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.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Old River Bend Church--(vi)

What a couple dozen Santee families took home from the Ft. Laramie Treaty was not anger that grew from resolve never to give in to the white man. The Native leaders we honor--Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse--after the Fort Laramie tend to be those who, in the spirit of New Hampshire, "Live free or die."

In the Great Plains, Ian Frazier worships Crazy Horse, the Lakota warrior who wouldn't be photographed, wouldn't become an "agency Indian," wouldn't do anything white people wanted or demanded him to. We honor Crazy Horse with good reason. He was a fighter, wanted nothing less than justice for his people. He wasn't interested in conquering the hoardes of white folks streaming west and homesteading all over Sioux land. He wanted no more or less than to live as his ancestors had. 

But in On the Rez, Frazier says he's walking some things back from the honors he gave Crazy Horse. In On the Rez, Frazier claims Red Cloud should stand as high Crazy Horse in our esteem, even higher perhaps because Red Cloud came to understand when making war creating little more than more death among his people.   

The Santees who left their Nebraska reservation in early spring of 1869, determined there had to better way of life than what they would experience on their newly created reservation. So they walked to a place forty miles north from what became Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at just about this time of year. The weather here can change in an hour. Saturday morning it felt like spring. Sunday morning it was winter. Walking 150 miles was not unusual for them, but when a blizzard came, their numbers were decreased by one--a woman died. More left Nebraska later that year; more again the next.

They were leaving behind the guarantee of annuities, the reparations the government promised if the Sioux people pledged never again to take arms against the flood of white folks moving west. 

In lieu of all sums of money or other annuities provided to be paid to the Indians herein named under any treaty or treaties heretofore made, the United States agrees to deliver at the agency house on the reservation herein named, on or before the first day of August of each year, for thirty years, the following articles, to wit:
For each male person over 14 years of age, a suit of good substantial woollen clothing, consisting of coat, pantaloons, flannel shirt, hat, and a pair of home-made socks.
For each female over 12 years of age, a flannel shirt, or the goods necessary to make it, a pair of woollen hose, 12 yards of calico, and 12 yards of cotton domestics.
For the boys and girls under the ages named, such flannel and cotton goods as may be needed to make each a suit as aforesaid, together with a pair of woollen hose for each.

The Treaty mandated much more, of course, including the promise of individual land ownership within the reservations. But when the Santees left their Nebraska reservation and started walking north, they had determined not to be wards of the government.

Why risk leaving? Why turn down what the government promised? 
The germs of this movement are to be found in the resolves for a new life made by these men when in prison. They were all nominally, and the greater number of them really, converted to Christ. All of them, in some sense, experience a conversion of thought and purpose. 
That's how Reverend Stephen R. Riggs explains their motivation to leave in his mission memoir Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux. To be sure, he has good reason to assess their leaving the way he does--he is undoubtedly determined to register successes among those to whom he ministered. He wants to believe his lifetime of mission work bore fruit. 

But what if he's right? What if the desire for freedom in those Santee families grew from a growing unease with a way of life that they perceived might well become a endless circle of dependency? What if their Christianity helped them determine that they wanted to live free, as citizens of the nation? Then isn't it worth our time to know that when we pass the old church on the hill just outside of Flandreau, South Dakota?--a church and a community established by Indians, not by white men,

Here's how Rev. John Williamson saw it:
Many wonder why the Flandreau Indians ever left the agency with free rations and gray suits. If one could see into their hearts, he would find that it was the same longing to "be one's own," or for freedom, as we say, which led the Puritans to Plymouth Rock.
Once upon a time, the novelist Frederick Manfred told me where his interest in regional history began. His father and the boys had just finished milking, he said, so he sat down on the cement steps outside their farm house near Doon, Iowa, and looked out on the broad land before him, miles of it. He said he couldn't help asking himself what stories were there in and on that land, stories he knew nothing of. There had to be more than he knew, he told himself.

That's where the stories began.

Sometime soon, sit on the step and wonder for yourself. I'll have you know that the River Bend Church isn't all that far from here, just a ways north. Worth the trip. Oldest Continuously Used Church in South Dakota. Read the sign for yourself someday. 

It's not that far from home.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--All your works

I will meditate on all your works 
and consider all your mighty deeds.” Psalm 77:12

Asaph is talking about himself in this verse, and I’m not sure he’s prescribing therapy. It is immensely difficult for those who suffer from depression to do the things Asaph demands of himself—to simply put away their troubles, sleeplessness and anxiety, and think on what God has done, to meditate on His mighty works.

I have no doubt that throwing one’s attention fully upon the Lord is the bromide for unease and fretfulness, but I know from experience that it sounds like so much hot air to those of us who are truly and deeply depressed.

But you don’t have to be clinically depressed to know how hard it is to meditate on God’s works. Most of the time it’s flat-out impossible for any of us to remove ourselves from the focus of the lens by which we see our worlds. And while I’ll grant you that I’m getting old, I honestly think it is becoming more and more difficult to put ourselves away, given the post-modern experience. Today an omniscient media offers all of us whatever we’d like, 24/7. I look at a vest, and voila!—it turns up at every website I visit, tailor-made marketing.

Everything is me. Traditional institutions like family, school, church—not to mention government, bowling leagues, museums, and the Great American Novel—all fade in a world in which the only thing that matters, really, is me and my needs.

I’m sounding like Chicken Little—or maybe Jeremiah.

On Black Sunday, that memorable Sabbath in 1935, a swarming black cloud obscured the horizon, then swallowed up whole states, pushing swirling topsoil into drifts that swarmed through the entire region. When that black curtain first appeared, people thought it held rain and hail, maybe tornados.

But once they were in it, they saw and felt that it was gritty topsoil from newly plowed acres of land from the southern Plains. Drought had turned that earth to dust, and wind pushed it north and east in a massive cloud of such volume that, in just a few moments, people couldn’t find their own homes, even if they were no more than a hundred feet away.

Just west of where I live, Black Sunday was the most memorable event in an era we still name “the Dust Bowl,” a time which turned the homesteading dreams of thousands to the very dust that did them in. People were thrown to their knees. They had no choice.

I know I should be thankful for affluence. I should praise God’s favor for the ease by which I live. On a whim, I can take off in any direction, get a motel, eat sumptuously, and stay an extra day or two if I feel like it. There are few blessed—if affluence is a blessing.

But when I consider how hard it is for me to follow Asaph’s advice, to put myself behind and meditate on the works of the Lord, I can’t help but consider how really easy it is to allow our blessed commodities, our wealth, to keep us from going to our knees. Who would want another Black Sunday to scour off our pride? Who would want four years’ of flag-draped caskets returning from Europe and the Pacific Theater of WW II to remind us of what’s important in life? No one.

What makes Asaph’s resolutions a joy to read but a burden to accomplish is what I can do in our affluent culture, a culture that insists that nothing on earth is more crucial than following our own whims and getting what we got coming.

I don’t need or mean to talk about other people. I need and mean only to regard myself and my needs—and what it is those needs really are. That’s a herculean task every day, isn’t it?

Renewal, like his, requires a death; something has to die, something in me. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Saturday Morning Catch--road trips

Even though last week we quite regularly had a couple hundred geese in the cornfield behind our place, I headed out to the Big Sioux River, west of  here, because if we had a couple hundred here, there'd be a couple thousand there.

And there was. No end to the cacophony. How many doesn't appear to make much difference--where two or three or gathered there's a hootenanny. What a noise. I hadn't really thought of getting pictures. Lots to see but nothing at all close. 

A strange thing happened. Two men came up river in a boat--with a little motor. The river was a bit of a minefield, full of ice chunks floating down, although most of the the flotilla didn't appear life threatening.

A little skiff. I'm not kidding, a little jon-boat putting in late February. 

I hadn't even seen the gaggle of geese who came up off the river when these guys came up, but they came right at me. My Olympus turned into an assault rifle. I shot and shot and shot a whole bunch embarrassing pics. But one is so sharp it makes me look like I know what I'm doing.

I happened to be in the right place at the right time--that what's did it. And sheer, dumb luck. 

It was nice to be there this morning, in the middle of all the noise, the sky laced with endless echelons of migration, but I didn't take any other pictures of waterfowel.

The world is largely colorless in late February; it leaves light but light. But that can still be a joy.

Down the river a ways, all of those ice chunks--and far bigger ones--were stacked up. No flooding, but it was strange to suddenly come on a swath of river where the only current was created by streams little bigger than rivulets. Otherwise, thing were still sealed. Sort of.

Last but not least--this sweet reminder of life beyond the grave. Nothing beautiful about the light or the color; nothing remarkable about image. No matter, 'twas the highlight of the morning. Better'n a stubborn groundhog anyway.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Old River Bend Church (v)

It took the Union Pacific Railroad to stop the fighting out west. The government put up forts in the Powder River country of Wyoming because more and more wagon trains were heading to Oregon, while the Union Pacific found construction impossible when its workers lived in mortal terror of Red Cloud's Ogalalas and Cheyenne suddenly appearing. Forts went up, people wagon-trained through, and for a couple of bloody years it was a nightmare.

When Red Cloud claimed he'd put down his arms if all those white people would only stay out of his territory, a new peace commission headed by Civil War General Sherman created a deal at Ft. Laramie. All of the land west of the Missouri in what would become South Dakota would belong to First Nations people. No whites would ever bother them. None. All that land would be theirs. Red Cloud and his warriors would still have hunting rights beyond it, in the Powder River country, where the only buffalo left in the west could be found. Sometimes.

For that assurance, the government got a pledge of peace from most of the tribes and bands of the region, many of whom, like the Dakota Santees, had already abandoned hostility and war. The 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty may well be the most famous treaty of all because it pledged the Black Hills to the Sioux, if only they'd lay down their arms.  

Ft. Laramie Treaty

Red Cloud, who'd been the most openly "hostile" Sioux chief, signed the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse--and others--did not, refusing the basic premise that in laying down their arms they would be giving up their traditional way of life. If you've heard of the Ft. Laramie Treaty at all, you've heard about those who didn't sign it, the ones who simply would not.  

But some did. 

Including Red Ensign, Shooter, Red Legs, Scarlet All Over, Flute Player, and His Iron Dog, Dakota men, who'd been imprisoned at Mankato and Ft. McClellan and just taken up residence at the new reservation in Nebraska. They were Santee Sioux, and, remember, they were Christians.

It was not particularly easy to write that last sentence. Christianity was complicit in what some call a cultural holocaust undertaken against Native America on just about every mile of territory stretching west from the Eastern seaboard. The Christian faith was one part of the strategy--educational training was another--by which well-meaning white men and women sought to "kill the savage and save the man."

Today, most of our sympathies reside with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the hostiles who would rather die than give up a way of life. They were the native patriots. They didn't sign.

All of that makes the story of River Bend Church much harder to tell for anyone, red or white. The Dakota who'd been whipped in 1862, imprisoned for years, banished from their homeland, the men and women who'd by all measures come to a knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus Christ--those indigenous people today seem to be something of an embarrassment to all of us. Or most. 

I feel it myself, the inability we have--white folks like me especially--to tell the story of the River Bend Church proudly, joyfully. I am a believer, and I find it difficult because I know at least something of the pain that Christianity inflicted upon Native America.

Plus, there's more to the story. When I say that what those Dakota men took back from the Treaty at Ft. Laramie was hope, not horror, that summation does not make white people gracious heroes--not for one minute. The truth is, the Ft. Laramie Treaty is better known for what it didn't do than what it did.

Not long after the treaty was signed, General George Armstrong Custer took 1000 men into the Black Hills, a territory the treaty designated only for the Native people. Why? He took them in for no other reasons than gold, took miners with him, in fact. There were these rumors, after all, stories about people getting fabulously rich. So when those miners discovered smatterings thereof in a place that became a town still named after the famous blonde General, white people simply tossed the Laramie Treaty aside for the caravans of dreamy prospectors streaming in.

Not all that much later, on a hill above the Little Big Horn river, Custer and his men died, all of them, and "Custer's Last Stand" became a portrait and print that hung in a thousand taverns.

But that's not that story I'm telling, nor is it a story we even occasionally hear. It is, for better or worse, a story of Christians. 

Ft. Laramie Treaty

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Old River Bend Church (iv)

When the Dakota people--mostly women and children--who'd survived their three years at Crow Creek were finally permitted to leave that barren place where they'd never felt at home, they were directed to Knox County, Nebraska, where the Missouri River takes a turn northwest and cuts through through the heart of what would become the state of South Dakota. Several hundred old Dakota men, women, and children walked south and a bit east, some 160 miles, and reached Niobrara, their destination, on June 11.

Meanwhile, the 250 Dakota men had been shipped by steamboat up the Missouri, Rev. Williamson continuing to conduct school and worship services just as he had for three years at Ft. McClellan. By the time the women and children arrived, the men were already there.

They hadn't seen each other since a regiment of Minnesota volunteers marched them, their men in chains, to Mankato from what had been their river valley reservation. Four years had gone by. Some letters had been written, although few in either place had known how to read or write. Hundreds had died at Ft. Snelling and Crow Creek. That day, who was still alive and who was gone was often news and always painful.

For the most part, all of them--hard as that is to believe--had converted to the white man's religion, to Jesus. For the most part, all of them had been baptized. 

In truth, the Dakota War of 1862 had been as foolhardy as Little Crow, their chief, had told his warriors it would be before they'd begun. But it had been a war of honor by people so completely impoverished that didn't know how they would live. It had been a war of sheer desperation that had resulted in death and suffering--and, strangely enough, faith. 

For the first time in four years, four years in which neither group had any idea what would happen, four years of suffering and death--for the first time in four years, they were reunited. They held each other; they cried in tumults of joy and grief.

The River Bend Church tells the story of that reunion, part of its own history, in remarkably hushed, even reverential terms. 
The reunion of the two groups, after nearly four years of separation, was both a time of celebration and reflection. The darkest period in the history of the eastern Dakota people would be past.
That's all it says. I can only imagine the waves of joy and sadness that washed over those who'd endured, the day they once again found each other in each other's arms. The discovery of who wasn't there had to be something of hell; the discovery of who was, a taste of heaven--all of it happening at the very same moment. I don't think it's any wonder why those who lived through it, the church says, didn't want to talk about it. There are no words.

My wife's family is buried here, in Orange City, Iowa. Many of mine are in a little country cemetery just north of Oostburg, Wisconsin. Whenever I'm there, I visit, often in the early morning. I stop by because in some unknown way I'm drawn there. I don't feel obliged to visit; guilt doesn't trigger some thirst for forgiveness or recognition. When I stand there in that graveyard I look over all the graves--grandparents and uncles and aunts and distant relatives. 

If things go according to plan, we'll be buried in Orange City, where so many of wife's people are, 500 miles almost exactly from that little country cemetery where my people rest. 

But I've got great-grandparents here beneath an odd, barrel-shaped stone that seems, in the last few years, to have begun to lean rather precariously off whatever footing remains. My own Schaap ancestors, the immigrants, are here. That they are makes the destination of this mortal coil of mine beside them more, well, okay. 

Modernity and culture make it impossible for me to understand the draw of sacred land most native people somehow retain. I'm too white and too much a capitalist. Besides, very few people today live in the same neighborhood where their families originated; and we're all immigrants--with the exceptions of our indigenous.

I say all of that because when I think of what the faces of those Dakota people must have looked like on the day they were reunited, I know

they were not home, not in their land, not anywhere near their sacred spaces. They were united once again, and safe. Even though so many had been baptized, even though so many were believers in Jesus, they had to know they were nowhere near the ancestors. They were not home.

The hushed voice River Bend Church uses tell this part of its story, the reunion the people experienced on the banks of the Missouri River in Nebraska, is the only voice tender enough to carry the story. What those people must have felt goes beyond imagination and well beyond words.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Old River Bend Church (iii)

In early July of 1863, the United States of America had very little time for a band of Dakota people who created a bloody war in a faraway place called Minnesota. In Pennsylvania, Gen. Robert E. Lee took on Union forces under the direction of George G. Meade in a place called Gettysburg. A nation not yet a century old became familiar with place names like Devil's Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill, and just a week later as many 51,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded or missing.

The only white folks who cared about a couple thousand indigenous people who'd been removed from their native land were Christian missionaries, one of whom--Rev. John Williamson was literally, not figuratively, embedded with the weary prisoners at Ft. McClellan, Iowa. His was a true ministry of presence.

"He did not forsake them but stayed by them in evil and in good report with the devotion of a lover," so wrote Rev. Stephen Riggs in his memoir of those years. 

And the times were difficult, to say the least. On July 4, 1863, the state of Minnesota declared Dakota scalps worth $25 a piece. By September, the price tag was raised to $200. 

Approximately 1300 Dakota women and children--and a few old men--were marched on to two steamships from their makeshift prison at Ft. Snelling, carried down the Mississippi--stopping every other day for firewood. One of steamers stopped at Hannibal, Missouri. That Sunday Williamson conducted worship in the freight depot, twice. All those wild Indians in town drew a crowd that swarmed around them throughout their stay, but when it came time for worship, Williamson told his mother in a letter, "I shut most of the whites out."

The next day all several hundred from the first steamship were packed into railroad cars--freight cars, not passengers--sixty a piece, and taken to St. Joseph, where they waited on the Missouri River for yet another steamboat to take them where?--neither he nor they knew. In a letter he wrote that morning, May 13, 1863, Williamson was worried; he admits he has no idea how all of those Dakota will fit on a single steamboat. "I don't know where they will stow them, even if they give them the whole boat," he wrote. "But then folks say they are only Indians."

Their destination was Crow Creek, Dakota Territory, an arid place on harsh and naked land impossibly unlike the green Minnesota woods where they'd lived. What they'd gone through since the war was nothing but imprisonment and deprivation, disease and death, malnutrition amid a steady diet of hunger. 

Colonel Thompson, the agent at Crow Creek, was faced with a dilemma. He had thousands of Indians to feed--Minnesota had banished a thousand of its Winnebagos to Crow Creek too, even though they'd played no part in the war. What's more, he had very little provisions to do it. So with fresh-cut cottonwood boards he built a huge barrel, filled it with water, mixed in the flour ration and a small piece of pork, then warmed it all with a steam engine that huffed and puffed all night long.

When the whistle blew in the morning, all those Native "prisoners of war" were told to bring their pails to get the only sustainence they were served all day--a ladle of gruel that tasted more like cottonwood than anything else, cottonwood soup.

When, years later, those who established River Bend Church got together and talked about their lives, Williamson claims the words "Crow Creek" caused them "to hush their voices at the mention of the name." Three hundred more Dakota women and children died of disease and starvation at Crow Creek. "So the hills were soon covered with graves," says Williamson.

Meanwhile, at Ft. McClellan, 120 of the 300 men died in the next three years. In 1864, a few men were released to join their families at Crow Creek. Once a peace commission visited the Dakota Territory in 1865, the government recommended that all of the Dakota survivors--the men at Ft. McClellan and the women and children at Crow Creek--be moved to yet another location in Knox County, Nebraska. 

A few months later, the Ft. McClellan prisoners boarded a steamship bound for St. Louis, then up the Missouri to Nebraska. The women and children from Crow Creek walked.

If you're thinking we're still a long ways from Flandreau, South Dakota and that little church at the top of the page, you're right. None of the history of the forty-some people who built the church is written on the freshly-painted walls, nor inscribed on the fancy sign out front, or even scribbled on the worn old stones leaning this way and that, like bad teeth, in the cemetery. The story is just too big, too long, and maybe even a little too harsh to want to remember easily. 

Their own account of their history says all the stories I'm telling weren't even told much within the walls of River Bend Church. "Because the pain was so deep, generations to come would be unaware of the suffering they endured," that history claims. "Those who survived chose not to speak of it to their children and grandchildren."

Still, that old church is not far from here. Not far at all. I could do worse, not knowing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Old River Bend Church (ii)

Just last night, we read a meditation by Lauren Winner on yesterday's Lenten passages, some scriptures that included the gospel account of the woman at the well, a woman Winner says was a bit stupefied after her encounter with Jesus, not quite sure what happened ("Could this be the messiah?" the woman asks, then leaves her water jug behind).

Winner asks herself a question I'd rather not answer. 'Is it too simple,"she writes, "to suggest that she encountered God's forgiveness--and that an encounter with God's forgiveness does indeed inspire urgent feelings?" And then, bravely, she enters that woman's mind:
I just experienced something amazing. I have to tell someone. I'm not even totally sure what the experience was, I just know it was--everything."
Is it too simple to believe that the baptisms of almost 300 Dakota warriors slated to be hanged was not delusion? Why do I find it so hard to believe--like so many white folks still mourning the horrifying loss of their families--that God would come to a prison full of heathen killers? that he brought his grace to warriors chained to the floor? that he listened to frantic Dakota prayers? Why is it somehow easier for me to believe that God almighty wasn't paying attention when the men with a date with the hangman were baptized? Is their redemption so hard to believe? And if for me it is, then why?

Just six days after the Mankato hangings, the St. Paul Press editorialized this way:
As long as an Indian lives in our State, it will be to all the rest of the world a "Haunted House," through whose empty corridors the hoot of owls will echo the shrieking spectre of midnight murder, and men will pass by for other lands, and women will hug their babes closer to their breasts when they hear the ill-omened name of Minnesota. The Indians must be removed, every one of them.
The government banished its first nations population. More than 1600 old men and women and children were swept off their native land after the outbreak and imprisoned in what some call a concentration camp at Ft. Snelling, a dark place haunted by death. It was cold and it was wet, and the Dakota people were underclothed and undernourished, living in spaces so tight that disease went on a rampage. In those four months, more than 130 Dakota people perished.

Dakota boy at Ft. Snelling

Gabrield Renville, a "mixed-blood" Dakota who would become a leader of his people, remembered the Ft. Snelling imprisonment this way:  "Amid all this sickness and these great tribulations, it seemed doubtful at night whether a person would be alive in the morning."
Amazingly, when the Ft. Snelling people heard of the mass conversions of the warriors at Mankato--their husbands, fathers, and sons--hundreds there too asked also to be baptized. Hundreds. For those dark winter months, fervent spirituality reigned among the captive Santee warriors at the makeshift Mankato prison, as well as their families in the detention camp at Ft. Snelling. The Christian faith grew in the darkness of all that suffering and all that death. 

When finally the ice disappeared from the Mississippi, all of them--the Mankato prisoners first, then the Ft. Snelling families--were packed on steamboats. They had no idea where they were going. 

The men were taken to Davenport, Iowa, where Ft. McClellan, then teeming with Civil War recruits, created a stockade to hold them, Federal companies were assigned to guard them. Some missionaries who'd been with the Dakota since their days along the Minnesota River stayed there at Ft. McClellan, conducting worship services and teaching the warriors to read and write and sing hymns in their language.

Ft. McClellan. The stockade on the far left housed the Dakota War prisoners.
One of those missionaries, Rev. Steven P. Riggs, claimed that 
a new company assigned to this duty, at first treated the prisoners with a good deal of severity and harshness. But a few weeks sufficed to change their feelings and they were led to pity and then respect those whom they had regarded as worse than wild beasts.
Something incredible had clearly occurred in the lives and hearts of Dakota warriors who not that long before had gone to war and murdered their neighbors, the men, women, and children of the Minnesota River valley. 

There's more to the story. A thousand Dakota old men and women and children were packed onto steamboats at Ft. Snelling and brought down the Mississippi too. Forever banished from the new state of Minnesota, they too had no idea where they were going. 

Everything I've written is part of the history of River Bend Church, that little church on a hill just outside of Flandreau, "The Oldest Continuously Used Church in South Dakota." As a people, its founders knew what I've told you and much more, I'm sure.

Visit the little church sometime--now perhaps, during Lent. You could do worse. We all could.

But there's more to the story.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Old River Bend Church (i)

The sign out front says it's "The Oldest Continuously Used Church in the State of South Dakota" begun "October 3, 1869 with 47 members." What it doesn't mention is that 46 of those charter members, I'd guess, were Santee Sioux. The River Bend Presbyterian Church is not all that far from here--north to Pipestone, then west (and a bit north) to Flandreau, just across the highway from the Flandreau Indian School.

Microsoft Word doesn't like the word Flandreau, so some schoolmarm spellchecker in my computer's memory red-pencils it. But then she red-pencils Pipestone too. Doesn't recognize either of those words, even though Pipestone is home to one of the most sacred places in Native cultural tradition. Nope. Word tells me neither Flandreau nor Pipestone exist.

Well, they do. Trust me. I was just there. I took that picture.

Quaint, Cute. Well-kept. Neatly painted. A sweet and darling old church--if you're into old country churches. That photo with its warm blue skies would make a post card maybe, although a souvenir store just outside would be a stretch. For the most part no one visits River Bend, so only locals ever see this church; and they're likely so accustomed to it being here they probably don't see it either. If you're going out west on vacation, River Bend Church is almost terminally out of the way. But Lord knows there's a story.

In 1862 Minnesota's Dakota people were starving, literally. They'd been promised provisions after giving up half the state for a thin strap of river valley land along the Minnesota. The buffalo were largely gone, and white people were rolling in behind teams of horses or oxen, marking off land as if it were theirs and no one had ever lived there before.

The Dakota War of 1862 started when the Dakota people wouldn't take it anymore. The Minnesota River ran red with the blood of white settlers who were killed, butchered, by Dakota warriors the white folks sometimes knew. It was a terrible moment in the country's history, bloody, horrifying, and tragic. Very sad.

Even their first-in-charge, Little Crow, told the insurgent Dakotas that fighting the white man was going to get them killed, and it did. Hundreds of Dakota were arrested and brought to trials that sometimes lasted no longer than five minutes. Then they were sentenced, 303 of them to hang, and marched to Mankato. The same week that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he determined that only 39 of the 303 should die. The rest were left in chains while the largest mass-hanging in American history happened when 38 Dakotas were lynched on December 26, 1862.

But yet another amazing event happened right there in late December, an event that few want to talk about because few really know what to make of it. Before they were hanged, all of those 38 men were baptized into the Christian faith--all of them. Just about every white man and woman in Minnesota thought it profanation for missionaries to impart the love of Jesus to the bloody, murderous heathen who'd killed upwards of 400 white settlers, but the missionaries persisted; and nearly all of the 300 warriors originally sentenced to death also became Christians right there in Mankato., to use evangelical language, all of them "found the Lord." 

It was a frightful time, but an amazing moment. The Reverend Stephen R. Riggs, who had at that time been a missionary to the Dakota people for thirty years, remembered it this way: 
Some of these men, in their younger days, had heard Mr. Ponds [another missionary pastor] talk of the white man's religion. They were desirous now, in their trouble, to hear from their old friends, whose counsel they had so long rejected. To this request, Mr. G. H. Pond responded, and spent some days in the prison assisting Dr. Williamson. Rev. Mr. Hicks, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mankato, was also taken into their counsels and gave them aid. For several weeks previous, many men had been wishing to be baptized, and thus recognized as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This number increased from day to day, until about three hundred—just how many could not afterward be ascertained—stood up and were baptized into the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The circumstances were peculiar, the whole movement was marvelous, it was like a “nation born in a day.” The brethren desired to be divinely guided; and after many years of testing have elapsed, we all say that was a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit.
I don't know what to make of that story of mass conversion. I can think of all kinds of reasons to doubt it--fear of dying for one, sheer hopelessness. Nothing clears the mind, someone once said, like a date with the hangman. Maybe so, maybe not. Some claim they'd seen the Native way of life fail miserably; they were ready for something else, anything.

The mass hanging and this wildly unbelievable mass conversion are only two parts of an incredible story. Hundreds of other Dakota prisoners up the river at Ft. Snelling were baptized also, hundreds of men and women who weren't hanged but were sentenced instead to suffer horrors that went on for years. All of that is in the history of that church up there at the top of the page.

The forty-some souls who began River Bend in 1868 were among those who could remember all of that if they chose to--the bloody rebellion, the hanging, the imprisonment, and then even more starvation and disease and malnutrition, the drought, the endless moving--down the Mississippi, up the Missouri--the marches to Nebraska, the pilgrimage to Flandreau.

But the church is here, a real church, "the oldest continuously used church in South Dakota." Believe me, it's here. You'll probably never see it, never visit; but out here on the edge of the Great Plains there's an old church that still worships God, River Bend Church, and its story is beyond imagination.

If you walk through the cemetery, you'll find graves of people who knew that whole story first hand, a man like this one, Moses Day, who died 16 years after the Dakota War. Beneath his name and the date of his death is in inscription in the Dakota language, an inscription I can't read. I wish I could.

It's not at all hard to miss River Bend Church. Most of America does. You can skip over the story. In their own congregational history, the church claims that those who remembered all of that horror and sadness determined not to tell their children. 

You can discount those thousand baptisms too, if you'd like. You can write it all up as a kind of hysteria, a mass movement as flimsy as the tenets of the Ghost Dance. You can shake your head at what Riggs said was a "nation born in a day." You can wince when he calls what happened in Mankato "a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit."

I do.

But there's an old country church just outside of Flandreau, South Dakota, a town that is just a bit west of Pipestone, Minnesota, two places my software doesn't want to believe exist. 

Those towns are very real, just as this church is. It's there, a testimony. 

If you want to hear more of the story, I'll try my best to tell it.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--The Deeds of the Lord

I will remember the deeds of the LORD; 
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.”
Psalm 77:11

One of these days, I’ll glance out the window into our backyard and see our first robin perched on the stones of the retaining wall or sitting, tail flicking, on wooden side of a garden box.

Seriously, it won’t be long and I’ll hear his or her unmistakable medley through the early morning darkness.

Yesterday, my wife says she and our daughter, on a trip to Omaha, were accompanied, up and back, by soaring echelons of geese as all of them followed the path of the Missouri River. I saw a flocks of them myself around a big bend of the Big Sioux just outside of Flandreau, South Dakota. In the next month there will be more. If I’m lucky I’ll be out myself with the camera on one of their busy travel days.

Won’t be long and the ornamental grasses all around the yard will have to be hacked down to make way for whole colonies of little green shoots that were probably waiting to poke their heads up and out of the cold earth--yesterday probably a bit impatiently. I’ll scratch away the detritus from the perennial bed, and find a spray of tiny green nubbins steering their up toward the light.
It’s still mid-February, and the first act of spring’s great drama would be premature if it were to be staged right now. This morning there’s no robin in the skeletal tree outside the window, but his—and her—time will come.

Easter is a ways off, spring solstice still a vision; it’s winter, not spring, even though the rivers are up with all that melting snow. Yesterday, late, I was just getting home when I missed the most beautiful shot of the day, when the broad orange strokes of a matchless sunset reflected off 80 acres of shallow water from all the melting snow. It was unique and grand. I'd love to show you, but it was late and time for me to get home. Yesterday, fifty degrees of warmth was a reminder that, maybe soon the long dark night of cold will once again be history.

In the darkness in the early verses of Psalm 77, Asaph tells himself to remember the miracles of his own people’s grand narrative: Moses parting the waters and bringing water from rocks; snakes raised up high in the wilderness. He urges his own doldrums away by remembering how the Egyptians wilted under the barrage of calamities—boils and bloody water, flies and pestilence and other God-directed horrors. He tells himself to remember the stories of God’s faithfulness, the ones that are so immensely memorable, the miracles.

Each of us can probably sing our own repertoire of miracles: how my mother’s emotional tribulations seemed non-existent after my dad’s death, for instance. None of her children guessed that she’s adjust to life alone as she did. That our children are well and happy. That we are.

My list is not as showy as an epidemic of frogs, as glorious as a being freed from generations of Egyptian slavery. I can’t remember, right off hand, any single event in my recent life that demonstrates supernatural interference in my daily existence—no one who didn’t get on a plane that crashed or lived in a house miraculously saved in the march of some killer storm.

But with life itself soon to be arising from every square inch of ground outside, the coming of spring is enough of a miracle to make me join the chorus of song soon to begin outside these windows, the song Asaph wants so badly to sing.

The miracles of long ago are nothing to shake a stick at, but the ones we’re certainly soon to receive will be miracle enough. Spring is a taste of eternity, a miracle to witness.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Morning Thanks--A Lenten poem

At Least

a poem by Raymond Carver

I want to get up early one morning,
before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
I want to throw cold water on my face
and be at my work table
when the sky lightens and smoke
begins to rise from the chimneys
of other houses. 

Once upon a time I knew Raymond Carver, had him for a class. Trust me, to my mind--and maybe a few other hardcore folks--that's worth crowing about. Whether I learned anything is another question, but I knew him and have almost every book he ever wrote, including one in which he claims he admired my writing. Just to be sure, I'll show you. 

I think I knew him and his life well enough to know when he wrote "At Least." Observe its reverence.

I want to see the waves break
on this rocky beach, not just hear them
break as I did all night in my sleep.
I want to see again the ships
that pass through the Strait from every
seafaring country in the world—
old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
and the swift new cargo vessels
painted every color under the sun
that cut the water as they pass.

He may be talking about the Oregon coastline where he lived, but place names don't matter. What he wants to see is ordinary life happening before him. He wants to lose himself in the glory of what's witness-able right before him, before each of us really.

This elegiac poem came up a few weeks ago from Writers Almanac. The almost worshipful attention to detail he claims to want to see and experience was a gift he always had, even in the stories he wrote when his life stumbled through the delirium of too much drink, far too often. Detail made him a good writer.

But he's not thinking about writing. Not at all. He's thinking about life.

I want to keep an eye out for them.
And for the little boat that plies
the water between the ships
and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
I want to see them take a man off the ship
and put another up on board.
I want to spend the day watching this happen
and reach my own conclusions.

What he's hoping to see and experience in the chill morning air is nothing more or less than the rich character of our existence. He wants every thrown glance to be worship. He wants to hear all things as music--not to write but to live.

I hate to seem greedy—have so much
to be thankful for already.
But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.

When Ray Carver was terminal with his cancer, he came to value life in a way he never had. That's an old story line; he's not the first to bear witness. "At least" is a poem whose title could well be "At Most." What he wants is so very little to be so very much.
It's a religious poem, with no God-talk. It's offers overflowing thanksgiving and asks for a blessing of yet another morning.

I'm still a stranger to lent. It doesn't register in my soul like it seems to so many others. But Carver's "At Least" feels like real lenten meditation, asking God almighty this morning and every morning to be blessed by nothing more than what's already all around.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Fallows--and a whole different view

Seriously, the whole thing looks like Fight Club, except, terrifyingly, it's actually deadly serious. If you watched anything at all of the last Republican debate, what you saw was Men Behaving Badly (remember that one?) as a reality show featuring presidential candidates in line to fill the most important office in the entire world. The Three Stooges used to hammer each other just as unmercifully, but Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe didn't want to be President. Plus, they were a scream.

The Democrats lack the Trump card, so eye-gouging doesn't reach his level of bullying absurdity; but their most recent duets haven't created much harmony either. Right now all the surviving candidates are tearing each other up, meaning stages are bloodied wherever the campaigns stop. Most of us claim not to like negative ads and despise pugilist politics, but campaign insiders know very well that's just another deception of human nature. It's just depressing, isn't it?

Atlantic's James Fallows spent three years literally flying over and into the U.S. or A., in order to create what amounts to his own State of the Union. What he discovered is something you won't believe--that life here isn't as poisoned as you might hear from politicians. Pessimism may feel lethal, but it isn't universal. From east to west and north to south, Fallows claims really good things are happening. In a fascinating piece in Atlantic's latest issue, he makes the outlandish claims that what's inside this country is dynamic and progressive.

And hopeful. "Many people are discouraged by what they hear and read about America," he says, "but the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see."

He begins in San Bernadino, the California burb where just a few months ago a married couple, with a baby, went on a suicide mission of terror, killing 14 and wounding 22. San Bernadino has not been booming for years and appears to suffer from the species of blight that affects many urban areas. 

But when Fallows looked closer, he found all kinds of individuals and groups--politically conservative and politically liberal--whose elbow grease is making the town blessedly livable again. San Bernadino is reinventing itself, rebuilding, revitalizing. Among the movers and shakers in the shadiest regions of this country, good things are abounding, good things few of us talk about.

Some explain the deep fizzures in this society on the basis of this country's "browning," the fact that white folks will soon be in the minority. Among white people, fears of that shifting portrait may well be far more intense than any of them would like to admit.

But Fallows uses Holland, Michigan, as a case in point to argue that "The Assimilation Engine Moves Ever Forward." Brian Davis, the superintendent of Holland Public Schools, told Fallows that "We've got more Garcias than Vans.. . .We're what the future of public education looks like," 

Or, Fallows says, take Sioux Falls, where minority cultures from Somalia, Sudan, Nepal, and Burma--and many others--are becoming parts of a new community. "The civic and business leaders of Sioux Falls we spoke with," Fallows says, "most of them white, seemed proud rather than beleaguered about their city's new role as a melting pot." 

I'm sure there are those in Sioux County, Iowa, who would be happy to say--and likely do, to those like-minded--that they wish all of the new ethnics would go back where they came from. But most all of us know that if they did, the economy would flatten and splatten. Our newest residents work just as hard as Calvinists at jobs that make good Calvinists turn their heads.

And then there's art, he says. "I am a philistine, who has not really cared about the state of the arts." But "perhaps the topic on which I've most changed my mind. . .concerns the civic importance of local arts, and the energy being devoted to them across the country."

Ever since we've moved here, I've served on an incredibly active local Arts Board who creates arts programming in myriad forms that bless the community. Anyone who says that life in the Orange City area wasn't made to smile by overflow crowds for The Nutcracker last Christmas--local kids performing--has his head buried in good black dirt that's going to waste. Arts may not save us, but beauty can do much more than most of us imagine, and the formerly philistine Fallows says one of the earmarks of communities that prosper in this land is a determined commitment to the arts.

What all of this doesn't argue, he says, is the Republican premise that the federal government is simply a scourge and a boondoggle whose only real job is to provide for the nation's defense. Everywhere they went, he says, "we saw the imprint of the great national efforts of the past" because national government has been and still can be a great blessing, in fact must be a great blessing. Even though "most parts of the American 'system' work better than their counterparts in the rest of the world, our national politics works worse."

That needs to change, he says. Witness this campaign.

I live in Iowa, where the smoke of national politics is just now disappearing, the parade of candidates long ago departed. But when you get enough of politics this year--too much rancor and mud, too much fear-mongering, too much woe and woe and woe, too much bullying--you might want to read "Can America Put Itself Back Together?" in the March Issue of The Atlantic

Or you can read it here. It's going to cost you!--not money, but time. But Lord knows it beats sound bites from the latest Three Stooges debate. Honestly, it's good for the mind, the heart, and the soul. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Morning Thanks--on February 17th

If we keep our wits about us, there are likely few chapters of our lives for which we are more well- prepared than old age. Aging happens to all of us, after all; and there's no end to the role models. Some do it well. Some don't. We can learn.

In the last ten years, I've learned how to find my way around old folks homes. But my tally of visits is scant when compared to the records my sister and my wife have posted. They both tended aging parents--my parents too-- reverentially, sacrificially, daily. 

But everyone knows what's coming. I can feel it in being less sure of foot, ice or no ice, and in a memory growing more and more beleaguered by morning fog that hangs around all day. Friends of ours admitted that not long ago they drove to LeMars, only to have forgotten, once there, why they did. We've not sunk to that level yet, but the story is hilarious only because all of that is just down the pike, not a whole lot farther than Sioux City. 

Years ago, a friend of ours ran into an old woman wandering aimlessly on the street and asked her if she needed help. She hemmed and hawed a bit, so he asked her if she lived at the Homestead. "Oh, heavens no," she told him. "I'm that far gone." Truth was, she was and she did.

I feel it in my knees, my kidneys, and even my reach, and I see it in things that sag and hear it in blurting bellies. I feel it in a heaviness that makes staying at home feel like a blessing. Years ago in South Africa, I sat around a table at a bed-and breakfast place and listened to another guest wistfully tell our gracious host that she was having a good time so far from home but that she'd arrived at the age when she couldn't help feel that staying home is its own kind of joy. I remember thinking someday I'd feel the same way. As I do now. Sometimes. 

But last night I took out the atlas to plot a road trip to old battlefields at Slim Buttes, Little Big Horn, and Rosebud, the Powder River Country, a look at old forts and a visit to Devil's Tower.  See?--"Heavens no, I'm not that far gone."

Like it or not, this morning belongs to Psalm 90. It's only right I should be numbering my days. It's my birthday. Last night my son and daughter-in-law called from Oklahoma, and my daughter and family shared a Pizza Ranch buffet. I got cashews and candy from my grandkids, and a big outdoor clock from my wife so this spring, when the snow melts, I don't have to run in to check the time. Atomic, too. Accurate, even though I'd rather have it lie.

And sometime last night my parents arrived and right now sit here beside me. They're both dead-and-gone, but not so far away really, never so very far in spirit. They're here because my mother wouldn't fail to remember February 17, 1948. not that anyone else has. For some reason I'm thinking about her this morning, probably because on this morning she's thinking about me.

That's why she's here--Dad too. She couldn't really forget, even if she tried, just as my wife will never forget our kids' birthdays. Mothers were there enduringly. 

The two of them are sitting down here right now, Dad trying to find Fox News on a TV he doesn't understand, Mom smiling on the other side of the desk, immensely proud that her lamentably liberal son is going on and on about her and giving thanks and honor. Dad sits there beside her, his arm around her as it so often was. He's thinking about her; she's thinking about me. 

And they're both happy I'm remembering my birthday because they won't forget. This morning, even though they no longer need my blessing, nor any kind of indoor or outdoor clock, they deserve my thanks, in abundance, my morning thanks on this morning especially, the morning of my birthday.