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

Response to Searching for Sacred Ground

by Susan Schultz Huxman

Dr. Susan Schultz Huxman is Director of the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University and a member of the Mennonite Education Agency Board of Directors, MCUSA. She graduated from Bethel College in 1982 with a degree in English.

"I see him… as one who erects the axis mundi… that center pole raised between this earth in this time and another time. If he is himself to be compared to the center pole used in the Cheyenne re-creation of the earth, one sees that the hole dug deep into the earth in which he stands is a foundation which goes down into the past and allows him to stand firm for many of us as the connection between this earth and the next, assisting us in that passage and, most importantly, keeping the worlds connected."(p. 162)

How do you tell the story of a human axis mundi? The answer? Not conventionally. Raylene Hinz Penner's Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite (Cascadia, 2007) weaves a tapestry of stories, participant-observations, meditations, and archival records about "Oklahoma's treasure"—Lawrence Hart—and his unconventional life as a Cheyenne peace chief and Mennonite minister. Like the rich kaleidoscope of colors, design, and texture in a Cheyenne Indian blanket, this prismatic text entwines the lives of immigrant Mennonites and relocated Cheyennes on the central plains through the transformative, if enigmatic, life of Lawrence Hart. Its author, a creative writer by training, does not conform to the rules of biography in sharing Hart's story. Her weaving pattern celebrates "the crazy spinning of a thousand stories"(p. 16).

The question, "What kind of book is this?" should provoke lively discussion. Is it a biography of Chief Lawrence Hart? A memoir of Hinz-Penner's Cheyenne-Mennonite connections in Oklahoma? Is it a history of Mennonite-Native American missionary activities? An ethnography of Cheyenne ceremony and Christian symbolism? In my view, it's an amalgam of all of these— a tapestry of forms that defy convention. Postmodern to be sure. But more intriguing, I read the book's free-form as an enactment of Hart's own distinctive faith journey that defies the comfort of categorization. He became "the country's greatest living peace chief among the Cheyennes," Hinz-Penner suggests, because he is at ease with a syncretic perspective that embraces the tensions of Cheyenne and Christian religious and cultural practices. As chief and minister, pacifist and navy lieutenant, horseback rider and pilot, Hart can literally and figuratively speak the two languages of Cheyenne ceremony and Mennonite Anglo church, converse in its respective nondiscursive and discursive ways of knowing, and forge The Way out of two ways. His special gift in the midst of confusion, complexity, or conflict is "he enlarges the tribe"(p. 22). Hinz-Penner's "double-voiced discourse"—first practiced by feminist writers to project a female sensibility using "the tools of the Master's house" (male privilege)—is used here, I believe, to perform a literary "dance" of engagement and retreat between these two worlds, "crossing over, coming back"(the title of one chapter) that justifies a shifting authorial persona and a hybrid literary form.

As biography, inspirational stories from defining moments in Lawrence Hart's life are sprinkled through the text and give a rich accounting of his life (Hart's raising by his paternal grandparents who taught him to speak Cheyenne and his grandfather's powerful influence as a Cheyenne chief in helping young Lawrence learn self-sufficiency and forge close connections to the Earth; meeting life-long friends at Bethel College, including his wife, Betty Bartel; making the decision to renounce his fighter pilot life to accept the calling to become a Cheyenne peace chief; performing an act of restorative justice at an historical re-enactment of Custer's 1868 attack on Chief Black Kettle's Cheyenne village along the Washita River; leading a native American movement to repatriate Cheyenne remains, huge numbers of which had been shipped to museums after the Plains battles as specimens of savagery). Yet Hart's story does not dominate; no complex analysis of his personality emerges. And Lawrence does not speak for himself in a sustained or systematic way. Hinz-Penner acknowledges the paradox of writing a story about a man whose special gifts as a "connector" of the seemingly unconnected can only be truly apprehended in the performative roles he assumes in silent ritual and in the act of being. "Our bias in favor of words has now partly blinded us to the real impact of nonverbal communication"(p. 184), she quotes an expert on ritual to express her own frustrations with using words to illuminate Hart's notable life.

As memoir, an autobiographical meditation unfolds. The reader is invited to eavesdrop on Hinz-Penner's intimate contemplations of family connections, missed opportunities, spiritual journeys, and her own search for shared space and sacred meaning. In the personal journaling style of the creative writer, her epiphanies ("I see him as that center pole now, as I could not have seen him that day that I stood in the Bergthal cemetery outside Corn, where so many members of my daddy's family have been buried" p. 162) and insecurities ("I suddenly felt myself an interloper" p. 49) are made transparent. "This particular journey with Lawrence is my journey"(p. 190), and "our peoples have shared faith and land"(p. 162), she reveals. Indeed, the telling of a strong memory in Hinz-Penner's life is often the entrée to a story about Hart and the Cheyenne people of Oklahoma. One such example is when she traces Hart's decision as a high school youth in a field picking cotton to follow his dream and learn to fly. That story is preceded by her own memories of her parents' cotton-picking stories in Oklahoma during the depression. She concludes these parallel stories with this metaphorical passage that sears their connection: "Some . . . dreams last only until the end of the cotton row; others hang onto us, stick to us like the bolls of cotton which prick our fingers to the blood"(p.107).

As ethnography, field research captures the holistic dimension of ritual and presence in Cheyenne ceremony. Much like a cultural anthropologist, Hinz-Penner provides the reader with a front row seat to some of Hart's most sacred communal practices. Her trepidation at gaining entrance to these mystical sites is palpable. "I did not want to break into the reverie" (p. 181), she notes in accessing "The Sun Dance, the foremost annual ceremony performed by the Cheyennes"(p. 178). Providing the "thick description" required of the ethnographer, she depicts the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Cheyenne embracing, dancing, praying, and eating in celebration of the Earth, community, and kinship with the Almighty. Hinz-Penner functions as both participant ("Here is my favorite part. It is about being included…"p. 182) and observer ("Late into the night I sat on a lawn chair at a distance watching the ceremonies and ritual unfold" p. 183) in this cultural immersion experience.

An ancillary companion to ethnography that weaves throughout the book is historical recording—positing the chronology of events, demarcating trends, and cataloguing the genealogy of Hart's ancestry. The reader glimpses important historical lessons; for instance, how the Cheyenne became disenfranchised by American Whites, why Native Americans were sent to boarding schools and the matriarchal strengths of Cheyenne women. Further, we are introduced to the first Mennonite missionaries to the Cheyenne and the long impressive lineage of peace chiefs that came before Hart. Not surprisingly, however, we are told that Hart himself favors a non-linear worldview that cannot be captured in the traditional ways historians record events. "Recordkeeping for the sake of tracing lineage is a forced act," Hinz-Penner concludes, and "not fitting" for the "life model that Lawrence values"(p. 98).

As a prismatic text, part biography, part memoir, and part ethnography/history a reader should come to this book, like its author, open to searching, open to co-creating the text's meaning. I felt invited to reflect anew on the precarious status of Mennonites as "a peculiar people" and like the book's central figure, Chief Hart, learn to appreciate our balancing act as people "in the world, but not of it." Ultimately, the reader may ask the same question that Hinz-Penner asks: how can Hart's testimony be an inspirational resource in a search for one's own hallowed ground? One's own axis mundi?

In the end, Searching for Sacred Ground celebrates nonconformity, paradox, and mystery surrounding Lawrence Hart's ability to reconcile the Cheyenne and Mennonite religious and cultural traditions. In the way of hybrid literary form, there is much provocative, if elliptical, centering activity that transports us to a virtual encounter of things Cheyenne wherein we are invited to feel the power of ritual, ceremony, presence, place, and community. To appreciate the tapestry of this text, check your Western sensibilities at the door and become predisposed to "enlarge your tribe."