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, 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

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