Sources of hope

I finally got around to reading Gustav Niebuhr’s “Lincoln’s Bishop.” The book has been out for more than five years and it has been on my list of books to read for most of that time. I read several reviews when the book first came out and some of my friends have recommended that I read it. But there are a lot of books on my list.

The book examines the life and work of Episcopal Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple of Minnesota. At the height of the Civil War, there was another war going on in Minnesota, where an uprising of Dakota against settlers turned into a bloody rampage with hundreds of victims, though the exact count is a bit uncertain. There were stories of the rape of women and the massacre of children. Among those to die were missionaries who were working among the Dakota. The resultant reaction from the settler community was for popular opinion to swing int favor of extermination or expulsion of all indigenous people from Minnesota. As the defeat of the Dakota warriors became clear, there were stories of those who had acted with mercy and others who had resisted the uprising altogether. The lives of settlers were saved by acts of mercy and kindness. Those stories, however were largely lost in the demand for vengeance. 303 Dakota men were arrested and tried in military tribunals. All were condemned to die for their participation in the uprising. Bishop Whipple, who had previously appealed to President Lincoln for reform of the Indian Agency system appealed to Lincoln for mercy for the condemned men. In the end 265 sentences were commuted. Lincoln did allow 38 to be hanged in the largest mass execution in the history of the US. Displacement followed for the Dakota people in Minnesota, many of whom were forcibly resettled to the Crow Creek area int he Dakota Territory.

Thus the story reported by Niebuhr is part of the story of South Dakota and our neighbors here.

Niebuhr has written a powerful book and recorded an important dynamic in the history of our nation. His telling the story of Bishop Whipple and how this man who had never met an Indian until his late 30’s became a champion for reform and justice at a time when there was little or no support for such among the people he served. The courage of the priest who stood up to his people while still loving and caring for them is a powerful model for all who would enter the ministry.

Reading the book, however, I was also reminded of the simple truth that ours isn’t the first generation to live in times that are dangerous and fraught.It sometimes seems to us that the time in which we live is fraught with division and anguish and that we are teetering on the destruction of the principles that form the framework of our lives. Sometimes our perception isn’t quite accurate. Sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem. But even when they are and even when we face grave decisions, it can be deeply meaningful to remember that our country has faced hard times before. We have lived through deep division on other occasions.

There is a concept in the Lakota language which is hard to translate. Takini is the name of a school up on the bluffs above the Cheyenne River in the southwest corner of the Reservation. The name was the original Lakota name for the settlement now called Bridger where the survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre spent the remainder of the winter after walking as far as they could north from the site of the tragedy. Takini is sometimes translated as “survivor.” Sometimes as “barely surviving.” A friend who is fluent in Lakoat once told me it simply means “we are still here.”

In spite of the worst that we can imagine, in spite of things that are beyond our capacity to imagine, there is a resilience to the human spirit that allows hope to appear in the most desperate of times. Remembering how people found the capacity to survive - to just keep going on - in the face of incredible sorrow and sadness can be an incredible source of strength for today. One of the important parts of reading history is to understand that we belong to a long line of people who have faced tragedy and injustice and yet survived.

As I read history, I worry a bit that our current educational system with its focus on STEM courses, is neglecting the teaching of history. The failure to teach and learn the stories of our people is a grave failure indeed. It is not a mistake that one of the unmistakable commands of Old Testament faith is the command to teach the stories of our people to our children in all generations. We teach our children the stories of our people so that they can remember that we were once enslaved and we were brought into the freedom we enjoy at a great cost and a great sacrifice.

The world may be intent on destroying our last grasp on hope, but we will survive and hope will not die. The circumstances of the present moment may not give us sufficient reminder that faith, hope and love remain. We need to know the stories of our people to understand that ours isn’t the first generation to face stark division and attacks on freedom and justice.

At the end of this month we will once again enter into the season of Lent. There will be, as there always is, a pressure to rush toward Easter. We are uncomfortable focusing our attention on death and grief and loss. But without facing the depth of grief, we might miss the power of hope. Without the reality of death the meaning of resurrection cannot emerge. The ancient stories of our people still have much to teach us about facing the realities of our present.

May we find the courage to remember faithfully the history of our people.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!