This is St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Santee, Nebraska. If you come into the Santee Reservation from the south, on gravel, you'll slowly descend the big shouldered hills that loll beautifully all along the South Dakota's branch of the Missouri River. Between Yankton and Pickstown the Missouri is "braided," the river's flow separated into channels that pass through so many islands that the river looks like just another Nebraska emerald farm field. If you'd like to know what Lewis and Clark navigated when they went up the Missouri in hopes of charting the new Louisiana Purchase, your best bet is to visit this leg of the river. It's an amazing view.
The Santee Reservation sits right there, on the river. At the end of the street where you'll find "our" church, as the woman in the museum called it, a landing gives boaters access to a river bed that stretches close to a mile wide, all the way across to sandstone bluffs gleaming as if the white cliffs of Dover were magically transported to rural South Dakota. And there in the heart of things, at the eastern edge of town, sits St. Mary's, built in 1889.
What I knew about the Santees was that they have descended from the Minnesota Dakota, who went to war in 1862 in a conflict whose very name is, 150 years later, still controversial. For years, it was "the Sioux Uprising," but the word uprising suggests that they were almost slavish and not a free people, which is, of course, somewhat true, given their handling by white folks.
These days, it's somewhat officially called "The Dakota War of 1862," because, especially to Native people, it was a war, not an uprising. In that war, the Santee Dakota were both its perpetrators and its victims. It's a long story, told often and well and agonizingly because there are few silver linings in a story that horrendous.
When the river of blood stopped flowing, the Santees were marched to Mankato, where 38 would hang. Hundreds were spared for years of suffering until at least some of those few who remained were given a strip of land here, on the Nebraska side of the river, where home looked more like the Minnesota River valley where they'd lived when the war began than it did the far more arid plains of northern South Dakota, where the government wanted them.
St. Mary's has cemetery with but a few graves, several of them flagged to remember the veterans. The yard is clean and well-kept, but not well-used, most of the stones are 19th century.
One of them marks the grave of Mary Hinman, who died here in March of 1876, just a couple of months before Custer and the Seventh Cavalry lost the Battle at Greasy Grass, or Little Big Horn, to Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and a thousand Sioux and Cheyenne.
The first time I was here, in June, I had absolutely no idea who this Mary Hinman was. But I loved the inscription. Here it is in close-up.
Goes like this: "A token of the Affectionate Remebrance of the Santee Women of Mary E. Hinman wife of Rev. S. D. Hinman--Born April 30, 1842 Died March 1, 1876." She was the preacher's wife, but I didn't know much about the preacher either.
The church, built in 1889, is named, by the way, in her honor.
I had never been to the Santee Reservation before. I wanted to look around because of the bloody legacy of the place, the Santees all ex-patriots of the state of Minnesota, whose white folks, enraged and horrified into pure hate, wanted their new state entirely purged of its Native populations after the bloody war of 1862.
Inside their new tribal museum all of those warriors who went to war with their new, white neighbors are honored, probably this year especially, just a year after the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War. If the historical documents are true--and there are some who claim they are not--then it takes an act of real loyalty to put a warrior like Cut Nose up on a wall and call him a hero.
But the Japanese politely refuse to acknowledge their own history, just as we white folks politely refuse to pay much attention to the fact that we are, like it or not, 300 million illegal immigrants. Wars make heroes of horrors, and the Santee's own little museum honors the memory of all kinds of warriors, even though some were vastly more honorable than others.
Here's Cut Nose, a man who murdered women and children remorselessly during the Minnesota River blood bath in August, 1862. He was hung at Mankato, but his memory is honored at Santee Museum. In the eyes of some good people, he was a freedom fighter.
But it was Mary Hinman stuck me because I've been interested for a long time in white Christian missionaries among Native populations in America, perhaps because members of my own family, my ancestors, were among those who felt called and those who supervised the men and women who went. The tribute the Santee women gave to Mary Hinman upon her death is wonderful (she never fully recovered from injuries she sustained when a tornado came through the reservation and destroyed the church where her husband was the priest). Why was so she so greatly beloved? Who was she?
In his memoir Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate (1902), Henry Benjamin Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota, mentions a Pastor Samuel Hinman. Whipple says Pastor Hinman was beaten into unconsciousness when white thugs in St. Paul grabbed him on his return from ministering to the suffering Santee Dakotas at Ft. Snelling. It was not only assault; it was a hate crime. He was beaten for loving Indians.
The Hinmans spent their lives with Native people, the Sioux.
I went back to the picture. Mary Hinman was Samuel's wife, his first wife, the mother of their five sons. The tribute is to her, not him, but at least I know something about the couple who created the Episcopal Mission on the Santee Reservation, just two hours or so from where I live.
And this white man is wondering whether or not Samuel and Mary Hinman will someday have a place in the new Santee Reservation Museum, whether they continue to merit "affectionate remembrance" for their own lives among the Santees in a day when Christianity is often seen as having been a formidable force in cultural genocide, which it was.
Maybe they will be someday. Then again, maybe not.
And I've also discovered there's more to the story, as there always is; there's much more to the sometimes scandalized Christian ministry of Rev. S. A. Hinman.
On Sunday morning I heard a rather conventional sermon about forgiveness. It was a good one, the pastor lively and interesting; and it's major point was this never-to-be-forgotten miracle: when we are forgiven, the past is simply erased. It's gone. It's not there. Glory be. From that moment on, we're newborns.
Forgiveness is a gift of grace like nothing else. I'm a believer.
But the marker is there on the Santee Reservation, and the past is not gone.
Oh, that it were.