I asked questions about the college because I knew there was one on the reservation, that it was somewhere there in town, somewhere in Santee, Nebraska, and that it was new. We hadn't seen it while riding around the streets.
The woman behind the desk gave me clear directions. "You take a right out of the parking lot, a left at the stop sign, then go down to the river, turn right and just follow the road past our church."
I loved the way she said "our church." At that moment, the church became far more important to me than the college, which was, as I thought, shiny new. The church was not. It needs a paint job, but then lots of things do on most reservations.
We got out of the car--I wanted to see if there was a composition in the sparsely populated cemetery just next door, about a half dozen graves. But the land behind it was so very Great Plains-ish that I thought I could do it. I didn't. You have to be great to get so much wide land and unending sky into a camera lens. Here's what I got. You had to be there.
We went into the church, which was open--for some reason, that didn't surprise me. It was Episcopal, and it was old, but it was--except for a lousy paint job--nicely kept. After all, the woman in the museum had called it "our church."
We'd just walked through the tribe's little museum, where hand-made posters commemorate the 1862 Dakota War and make heroes out of thirty-some warriors (some of them undoubtedly innocent) who were hung in the largest mass execution in American history. It took my breath away, really. I've been greatly sympathetic with the Dakota people for what happened not all that far from here in 1862, but to see a man like Cut Nose almost made a hero required a leap of faith I don't know this white man could ever make. But that's another story.
The Santees who worship here at the Episcopal Church descend from the Dakota who inhabited the reservation appointed them along the Minnesota River valley in 1851, the Dakota who thought to free themselves from the white people who promised goods that had not come, the white people who were starving them slowly but surely by the summer of 1862.
The Santees who worship here at this Episcopal Church descend from the Dakota who were starved at Ft. Snelling and eventually run out of Minnesota altogether after the slaughter, shipped down the Mississippi to an Iowa fort for a couple of years, then railroaded across Missouri to St. Joseph and herded on Missouri River flatboats up to the Dakota Territory, where the starving simply continued. Hundreds died. Some, blessedly, were eventually brought here to the flowing woods on hills overlooking the Missouri, Nebraska side, not all that far from Yankton, and much more like their original Minnesota River home.
This church somehow carries that history, is redolent with it somehow. I've read the memoirs of white missionaries who stayed with the Dakota people through their suffering. Somehow--maybe I believe in ghosts--that story was there in the church, just as it it was in the museum, despite the fact that there was nothing of that history in the church.
No syncretism. Not one image. The Episcopalians, almost as sacramental as Roman Catholics, should have almost as much elbow room to cohabit with Native tradition, ritual, and even religion. Scores of Catholic churches picture Mary as a young Native woman, even the crucified Christ as a warrior. This church, Our Most Merciful Savior Episcopal Church of Santee, Nebraska, had nothing local, nothing one bit Native. St. Paul's, at Marty, not all that far up the road, features gorgeous stained glass that tells the story of Catholic missionaries to the Sioux nation.
But the woman said we'd find the college right up the road from our church.
1886--it says above the door. And the place does need a paint job. But it's obviously used, probably every Sunday, even has a ramp for wheelchairs.
And I know for a fact that to some of the folks from Santee, Nebraska, a people with scarred but sacred history, it is our church.
I find that whole story as gripping as any I know, and the loyalty of the woman in the museum absolutely wonderful. There's always reason for morning thanks.