By Bell and Plow: Disciples Evangelizing of the American Indian

Ben Olney

October 10, 2011

Today is Columbus Day in the United States and an appropriate day to end the series of stories on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery as it pertains to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) development of the Yakama Christian Mission.  The series of entries beginning July 2, 2011 are not always easy to hear; however, as one more Columbus Day is celebrated by some and mourned by others, it is time to grasp that injury inflicted by the Doctrine is ruinous to all people and the time has come to begin healing.  Healing, though, is not an easy process for there are surely times when the scabs we thought restorative must be removed to allow for a deeper and more holistic curing that includes all the sisters and brothers.  Yes, the healing will not be easy, but what lies on the other side of all the scratching and un-comfort is a chance for our children’s children to know family only as we imagine family.

…The relationship between mentor and protégé is often tenuous.  The fragility of the McWhorter-Turner relationship becomes apparent as the American Tepee Christian Mission begins operations and Turner’s worldview comes into practice.  Now living in Spokane, Turner settles into a perspective that relationship, understanding, and governance of Yakama life can be done from a distance.  Working from a distance skews Turner’s understanding of the reservation.  For instance, the when he writes, “The tribe was living in the restraint of a reservation and in a strange isolation from the mass of citizenry—a tribe apart,” Turner condemns the fact that Yakama’s and Whites are not one society—one citizenry.  However, the citizenry Turner alludes to is not one that Yakama’s are interested in participating within.  For when Turner speaks of one citizenry he is not promoting a diverse society that looks and sound multicultural—one which would include Yakama’s as they are, but rather a society that thinks and acts White.  What Turner misses, because of his lack of time on the reservation, is the normalcy of Yakama family and community life.  He is not able to grasp the richness of Yakama culture or understand the people whom he hopes to help have the same wants, desires, and loves as his own.  This is in contrast to McWhorter who engages in Yakama daily life—from riding, hunting, camping, eating in homes, and most importantly, engaging in conversation with Yakama’s as equals (and who becomes an adopted member of the Yakama Nation).  Rather than standing, as McWhorter does, alongside the Yakama, Turner accepts the role of Patrón who guides the wellbeing of others as if on a city upon a hill.

Upon the Mission opening its doors, Turner’s objective is threefold.  First was to teach and convert children to Christianity.  Turner rejoices saying, “at last we have a share in the work of evangelizing the American Indian,” and of those who live at the Mission, “most of the Yakimas [convert] of [their faith of] the now to the faith our new home represents.”  His second aim was for staff to begin civilizing Indian youth by teaching them how to work like White folk—plowing, farming, ranching, sewing, and cooking.  His third goal, was to better instill a White way of thinking by engaging youth in the public education process by busing them “back and forth [between the mission and the public school] in an autobus.”  When talking about the importance of educating Yakama children, Turner acquired the language of Francis E. Leupp saying the Christian Home model is vastly better than the Boarding School model, for attending the local public school, “is best for the [Yakama] children—to mix and mingle with other [White] children.”

To attain these goals Turner and the Mission Board felt the Home should remove children from the influence of their parents and elders.  By separating youth from their parents, Turner felt youth would better hold onto the new Christian values they would acquire from the Home.  Thus meeting the Mission’s primary “purpose…to bring the Indians to Christ and to teach them by example the way of abundant life.“ To engage in this purpose, Turner and the board hired Joe Montague as the mission’s first director.

While it is impossible to know Montague’s social and theological construct, in all probability, his theological construct mirrored Disciple conversion theology of this era.  Conversion is critical, from the Montague/Turner perspective, because “[t]he Indian children come from a background of paganism, [and] superstition.”  With sure knowledge that Yakama salvation is only attainable through ones conversion to Christianity, Montague governs the Mission with a heavy hand (not unlike that of James Wilbur) that compels youth to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.  For Montague, there was a time and place for everything and everything, in the case of the Mission, was run by the bell.  Resembling a military school, the bell rang to tell youth when to rise, to come to meals, to attend to chores, to go to school, and to attend evening worship.  Though Montague lived on the reservation, his faith never allowed him to step outside the spiritual, mental, and emotional boundaries of the Mission.  Such distance, led Montague to believe that even a Yakama converted to Christianity could be detrimental to the conversion process of children.  Therefore, it only made sense from his perspective, all people engaged in the decision-making processes of the Mission (teachers, matrons, field supervisors, and board members) should be generational Christians.  This meant they needed to be White.  With such a manifest worldview, little time passed between Montague’s arrival and his running Ben Olney off the Mission Board.

It might be said that Ben Olney, a Yakama converted to Christianity, loved his faith, the Disciples, and the Mission.  A strong supporter of the Mission from the time of its first visioning, Olney spoke across the reservation in favor of Yakama support.  He believed deeply in the work of Disciples, and spoke many times of his intentions of raising his children as Christians and Disciple.  However, for Montague, being Indian meant Olney could easily return to his pagan heritage at any moment and therefore could not be fully trusted with the salvation of Yakama youth.  Furthermore, Montague believed it irresponsible to trust Olney-an Indian (and board member), with the financial wellbeing of the Mission.  In the end, Montague carried the greater power and soon Olney was off the Mission board.

With the booting of Olney, McWhorter worked to awaken Disciple structure to the foolish actions of the Mission director.  McWhorter first began his conversations with Turner.  However, not only did he find Turner unwilling to intervene, but rather support for Montague’s civilizing efforts.  When McWhorter found Turner unwilling to move beyond conventional structure, he drafted a letter on Ben Olney’s behalf to the United Christian Missionary Society (UCMS had replaced ACMS by this time) President F.W. Burnham.  The McWhorter/Olney letter informed Burnham that Montague’s actions demonstrated a belief that, “An Injun can only follow his ‘superiors’” and at no time were Yakama’s “given any chance to prove our abilities.”

F.W. Burnham

Burnham like Turner did not buy McWhorter’s line of reasoning which held Yakama’s as equals to White Christians.  Finding no relief from UCMS, McWhorter turned to the Disciples of Christ Board in St. Louis.  In the case of the Disciple Board, McWhorter ran into two obstructions.  First, he found a board whose knowledge of the west came from newspapers, books, paintings, and stories.  Having acquired their understanding of western thought and relationship from a distance made it impossible for the board to comprehend Yakama’s as White folks equals.  Second, he found the foundation of the movement’s decision-making structure was that of manifest destiny.  Such foundational thought made it impossible for the St. Louis board to comprehend the words, thoughts, and culture of the Yakama people equal to their own.

By 1923, only two years after the opening of the American Tepee Christian Mission, it became apparent to L.V. McWhorter, Neely Olney, Ben B. Olney, and Chief Stwire G. Waters that the Disciples of Christ, locally and nationally, could neither comprehend nor support the self-determination of people living in a non-White culture.  As a result, L.V. McWhorter, one of the greatest White voices in favor of Yakama autonomy, and all three Yakama’s resigned from the mission board.

Today’s entry ends two years after the Yakama Christian Mission accepts the first Yakama child into the Christian Home.  As the story progresses beyond 1923, Disciple worldviews change and understandings of equality transform.  However, core Disciple belief, structure, and polity based in the Doctrine of Discovery fiercely fought to maintain the status quo (A reading of Keith Watkins A Visible Sign of God’s Presence: A History of the Yakama Christian Mission is informative to how this has occurred).  Today the Doctrine remains intricately laced within all manifestations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  The need to renounce the Doctrine and begin unlacing it from Disciple structure and polity are critical near future steps for the Disciples of Christ.  These are steps endorsed by both the staff and board of the Yakama Christian Mission.  If you have an interest in working towards change to help bring greater wholeness to Creation, please contact a board member or staff.

© David B. Bell 2011

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