new Mennonite Life logo    December 2001     vol. 56 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents

Connections Past, Present, and Future

Lawrence Hart

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In my capacity as a Cheyenne Peace Chief, I have for the past few months searched for a special cottonwood tree. Such a tree must be large enough to have at least 40 growth rings. It must be straight and tall and have a fork, with both branches of the fork of equal size. When such a tree is found, it will be selected and cut to be used as a center pole in an annual "renewal of the earth" ceremony the Cheyenne conduct on or near the summer solstice, the 21st of June. I participate in that special ancient ceremony by helping to find such a tree. I help in cutting the tree and I assist when it is placed in the center of a lodge. That is the extent of my participation. After that, I am an observer.

In addition to looking for that special tree, I am also searching for the site of such a renewal-of-the-earth ceremony that took place in the summer of 1868. That year all of our people should have been on a reservation in what is now Oklahoma, subsequent to the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. It turns out not all of our people were on a reservation, for somewhere along Walnut Creek in West Central Kansas, a group of our people conducted that very same renewal-of-the-earth ceremony. There are two forks of the Walnut Creek northwest of Fort Larned and if the land has not been disturbed, such as by plowing, the location of the ceremonial lodge will still be evident. To locate the site will be an awesome experience. Right in the middle of that circle, evidenced by contrasting vegetation, will be where a center pole stood. The center pole, of the same kind of cottonwood I am helping to look for, served as the axis mundi, a symbolic center of the earth. The axis mundi is a point between heaven and earth, and is viewed as the most sacred spot in this meaningful ceremony that renews the earth.

In contemporary times, cutting such a tree that serves as the axis mundi requires a ritual that includes striking the tree. How did such a ritual originate? Where did it originate?

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of engaging in a conversation with Professor Christy Turner, III, of Arizona State University. Dr Turner is an expert on how the earth was peopled. I asked him pointedly, "If I have contemporary relatives in the Old World, and I were to search for them, where would I go?" Without hesitation, Professor Turner said, "Go to Siberia." I immediately thought that this made sense, for other scholars have indicated that this is where we came from.

By the time of Columbus in 1492 we were living at the western edge of the Great Lakes; before that we as speakers of an Algonquin language had migrated from the eastern provinces of Canada, and perhaps before that from the eastern part of the Northwest Territories, and before that, Alaska. We migrated from Siberia to this hemisphere over Beria, a once-massive piece of ice which covered the Bering Straight.

Many similarities between the religious beliefs and practices of the Cheyenne and Siberian groups have been recorded by historians and ethnographers over the past century. The ethnographic similarities are problematic given the fact that the Cheyenne were non-literate until European contact. The Cheyenne rely heavily on oral tradition. While a common origin cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt, scholars continue to note similarities. A Cheyenne connection to Siberia is strongly suggested by Dr. Douglas C. Comer in his book, Ritual Ground, published in 1996. He indicates that the striking of the tree that serves as the axis mundi is similar to the striking of a center pole by people in Siberia. In the Siberian ritual the center pole serving as the axis mundi is a birch tree. It was struck nine times. The Cheyenne strike a cottonwood tree four times. The similarities may provide clues about how rituals migrate and are made freshly meaningful as a society evolves. The Siberian connection for the Cheyenne has many fascinating aspects.

The Great Lakes region was our place of residence at the time of Columbus. We were between the Mississippi and upper Red River. We then began a migration westward. Place names reveal the path of that migration. There is a Sheyenne River, spelled with an "s," in Minnesota. There is also a Cheyenne River in the Dakotas, and yet another Cheyenne River in Wyoming, whose capital is Cheyenne. There is a county in Nebraska, a county in Colorado, and a county in Kansas, all named Cheyenne. In Colorado there is also a place called Cheyenne Wells and a significant mountain named Cheyenne. Here, in Kansas, in addition to the county named Cheyenne there are two unusual geographic spots, Cheyenne Breaks and Cheyenne Bottoms, named after the Cheyenne people. In Oklahoma there is a valley between Glass Mountains called Cheyenne Valley and there is a Cheyenne Creek, in addition to a town named Cheyenne. These place names all along our migration route reveal connections to geographic areas in our past.

At the time the Cheyenne people were settling on a reservation in what is now Oklahoma, there was a significant migration of Mennonites from Russia. Mennonites in this country were forming a conference of churches and there was a need for assisting those still in Russia. The major attention for the newly-created General Conference Mennonite Church of North America was to aid immigrants from Russia. During this time the Cheyenne were settling on a new reservation in Indian Territory as outlined in the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. A reservation was set aside for the Cheyenne and the Arapaho in the north central part of Indian Territory. The Cheyenne moved to that area. But they didn't stop within the perimeters of that reservation. They kept going further south. Then they turned west and traveled to an area familiar to them to settle there.

What to do became a question for authorities, including the military. A decision involved the President of the United States. During this particular time a "peace policy" had been established by President Grant at the urging of Quakers speaking out against the violence and injustice directed at the Indian people. President Grant did adopt a "peace policy" and rather than forcibly remove the Cheyenne and Arapaho people back to the reservation outlined in the Medicine Lodge Treaty, he issued an Executive Order and established a reservation on land more suitable to the two tribes. Once the Cheyenne and Arapaho began to settle on their reservation, efforts were made to "civilize" them through education. A school was established on the eastern part of the reservation.

Centuries ago, the Cheyenne were in Siberia. Just over a century ago, some Mennonites were in the country of Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great. Circumstances necessitated a migration from the steppes of Russia to this country. Would the Cheyenne and the Mennonites, peoples so vastly different from each other, ever have a connection?

A part of the peace policy of President Grant was to assign Quakers as Indian Agents. The Quakers had urged President Grant to appoint Quakers as agents of the government. The Quakers were willing to be placed in positions on the frontier to deal with Indian people. The first agent to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian reservation was Brinton Darlington, a Quaker. One of the major tasks for Brinton Darlington was to construct buildings for a new school; however, he died while serving as the Agent. The Cheyenne and Arapaho people mourned his loss greatly, and he was buried on the Agency grounds. His successor, John D. Miles, another Quaker, contacted the Mennonites in Kansas for help. He invited the Mennonites to come help build the new school and to serve as teachers and staff other positions. The new school was named the Darlington School, in honor of the first agent.

The Mennonites came. Young Cheyenne students were there. Two distinct peoples, with two vastly different histories, very far apart in terms of their cultures, now began to develop connections with each other. Education was central in this first connection between these two peoples of vastly different histories and cultures.

Development of the General Conference Mennonite Church of North America continued. Education became one of the major interests and on the 23rd of May, 1887, Bethel College was incorporated. A search was made for a president of this new institution. An educator, Cornelius H. Wedel, was inaugurated as first president of Bethel College, and served from 1893 to 1910. C. H. Wedel had been one of the workers at the Darlington School on the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian reservation. His wife, Susie Richert, had also been on the staff, serving as a teacher at the Darlington School.

Parenthetically, Henry H. Ewert, president from 1891 to 1934 of the Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna, Manitoba was another educator who had served at the Darlington School. The president of Bluffton College from 1909 to 1935, S. K. Mosiman, also served at the Darlington School, this important connection between two peoples. On this day, as the 105th graduating class of Bethel College holds their commencement, I have the distinct honor to be invited to come from our former reservation area to deliver the commencement address. I am awed. This is an axis mundi.

Native Americans, as with many other people, have a strong connection to the earth. The singing of songs, especially about the earth, is but one example of this connection. Many songs in the Cheyenne language expressing Christian faith reveal this connection to the earth. When familiar hymns were translated, for example, for effective communication the translator would insert the word "earth" into the song, even if the word was not in the English or German text. The end result will not be a literal translation of the hymn, but one culturally specific and highly relevant.

A classic example is the hymn "Silent Night," a well-known and internationally used hymn composed in 1818, which has no reference to the earth in the original German nor in the English translation. Rodolphe Petter, a Swiss linguist who served under the General Conference Board of Missions, studied Cheyenne culture and language in Oklahoma and Montana a century ago. Petter produced the classic Cheyenne-English Dictionary, translated the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament into the Cheyenne language, and also translated the hymn, "Silent Night." Perhaps at the suggestion of his language informants, Rodolphe Petter inserted the word "ho 'e va," earth, into his translation. This translation is a marvel! It accurately captures the theology of the incarnation by referring to the earth. The language informants must have thought, "How can one sing a hymn of the incarnation without reference to the earth?" The full richness of the incarnation, its deep and profound meaning, is captured when the word "ho 'e va" is used by a people whose culture is inextricably connected to the earth.

One of the Cheyenne language informants to Rodolphe Petter was Harvey Whiteshield. While a young adult he desired to study the English language at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Far away from home, he and other Cheyenne students would get together late at night and sing Cheyenne songs to allay their loneliness. A committed Christian, Harvey Whiteshield composed a particular indigenous song, perhaps at Carlisle, now included in Hymnal, A Worship Book, and sung for praise and adoration by Anabaptists and Pietists throughout this hemisphere, and perhaps around the world. Harvey Whiteshield evidences appreciation of his culture by using the word earth in his text.

Father God, you are holy, you're the First One (HE-E)
Let your love come on down and touch your children here on earth
Be with us (HE-E)
Jesus, we call you; watch over us (HE-E) (78)

For Harvey Whiteshield, as well as other students at the Carlisle Indian School, the axis mundi, that point between heaven and earth, was where they were. God's love did indeed come down and touch them where they were, on this earth.

Axis mundi, a connection between heaven and earth.

To each of you graduates commencing from Bethel College today, the axis mundi will always be where you go. God will always be with you in the future as you make connections to places and to people he created.

Congratulations. May God's love come down and touch you always as you make your connections on this earth.