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, March 04, 2016

Missionary Heroes and Villains (iii)

Rev. Stephen R. Riggs felt called to the Dakota people by the burden and blessing of his Lord’s last wish to spread the gospel and to help others, those somehow disadvantaged. There is inherent paternalism in that assessment and, no doubt, all too often the road to hell is paved by well-meaning intentions.  But helping others isn’t morally repugnant in any culture. Among Lakota, band leaders achieved and held their community status on the basis of their helping their own disadvantaged, in traditional giveaways, for example.

Still, irrefutably, mission work among the Dakota in the early decades of the 19th century was not something any Dakota asked for. No one begged Riggs or any of the Presbyterians to come into their camps along the Minnesota River, and that fact cannot be repeated often enough.

What Stephen Riggs discovered quickly was that nothing could be accomplished among the Dakota without his learning their language. He and Mary spent most of their first year trying to learn the Dakota language, and when Stephen and his superior, Rev. John P. Williamson, determined that Riggs had a particular gift for language, Riggs stayed with language study and translated several books of the bible. He wrote the first Dakota grammar, still available on Amazon. 

There is no question, however, that Rev. Stephen Riggs acted in the interest of white colonialism when he was assigned to be translator for the 1851 Treaty signed at Traverse des Sioux. Signing the treaty, some thought, was not in the interest of the bands of the Upper Dakota; others, older members, determined that Native people had few choices—they’d seen what happened to Black Hawk and his people. When pen was put to paper, the older members had won—Washington paid the Dakota an annuity the equivalent of 3 cents an acre for 24 million acres of land and charged settlers $1.25 an acre. The government set aside two reservations for the Sioux along the Minnesota River, each about 20 miles wide and 70 miles long, which later were made temporary. Like every treaty the white man created, the responsibilities assigned to the white people were eventually violated by those who had begged the Dakota to sign. 

1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux
The Reverend Stephen Riggs was well-suited to be a translator in that process because, like few others, he was blessedly bi-lingual. But if I were Dakota, and I grew to despise the bill of goods I was sold at Traverse des Sioux, I’d find it very difficult to separate the efforts of the white missionary from the government agents who lied and cheated.

Any assessment of the causes of the Dakota War of 1862 has to make reference to the 1853 Treaty establishing Dakota reservations and Stephen Riggs central role in it. 
White Christians today have to understand that. 

Riggs' Hazelwood Mission

The Riggs stayed with Dakota missions despite difficult conditions in the Native community and lack of support and commitment among those who paid their bills. Often finances were wanting, especially when mission efforts weren’t as successful at saving souls as supporters back east expected them to be. The Riggs’ family never returned out east. After the Dakota War, Stephen spent some time in Minneapolis and Mary lived in Beloit, Wisconsin. Stephen eventually returned to the Dakota people, as did he and Mary’s missionary sons and daughters.  What's evident is that the Riggs were not carpet-baggers in any sense of the word, moral or repugnant.

Nineteenth-century missionaries weren't of one mind when it came methodology. Some argued that any attempt at “preaching the Word” to the Dakota—and other tribes—could only follow attempts at altering--which is to say, destroying--Native culture. Riggs, and others, argued that the Word of the Lord itself changed minds and souls. It was an argument he stuck with in during theological battles and his own ministry among the Dakota. “That uncivilized heathen nations should first be civi­lized, and then Christianized, is a sentiment of the past,” he declared. “Now it is coming more and more to be acknowledged, that the Bible is the great civilizer of the nations.”

He tried to understand Dakota ways, even recorded their stories and legends to better understand their language, thereby preserving aspects of Dakota culture. He and the mission itself rarely saw seeing the significant results churchmen back east expected. His place, Hazelwood Mission, often struggled for years without converts. “We have sown our seeds in toil and in tears,” he once told his wife, “but where is the fruit?”

Stephen and Mary Riggs didn’t profit materially from their lifelong commitment to mission, but by their own testimony they seemingly didn’t profit “spiritually” either. By their own standards, they were not as successful among the people as they had determined or fantasized they would be. From the letters she wrote, it seems that after the 1862 war she never really prospered in any way.

The Riggs’ story is multi-dimensional, as is our assessment of Christian mission enterprise among America’s first nations is similarly complex and multi-faceted.

Of course, the Dakota War altered everyone's life--whether you preached the gospel, sat on rough-hewn benches and listened, or stayed outside the chapel all together. Everyone suffered.

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