Mary Riggs, the schoolteacher who married the Reverend Steven Riggs, was a thoughtful and devoted wife and mother who described her life in a series of letters to her family that have thankfully survived.
What the letters document is an obvious change in her perceptions. She began her mission work with childlike naiveté, a young woman who’d never been west and knew nothing about Native people. She was convinced that what she would touch would bear the imprint of the very hand of God. “Today, for the first time, if memory has not proved treacherous,” she wrote, “I have seen some of the dark sons of the forest, from the Seneca Nation, a peaked, oppressed people.” I wonder whether the word oppressed doesn't come from her abolitionist soul.
When she and her husband reach Minnesota, she quickly forms a strong opinion about the military, who are, after all, the only other white inhabitants of the Minnesota River valley.
You remember I used to cherish some partiality for the military but I confess the last vestige of it has departed. I am not now thinking of it with regard to the peace question, but with that of moral reform. Once in my childish simplicity I regarded the army and its discipline as a school for gentlemanly manners, but now it seems a sink of iniquity, a school of vice. And oh, how lamentable is the influence which we wish to exert. And yet we are all from the same country.Simply stated, the mission work of Mary Riggs, her husband Stephen, and of white, Christian missionaries—Roman Catholic or Protestant—is a moral mixed bag. If we understand that the selfsame motivation to free the slaves was at work in those who chose to minister to Native American tribes, it becomes more difficult to simply dismiss them out of hand as agents of colonial aggression or scouts for aggression of the Seventh Cavalry.
In her years at the Dakota mission, Mary Riggs's attitudes changed as her perception of the Dakota downgraded from “noble savage” to simply “savage.” Three years after the Riggs arrived in Minnesota, she wrote this to her mother: “We have scarcely anything to write except exhibitions of the folly and superstition—and the wickedness of this heathen people.”
She changed for other reasons as well: she laments her lack of letters; she became homesick; the hard work required as a young mother in frontier life kept her from the mission work she dreamed she would be doing; her husband’s dedication seemed to make him less considerate of hers. It wasn't an easy life.
But while her attitude toward the Dakota she and her husband served changed, she still campaigned stubbornly for the rights and the honor and dignity of Dakota women. At one time, a Native woman asked her, innocently, why she did not unloosen the Reverend Riggs’ boots when he came home. Mary replied that she simply never had done anything like that, that she in fact didn’t know how. The woman told her she could teach her how to do it and then continued:
The Dakota women always do thus & so when their husbands return from hunting. One of the wives goes out to meet & help him, taking his pack, whether game or furs, she carries it home. The she loosens his moccasins & taking them off, & also his leggings, washes his feet & anoints them with a mixture of oil & paint.Mary, the missionary wife, gets more than a little snarky. “Is this being a ‘help-meet’ or a servant?” she asks her mother in a letter.
“You are aware,” she tells a friend in a subsequent letter, “that Indian women are too much slaves of their husbands & brothers; they seem peculiarly so among this tribe.”
Here’s a bit of moral conundrum one enters when making too hasty conclusions about the nature of mission work among this nation’s aboriginal people. If we see the missionaries only as point men for white culture—which, undoubtedly, they were—we fail to note some of the blessings those missionaries offered, in this case, Mary Riggs’ attempts to change women's roles among the Dakota.
On the other hand, what possible business was it of hers to assume a wife’s removal of her husband’s moccasins and some tender loving care for his feet when he returned from hunting amounted to slavery, a word I’m sure she didn’t use glibly? Is her attitude simply cultural chauvinism, and a deliberate subversion the unique culture of Dakota people?
Christian missionaries were often the very first white people Native Americans met as their land disappeared beneath the wave of Europeans. Here in the Upper Midwest, missionaries of the gospel—both Roman Catholic and Protestant—followed fur trappers, often preceded homesteaders. They were often, as were the Riggs, among the earliest white settlers in the woods and on the prairies.
It is painfully understandable to me how this country’s First Nations found it hard to determine the difference between missionaries, military forces, frontiersmen, and the early homesteaders, from all the other white people flowing endlessly into this region and taking up residence as if the Native people were invisible, eventually destroying a way of life that gave them life.
Christian missionaries began treating disease and injuries with their own medicine, but when they did, the change was at the expense of traditional medicines. Christian missionaries wanted Native people out of blankets and into white man’s coats and dresses and hats. Christian missionaries wanted an end to bloody, intertribal warfare—Dakota vs. Ojibwe. But ending violence destroyed traditional measures of character and manhood. Christian missionaries learned Native languages, but, in boarding school situations, forced Native children to use English, making precious mother tongues undesirable. Christian missionaries, Protestants especially, wanted red men and women to be white men and women.
Assessing the importance of Christian missionaries among Native peoples is difficult, complex, and even risky. Native folks who recognize the importance of traditional values understandably judge Christian mission outreach to be an enemy. White Christians who don’t understand that simply do not understand history.
On the other hand, Native people who perceive Christian missionary efforts among their people—yesterday, today, and tomorrow—as a means to cultural genocide fail to understand what Christian mission efforts have done to that benefit them.
That seeming paradox is both painfully and beautifully illustrated in the life of the Rev. Steven Riggs. More about that tomorrow.