storm hit. But prairie blizzards, with their overpowering winds, can reduce vision to almost nothing; and there she was, alone, on her horse.
She tried to hurry him along, she says, “but facing the storm was hard work and he would not hurry.” With the sideways snow cutting through what little warmth protected her, all directions seemed non-existent. She had no choice except fear the worst until suddenly a Lakota man, someone she didn’t recognize at all, someone completely out of nowhere and alone in his wagon, appeared from behind her.
Miss Collins never forgot what happened. He “jumped out,” she says, “and put me into his wagon, carried me to the school house, rubbed my frozen ears with snow, and built a fire for me.” What he’d done—this man named Bears Ear—was save the young woman’s life.
By her own description, Collins explains how she had been full of enthusiasm for teaching her students and preaching the gospel of love, but the unpresuming selflessness of her rescuer astounded her because even though Bears Ear was not a Christian believer, she says that in those hours when they waited for the snow to stop, “he cared for me most tenderly.”
In the topsy-turvy world of divine grace, teachers become students.