new Mennonite Life logo    Spring 2007     vol. 62 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Searching for Sacred Ground and the Telling of "Intertwined Stories"

by Phyllis Bixler

Phyllis Bixler is Professor of English Emeritus at Missouri State University, Springfield. Previous teaching posts include California State University San Bernardino and Los Angeles, Kansas State University, Bethel College, and Bluffton College.

When I objected that I had insufficient knowledge about the Cheyenne people's history, religion, and culture as well as Mennonites' interactions with them to review Raylene Hinz-Penner's Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite, James Juhnke, Mennonite Life editor, said, "You're a retired literature professor. We want you to discuss what kind of storytelling this is."

During my first reading of the book I realized why he asked this question, for it includes at least three genres—history and autobiography in addition to the biography announced in its title. And it was fairly easy to see why Hinz-Penner had included all three.

Because the book was to be published in the C. Henry Smith series and thus included Anglo-European Mennonites as part of its audience, Hinz-Penner had to include a significant section on Cheyenne history, which, unfortunately, she could not assume that audience would know. In addition, this history is crucial to how the biography's subject, Lawrence Hart, sees himself. More specifically, as a Peace Chief he stands in a line beginning at least as early as the prophet Sweet Medicine who appointed the first Cheyenne chiefs; passing through Peace Chief Black Kettle who along with his wife Medicine Woman died at the 1875 Washita River massacre after General George Custer's surprise attack at dawn; then through John Peak Heart, Lawrence Hart's grandfather, who was born seven years later to a survivor of that attack and who later took his grandson on his trips as missionary for the Native American Church; and finally through Homer and Jenny Hart who provided many years of leadership in the Mennonite Church.

That this biography would have to include some autobiography was obvious as well. Like me as her reviewer, Hinz-Penner would want to be honest about having originated in a culture other than that of her subject; denying false claims of objectivity, she would want to signal that her interpretation of Hart's life is inevitably incomplete and partial. In addition, as a descendant of the Mennonites who settled in Oklahoma, she could stand for that part of Hart's multicultural identity; their developing friendship and cooperation in writing this biography could provide in microcosm what Hart sees as the "interlinking destinies" of "the Cheyenne people and the Mennonites on the Central Plains" (22).

If during my first reading of Hinz-Penner's book I recognized why she combined biography, autobiography, and history, I confess that I found it disappointing as examples of these genres. As history I found it insufficiently analytical; it would bring up but then avoid discussion of issues which I know from my own scant reading to have been controversial. For example, we learn that members of Hart's family were sent as youngsters to boarding schools, his grandfather as far as Carlisle, Pennsylvania; and that the Hart family has successfully farmed and handed down the land parceled to them through the 1887 Dawes Act. But an uninformed reader might well leave Hinz-Penner's book largely unaware that the boarding schools and allotment system were governmental attempts to weaken American Indians' family, communal, and cultural ties as a way of hastening the process of assimilating, or as sometimes phrased, of "civilizing" them.

Similarly, when I read Hinz-Penner's appreciative description of the Sun Dance ceremony, I thought it likely that early Mennonite missionaries regarded much of it as pagan, heathen, perhaps satanic. And I wondered about the historical trek from that view to a Mennonite publication with the interpretation I was reading here. As for Hinz-Penner herself, I wondered how she came to accept a ceremony likely alien to what she had experienced and been taught as a child.

Finally, considering her book as a biography, I wanted more psychological depth in the portrayal of its subject. I especially wanted more about the process by which Hart has achieved a multicultural and multi-religious identity which is apparently less problematic for him than I would have imagined. Overall, while I learned much to admire about the public Lawrence Hart, I wanted to know a good deal more than I was told about what made him privately tick.


During my years of teaching and writing about literature, I have found that my first reading of a book is often unstable; and that sometimes a disappointment results from my own inappropriate expectations. And so before reading Hinz-Penner's book about Hart a second time, I asked myself some questions.

First, are there cultural reasons for my reactions, such as the likelihood that individualism was stressed more in the milieu that shaped me than in that which shaped Hart? Given Hinz-Penner's portrait, for example, I doubt he would have ever considered writing his own autobiography; in giving consent for her to write about him, he cautioned her, "I would not wish to be seen as boasting" (30).

In addition, I remembered how Hart's answers to Hinz-Penner's questions sometimes suggested a sensitivity to the fact that she would be writing for a cross-cultural audience. For example, he would resist her attempts to push him into a stance critical of the politically dominant culture, as when he "shrugged off" her wondering if he did not resent a school curriculum which excluded his own Cheyenne history and instead volunteered that health classes had helped him care about his body and avoid the alcohol which might have proved addictive (97). Or, while he would admit that some Cheyenne accuse him of "syncretism" or of "being too much aligned with the white world," he would also somehow communicate to Hinz-Penner that "some topics" regarding tribal affairs were "off-limits" (176-177). Clearly, I realized, this biography has been shaped within a cross-cultural dialogue; and, doubtless like its author Hinz-Penner, I need and want to respect Hart's preferences about what he does and does not want to share.

Finally, before I reread the book, I reflected on what I knew about the history of "life writing" (biography, autobiography, memoir). Much that is written today emphasizes private confession and expose, reflecting an early twentieth-century psychological revolution which made us look for internal, sometimes unconscious and often unattractive determinants of a person's character and life.

But it was not always so. For centuries, biography more often followed the example of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, which used life writing to explore and expound on moral virtues and failings. Born in 46 C.E. and dying 70 or 80 years later, Plutarch was writing his Lives at the same time as stories were circulating about a certain crucified Nazarene. Four would be canonized as the Biblical gospels, biographies of an individual who exhibited ideals the writers considered worthy of readers' awe and emulation.

And so, revising my expectations, I decided to read Hinz-Penner's book a second time as an example of this centuries-old biographical tradition. And regarding it as such, I found it not disappointing but very rewarding.


During this second reading, I noted how often the word "model" came to my attention. Hart himself stresses the importance of role models in his life. In addition to the Cheyenne models mentioned earlier in this essay, he describes his close Bethel College friendship with Larry Kaufman, who respected Hart's decision to become a Navy fighter pilot even though he himself chose to serve with PAX in the Congo, where he died. Later, during summers living and working in Hillsboro, Kansas, with his wife Betty, Hart admired the strong work ethic and simple living modeled by her Grandfather Funk.

And, of course, Hart himself is a model. As preacher and teacher, he can certainly be eloquent with words, as demonstrated by a number of long quotations Hinz-Penner includes in her book. But one gets the impression that his favored way of leading and guiding is by modeling his ideals rather than talking about them. And apparently this is not simply personal preference, for descriptions of a Cheyenne Peace Chief's calling emphasize first of all the life he lives, as an example (40, 116).

Clearly, Hinz-Penner sees Lawrence Hart as a model, in more ways than one. Often repeated is her praise of him as a "bridge," as someone who serves as a connection. Especially, as already suggested, he is a bridge connecting the past, the present, and, inasmuch as he is a guidepost, the future (30). He is also a bridge between the peoples who have long lived on this continent and the Anglo-Europeans who in settling here often pushed them aside. And he is a religious bridge, claiming a place in not two but three traditions—Cheyenne; Native American Church, which blends Christianity with American Indian religious rituals; and Mennonite.

Hinz-Penner stresses the significance of Lawrence Hart's example through a central motif in her book, an image derived from the Sun Dance Ceremony. Hart described this ceremony in a 1998 address to the graduating class at Bethel College, an address which, according to Hinz-Penner's Prologue, motivated her to get to know him and eventually write this book.

As Hart described it, the Sun Dance is a "'renewal of the earth' ceremony the Cheyenne people conduct on or near the summer solstice the twenty-first of June" (21). Among the Peace Chief's duties is to find a cottonwood tree for the prayer lodge's "center pole," a center pole which unites heaven and earth and thus serves as "the axis mundi, a symbolic center of the earth" (22).

But other kinds of ceremonies can serve as an axis mundi as well. Noting that the first president of Bethel College, Cornelius H. Wedel and his wife, Susie Richert, had previously worked at the Mennonites' Darlington School on the Cheyenne and Arapahoe reservations, Hart expressed his awe at being invited to be the Bethel commencement speaker by saying, "This is an axis mundi." (23). This connection between Mennonite missions to American Indians and Mennonite education is mentioned also by J. Denny Weaver in his Series Editor's Preface. When Hart spoke at Bluffton College in 2002, he asked Weaver to take his picture standing before the building bearing the name of Samuel K. Mosiman, Bluffton's second president, who had previously served six years as superintendent of the Mennonite Cheyenne-Arapohoe Indian Mission School at Cantonment, Oklahoma.

That Hart himself can be seen as an axis mundi is mentioned more than once by Hinz-Penner (24, 162). In particular, she emphasizes the value of what Hart can bring from his Cheyenne tradition to Americans generally and Mennonites specifically.

Hinz-Penner notes Hart's appreciation for specific ways the Cheyenne people have benefited from Quaker and Mennonite missionaries in Oklahoma, such as the establishment of schools and the first attempts to write down the Cheyenne language, the study of which continues in the Cheyenne Cultural Center Hart established and administers in Clinton, Oklahoma.

But Hinz-Penner also stresses Hart's assertion that American jurisprudence has much to learn from a Cheyenne restorative justice system which was in place long before European settlers started slaughtering them as "savages" (150). And while the Cheyenne do have a venerable warrior tradition, through their Peace Chiefs they have institutionalized an alternate tradition more explicitly and prominently than is typically found in Anglo-European governmental systems.

As for what Cheyenne Hart can contribute to Mennonites more specifically, Hinz-Penner quotes him as saying, "I have noted with interest and satisfaction that use of ritual is increasing in Anabaptist worship services. . . . Use of ritual may be a twentieth century reformation that will truly create a priesthood of all believers" (159).

This point seems to have especially hit home with Hinz-Penner. Two ceremonies—the 1998 Bethel College Commencement at which Hart spoke and a more recent Sun Dance he invited her and her husband to attend—are dramatized in her Prologue and last chapter. And between these two book-framing ceremonies, more ceremonies are referred to or described than can be itemized here. Many occur because of the prominent role of ritual in Cheyenne life; important hinges in Hart's life, for example, are typically marked with some kind of traditional ceremony. But because ritual and ceremony are part of a more general habit of celebrating the sacredness of life, there is also the suggestion that new ones, sometimes even private, may be added or invented.

Especially moving in this regard is Hinz-Penner's description of Hart's installation as a Cheyenne Peace Chief. At the time he received the call to serve his people in this way, he was moving up the ranks as an Air Force jet pilot instructor and expecting to make the military his career. Learning that before he died, his beloved grandfather had recommended that he be installed as Peace Chief, Hart says that he could not say no. (114)

He was given a two-day leave and a jet to fly himself home for this installation. There, "the chiefs . . . gave him instructions in the tepee"; they "smoked," "sang," and "danced"; he "rode two of the horses his parents had brought." (115). And then, after participating in these centuries-old rituals, the new Peace Chief added a very modern one of his own. Given permission to "burn down fuel" on his return to his base back in Texas, he headed out over the Gulf of Mexico, "rolled" his "Swept Wing F-9-F Cougar over," "pulled the nose down to make a vertical dive," and broke the sound barrier to celebrate with a sonic boom (117).

Hart has taught Mennonites the importance of ceremony through his inviting them to participate in the rituals which are accompanying the journeys of Native American remains from museum shelves to their originating sites where they are being respectfully reburied. When this process began, Cheyenne leaders were incensed that the Smithsonian Museum intended "to ship the crania packed in Styrofoam pieces in cardboard" (172). Working with Mennonite restorative justice leader Howard Zehr and the Mennonite Central Committee, Hart sought out Pennsylvania Amish craftsmen to fashion cedar boxes; Mennonite children were invited to cut lengths of cloth to wrap the remains; and Mennonite architects designed a ceremonial building for the burial site (174). Through such ceremonies, descendants of peoples displaced and of peoples who displaced them have come together to remember past injustices and testify to the sacredness of life.


If Hinz-Penner's book about Lawrence Hart is a biography, then, it is clearly best read as the kind which frankly looks for what its subject has to teach. And because of how Hinz-Penner includes herself in the book, it can also be seen as a biographical essay.

Michel Montaigne, the Renaissance author who gave shape to the modern essay, used that term because the French word "essai" means "trial" or "test." Through this prose form, as Montaigne and his many followers have used it, one "tests," "tries" or "searches" out the meaning and larger significance of one's own personal thoughts and experience; the essay is thus a journey toward self-discovery.

Hinz-Penner acknowledges as much. Choosing as her book's subtitle, "The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite," she acknowledges that it is her journey as well when she says in her epilogue, "To be able to access in this story Lawrence's interpretation of history as he shared his journey and perspective was for me a gift of new understanding. Of course, I chose the words to tell Lawrence's story, and this particular journey with Lawrence is my journey" (190).

This reader is very grateful that Hinz-Penner set out on this journey and invited us through her book to go with her. And I hope that her example of telling "intertwined stories—the stories of Lawrence Hart and of Raylene Hinz-Penner, of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and the Mennonite people in Oklahoma" (190)—will be followed by many others.

As the Mennonite family now spans the globe, there must be many other stories to be told about people who, like Hart and Hinz-Penner, have bridged cultures and religions. Such "intertwined stories" much need to be heard in a world in which ethnicity, culture, and religion too often cause division rather mutual learning and understanding.