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A Little Hope on the Prairie

Life is not easy for the people and churches of South Dakota’s Sisseton Mission. But glimmers of hope can be found by those who look.

By Matthew Townsend

In a brightly lit basketball gymnasium lies a coffin flanked by a kaleidoscope of hanging quilts. Stars bloom in the center of each quilt, each star composed of multicolored lozenges that converge in eight points, like a sun. The quilts are gifts of significance by the Dakota, made by women of the tribe as an expression of honor and culture, and this time they hang in honor of the Rev. Leslie Campbell.

Built in 1882, St. Mary’s Church in Old Agency, South Dakota, is one of the oldest Christian churches in the Dakotas. The recent addition of new stained-glass windows has helped to shore up the church’s structure.

Campbell — Fr. Les to all who gathered at the Enemy Swim Community Center in the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (SWO) Reservation — was not just a priest to those who had come for his funeral. He was a friend, a father, an uncle, a guardian, a cousin, and the last in a generation of Campbell clergy who had grown up in the church, sought ordination in the church, and died in the church. Campbell, like most gathered, was a Dakota man who cared deeply about his people, his church, and Jesus.

The Dec. 28 funeral was held in the community center because none of the reservation’s Episcopal churches, all part of the Sisseton Mission, would have accommodated the crowd. Much of Campbell’s 42-year career in ministry was spent in northern Minnesota, on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and on the Standing Rock Reservation. In retirement, however, Campbell had served St. James’ Church in Enemy Swim — his family church where his brother had served as rector, before his death. Families associate strongly with churches there, but most members of every parish came to the funeral. Episcopalians from around the state, as far as Standing Rock and Pine Ridge, ventured through the winter weather to attend. The house was full.

Campbell’s life reflected the complexity that exists among Dakota Episcopalians. They are Americans but also native. Their ancestors’ traditional beliefs and language were beaten out of them in boarding schools, but their more recent ancestors were Episcopalians who loved the church. Many of their family members are interested in reviving the traditional beliefs that were once lost — but for them, church is their tradition. Some of them were in boarding schools, where they saw violence and abuse at the hands of people who claimed to be Christian, and many of them have relatives and friends who suffered mightily from brutal attempts to “save the man and kill the Indian.”

Yet, on Sunday morning they make the drive from their homes to church, they visit their relatives in the churchyard, and they come together for Communion, when a priest is scheduled to be present. Otherwise, lay readers lead Morning Prayer.

Episcopal Church Women is active in some parishes. Coffee hour is completed with chili, macaroni salad, and potato chips. People talk about family news, politics, and television shows. One element is exotic: the hymns are sung in Dakota. But in almost every other way, the experience is friendly and familiar, with common prayer and praise.

The churches of the Sisseton Mission are in a far-removed corner of the Dakotas. The Lake Traverse Reservation, of which the city of Sisseton is a part, lies between the comparative bustle of Fargo and Sioux Falls, a million acres of farmland, grazing hills, and quiet lakes. The reservation mostly falls in South Dakota, extends into North Dakota, and borders Minnesota and its titular lake to the east. While tourists may make the trek to Rapid City, the Badlands, or Deadwood to see western South Dakota’s intense natural beauty, far fewer people venture to its bucolic east.

Hymn 162, Jerusalem wakan kin he, St. Mary’s, Old Agency. Download

Four of the mission’s five churches are on the reservation and have native lay leaders: Epiphany in Sisseton, St. John’s in Brown’s Valley, St. James’ in Enemy Swim, and the 135-year-old St. Mary’s in Old Agency, the oldest mission church in that part of the Dakotas. One church is not on the reservation: St. Mary’s in Webster.

The Rev. Charley Chan completes the Christmas morning baptism of a new member of Gethsemane Church, Sisseton. “You don’t have a choice to be born or not,” he preached. “But how are you going to live? That choice is up to you. Is your life a life of repentance? If baptism means something to you, then your past has been washed clean and your new life has been sanctified.”

The five congregations share one full-time priest: the Rev. Charley Chan. Chan, who has spent 13 years as priest-in-charge at the mission, may seem an unlikely deployment. Born in Hong Kong, Chan went to a boarding school in California and eventually ended up at Nashotah House. He was ordained in the Diocese of Colorado but has never served there. His work troubleshooting within Chinese-speaking congregations brought him to Hawaii and New York, where he served as priest-in-charge at Church of Our Savior in Chinatown in 1981. He worked in Milwaukee after that and returned to New York in 2003, where he again served as priest-in-charge at Our Savior. Chan also helped translate the Book of Common Prayer into Chinese.

Chan told TLC that he never planned on becoming priest at a cardinal parish in New York, or moving to South Dakota. The call was set into motion when he was reviewing a copy of THE LIVING CHURCH and saw mention of a former colleague who was serving in South Dakota. He called and left a voicemail message, which grew into an invitation to come visit.

Chan’s objective in the Sisseton Mission has been to lead by getting out of the way, which may speak to his longevity on the reservation; on average, clergy in South Dakota spend only five years in indigenous ministry. He leaves decisions, provided they do not violate church canons, to the mission council and the parishes. His conversations with the congregations are loving but blunt. The priest cites his background as a strength, a way of avoiding political correctness and generational blame games that could flare up during conflicts.

Chan has also incorporated retired clergy in the area: the Rev. Conrad Ciesel, the Rev. Deacon Bitsey Ciesel (Conrad’s wife), the Rev. George E. Parmeter, and, before his death, Campbell. All have decades of experience in Native American ministry. Together, they provide pastoral care, Christian education, and worship to the churches, most of which are at least a half hour’s drive from each other, even at 80 miles per hour.

“We’re not dealing with a situation where we have churches that are five or ten miles apart,” Parmeter told TLC. “There’s quite a bit of distance between our congregations. Frankly, I don’t see how one person could adequately do the ministry. I know what it was like, for me, back in the ’70s on the White Earth Reservation.

“With five congregations, there’s no way in the world that Charley could be in every congregation every Sunday. It’s not physically possible,” he said. “We’re only human, and the stress gets to be too much. And I think that’s why the burnout rate is so high amongst mission clergy, because normally there’s no one we can rely on.”

Chan said the parishes receive Eucharist two to three times each month, instead of once, because of the support of retirees.

“I just play the Bishop of Sisseton,” he joked.

“They see us functioning together as a team,” Parmeter added. “And we all bring different skills to the table.”

A Challenging, Complicated Ministry

This team, and its lay support structure, often finds itself facing challenges that would be foreign to many ministering within the Episcopal Church. Many caricatures of life on the reservation exist. Both clergy and tribal members told TLC that they see two common misconceptions of reservation life: that people are either living in tipis and spend their days admiring the plains on horseback, or that every last person is a drug addict or alcoholic who gets lost among the slot machines. Neither of these is an accurate portrait.

Adequately explaining life on the reservation and its myriad complexities without a book — and a decade of ethnographical research — is perhaps impossible. But there are things a short-term visitor might notice.

To Episcopalians, the tribe’s structure may look somewhat familiar: the tribe has a chairman (not a chief) and council of leaders from each of seven tribal districts. As with deaneries, disagreements within and among districts happen. The tribe, which is based in Old Agency within a headquarters of glass, brick, and hardwood that evokes traditional tipi structures, is not the only entity operating within the reservation. The federal government is present through Indian Health Service (IHS), a department of Health & Human Services that ostensibly provides free healthcare to federally registered natives (complaints about the program and its limitations are frequent). The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), part of the Department of the Interior, has jurisdiction over about 100,000 acres of trust land and some roads within the reservation.

Lake Traverse Reservation shown in red. • Wikimedia Commons

Road signs help drivers know they have entered Native American lands, but it is pretty easy to pass through the Lake Traverse Reservation without realizing it: it all looks pretty normal. Tipis are used in certain ceremonies [TLC, Dec. 24, 2017], but residents live in homes indistinguishable from any other North American house. They drive cars and work as police officers, school teachers, lunchroom cooks, and nurses. Many work in the tribal structure, engaged in essential services, civic projects, and social welfare endeavors. The tribe provides and distributes goods to the elderly and the poor. It has its own police service and ensures that non-natives who lease land on the reservation are in compliance with tribal code. It runs a bison farm and recently opened a spacious, well-stocked grocery store in Sisseton. It operates a treatment center for those in recovery. Schools, a college, a court system, and several other agencies fall under the tribe’s purview. The tribe also owns and operates three casinos. Sisseton, which at 2,500 is the largest population center on the reservation, is a mixed community (both native and white) that is not administered by the tribe. It resembles most towns of its size in the Upper Midwest. Poverty is visible throughout the reservation, as it is throughout rural America.

With modern, familiar life come modern, familiar problems.

“Drugs and alcohol are the major problem we have here,” Clifford LaFontaine Jr., lay reader and member of St. Mary’s in Old Agency, told TLC. Clifford — or “Coke” to everyone — also works as a tribal police officer.

LaFontaine said the tribe has considered using banishment — the expulsion of people from the reservation — as a means of fighting an epidemic in addiction. Dealers would be the most likely target, but so far, no one has been banished. “I know that we have people that should have been,” he said.

Mike LaFontaine, also a lay reader at St. Mary’s and brother to Coke, said drugs like methamphetamine are further exacerbating problems among families that began in the 1950s, when alcohol entered reservation life. “That broke up families, or you lost the family nucleus,” Mike told TLC. “Mom and dad are always drunk, and the kids were being neglected. Nowadays it’s drugs and alcohol, single-parent families, losing the guidance, losing your faith, and losing your hope.”

He said under such conditions, people on the reservation begin to lose connection with God, and guidance does not necessarily come easily. “You can sit and pray to God, and God’s not going to say with a booming voice, You need to do this. This is how you need to help yourself in order to help your children in order to make life better.

Another worry on the reservation: the high suicide rate, common among indigenous groups in North America. “One thing I was really concerned about was the suicides,” said Grace Frazier, a member of Gethsemane Church in Sisseton. Many suicides occur among youth. IHS reports that native youth are 3.5 times more likely to kill themselves than other groups, nationwide.

Grace Frazier, the Rev. Charley Chan, and Bruce DuMarce Sr.: “I don’t know what they think, or were thinking, to make them take their own life.” Download

“I don’t know what they think, or were thinking, to make them take their own life,” Frazier told TLC.

“The more they think, the more scared they are,” said Chan, whose tenure on the reservation is now almost triple the average of those in indigenous ministry in South Dakota. “The more scared they are, the more depressed they are, because what they see is the hopelessness.”

Bruce DuMarce Sr., also at Gethsemane, agreed. “I think a lot of them see no way out. There’s no help, no circle like our people used to have.”

The Sisseton Mission runs a scholarship fund to help Dakota youth attend college, whether at the local Sisseton Wahpeton College or off the reservation. The funds provided are modest, but the interaction is not. “Five hundred dollars for a four-year program is peanuts, but it is a signal of support, a sign of encouragement to them to go,” Fr. Chan said. “I try to explain that education, probably, is the quickest way to break the curse of poverty.”

The hopelessness Chan mentions is a two-edged sword. Not only does it affect those on the reservation touched by poverty, suicide, addiction, and depression, but it can attract personalities who seek to solve “the Indian Problem.”

“[Fr. Chan] has probably done more suicide funerals in two months than I’ve done in my entire ministry as a priest,” the Rt. Rev. John Tarrant, Bishop of South Dakota, told TLC. “I would say part of Fr. Chan’s faithfulness is he had no illusion that he was going to fix anything. But, by gum, he has been committed to being present amidst the brokenness, and some things have been healed.”

Tarrant, who grew up in Michigan, was consecrated in 2009, and will retire in 2019, said attempts to “fix” problems in South Dakota should be avoided.

Likewise, Conrad Ciesel said those coming in to minister should be respectful and humble. “People who are not Indians come in with the attitude of oh, well, I’ll teach you,” he said. “Come in with humility — learn and listen first, before you speak.”

This means, he said, letting go of what is learned in seminary: the call to take charge and make sure things get done. “You don’t do that when you come into a Native American community. You come, you listen, and you learn. You learn who’s the elder and listen to what the elder has to teach you. You come in not so much to be the teacher but to be taught first. Then you go teaching, later. After you earn respect from the community, then you do the teaching.”

Other less humble motivations might lead people to native ministry: the desire to be seen ministering to the most needy, a sense of guilt, or an impressive line on a résumé. James Kurkowski of St. Mary’s in Webster said some clergy and others come from the east with such motivations, but they do not stay long. “They’re out here for a few years and they go back,” he told TLC. “I’m sure that the cocktail conversation is, ‘Well, I have a handle on the Native American issue because I spent three years out there’ — versus people who live here, who have spent their whole life here.”

The Rev. Bitsey Ciesel, deacon in the Sisseton Mission, prepares to read the Gospel on Christmas Eve.

A story by Campbell, shared with TLC a few days before he died, illustrates how challenging ministry can be for a lifelong resident of an environment where miracles can have a limited shelf life. After ordination and study, Campbell focused on the power of healing through Christ.

“When I was out at Standing Rock, this lady had come to me at about 10 or 11 o’clock at night. She had tears in her eyes and said, ‘My friend is laying in the hospital up by Fort Yates. Would you come and have prayers?”

Campbell and the woman journeyed to the hospital. “Sure enough, she was laying there, almost in a coma. She had cirrhosis, her stomach was bloated.” The three of them held hands to pray. “We had prayers — and then I forgot about it. The following weekend, I went out to get the mail. Here this lady was coming, walking down the street.”

The woman approaching Campbell was the same he had prayed for in the hospital. Her bloating was gone and her health had improved remarkably. “She thanked me. I told her, ‘Don’t drink again. Quit your drinking.’ So, she did — for a while. She started drinking again, and she died two weeks later.”

Several Dakota Episcopalians pointed out that the “Indian problems” of addiction and suicide are common throughout America among all races and backgrounds, especially in rural contexts where opportunity and hope are more limited.

“Humans learn to adapt no matter what environment they’re in, or forced into. We have adapted to the life we’re living now out of necessity,” DuMarce told TLC. He said the tribe, after being pushed into South Dakota following the Minnesota Uprising of 1862, decided to fight by adapting. “I think that’s what we’re doing now. We’re learning how to live the life that we’re forced into. Not because we want to. We’d rather live the way we used to 500 years ago. I know I would, because we wouldn’t have meth, we wouldn’t have alcohol.”

Norbit Bellonger, senior warden at St. Mary’s in Old Agency, echoed DuMarce’s thoughts, adding that these struggles did not originate among natives. “Everything started in ’52, ’53, when you guys — white people — opened liquor to the Indians,” he told TLC. “Everything changed. So, don’t blame us, blame yourself.”

“The Most Racist State”

One problem is more unique to the Dakota people, and to indigenous peoples worldwide: they find themselves at the mercy of a kind of racism that ridicules and dehumanizes them to an incredible extent.

“You’ve got to live with it everywhere you go,” Bellonger said. “Every place, it’s there.” The problem is not new. Bellonger, an elder in the church, shared a story of Dakota Episcopalians being unwelcome at Gethsemane in the 1970s, when the church was still primarily white.

“There’s a lot of racism around here,” DuMarce said.

That racism ranges from the quotidian to the grotesque. Frazier said slights are common: people may be “nice to you but then say bad things to your back.” DuMarce added that such insults are learned at home, where white parents teach white children how to think. Oh, those f’ing Indians, you stay away from them. It’s passed down like that.”

The Rev. Richard Zephier, priest at St. Mark’s Church in Aberdeen — which is not part of the Sisseton Mission — says racism is still present in Aberdeen.

Zephier, who is also chairman of the diocese’s Niobrara Convocation of native churches, said native youth come into contact with racism in Aberdeen as soon as they land on high school basketball teams. “When they get into high school, they always get cut from the team,” he told TLC.

The Rev. Richard Zephier and Linda Simon: “I’m sorry, but my wife already rented the apartment.” Download

Linda Simon of St. Mark’s agrees with Zephier. She grew up on the Cheyenne River Reservation in central South Dakota and eventually wound up in Aberdeen. “My son went to high school there, and he was a very good basketball player and was 6-2. He was on the bench; he never played.”

More recently, Simon’s grandson has gone through similar frustrations and decided to abandon playing. Facing nothing but cuts, “the Indian kids have nothing there,” Simon said.

Racism, of course, does not end after high school. Zephier’s experience working with Native Americans in South Dakota is extensive: he spent years working for the BIA in Aberdeen, which is about an hour west of the Lake Traverse Reservation. He told TLC more than a handful of stories about natives trying to get an apartment and finding it had suddenly been rented, applying for a job that had just been filled, and trying to buy a car that was no longer available.

“It’s just something that is ingrained in Aberdeen.” he said. “It doesn’t change.”

And Dakota Episcopalians say racism is growing worse. DuMarce said he has heard South Dakota described as “the most racist state in the Northern Hemisphere. I believe it, from what I’ve seen. There’s people who have been run over here, Native Americans, and nothing is done.”

DuMarce compared the violence to lynching. He shared the story of Justin Redday, a native man who, in March 2000, was walking along a highway and was struck by Mark Appel, 17. “He backed up and ran over him again.”

Redday’s ribs were crushed. Appel loaded Redday into the back of his truck and drove around for several hours before leaving him at Sisseton Public Health Hospital. He died there. “Nothing happened,” DuMarce said. Appel was indicted for vehicular homicide but then charged with a DUI, according to The New York Times.

Crucifix in St. John’s Church, Brown’s Valley

The more recent case of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind of Fargo shows how incredible violence against natives can unfold. LaFontaine-Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota, was eight months pregnant when her neighbor, Brooke Lynn Crews, lured the woman to her apartment on Aug. 19, 2017. Crews attacked LaFontaine-Greywind, performed a crude Cesarean section to deliver the baby, and then killed LaFontaine-Greywind. The woman’s body was found in the Red River. The baby, who survived the brutal procedure, is now with her father.

Crews has been sentenced to life without parole. A letter from the United Tribes of North Dakota said, “During the gatherings and prayers for Savanna, we heard story after story from families who also have women in their families missing or with unsolved murders. … The murder of Savanna illustrates a much larger problem of epic proportions.”

“We have so many missing and murdered indigenous women,” said Sylvana Flute of Gethsemane. Flute told TLC that women have disappeared into and from the “man camps” that have sprung up in the Bakken oil boom.

This concern — human and sex trafficking — is shared by the tribe, Dakota Episcopalians, and clergy of the church. The dioceses of North Dakota and South Dakota have partnered to produce pamphlets about human trafficking, which are available in churches like St. Mary’s in Old Agency. A UTO grant has helped fund programming as well.

Mike LaFontaine, who tracks registered sexual offenders for the tribe, said women who are physiologically addicted to drugs are at higher risk. “They don’t take it to get high, but to avoid withdrawal,” he said. “They’re vulnerable to prostitution, sex trafficking, because of that.”

Racism does not express itself only when natives are victims of crimes — it is also felt keenly when they are the perpetrators. Stories of the justice system charging natives with maximum sentences are common on the reservation. In 2016, 52.8 percent of federal cases in South Dakota involved Native America defendants, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. That is the highest such percentage in America, almost 18 points higher than the next-highest state (Montana). About 10 percent of the state’s population is native.

Assimilation and Termination

Last year’s struggle over the fate of an oil pipeline running through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota — along with a November oil spill just outside of the Lake Traverse Reservation — highlighted the pain felt by natives who see the justice system, political systems, and age-old prejudice stacked against them. Such struggles over land and water are not new. Zephier and Simon both described how damming practices in the ’40s and ’50s left many people homeless — and often flooded the richest farmland available on reservations.

Simon said that on the Cheyenne River Reservation, the Army Corps of Engineers had placed markers indicating high water once dam construction was complete. “I lived down along the old river, the original Missouri River,” she said. “There were a lot of trees where our house was, our corrals, our pens, our horses. When the water started backing up and started coming up and coming up, we stayed there until the water was at the corrals. It started coming into our corrals — last minute, we had to move,” she said.

“We moved up on the flats. That water came over the mark. It came way up past what they actually said it was going to do. It had taken over everything.” According to the Partnership with Native Americans, 8 percent of the reservation was submerged when the dam was completed in 1948.

When the flooding came, Simon had been in a Cheyenne Agency boarding school but was moved to a school in Eagle Butte, in the center of the reservation. At first, she was bused back and forth to school. “Then, one night, when we got home, we had to pack all of our bags. They took us back up to Eagle Butte. They put us in a dormitory that was made for 58 girls. They moved all the little girls, the first-graders all the way to the 12th-graders, in one dorm. I had 12 beds in a room that was supposed to have four. We were stacked in there.” After new dormitories were finished, other girls we moved out.

The effects of the flooding continue to this day.

“It was a trying time,” she said. “It was sad for us.” The new dormitories that were built also included asbestos. “Now, people who are my age have strange diseases like scleroderma and a lot of cancers.

“Our cemeteries were moved. Who we think is buried there might not even be the person in that grave.” Another problem has emerged: the water that once rose has fallen again. “My sister fishes a lot, and there’s an area down there where the bones are coming back up.  They’re not animal bones.” It has been declared illegal for non-tribal members to visit that area, Simon said, because of looting that has occurred from gravesites that were not moved.

Simon’s experience raises one of the most complex and sensitive issues among Native Americans: the long-reaching shadow of efforts to assimilate Native Americans into white culture, and the abuses that followed suit. After historical policies of warfare and forced removal, the federal government settled into a plan of assimilation, often Christianization or acculturation. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act — the Indian New Deal, informally — attempted to restore native management of land, education, and self-rule. By the 1940s, however, a new policy had emerged: termination, that is, ceasing to recognize Native Americans as Native Americans. Made official in House Concurrent Resolution 108 in 1953, this policy sought to dissolve tribes, halting federal recognition and BIA support. The Indian Relocation Action of 1956 followed, attempting to move populations from reservations to urban areas. During President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the government responded to pressure from the American Indian and civil rights movements, and the policy was informally ended. Termination was officially repudiated in 1988.

Through assimilation and termination efforts, off-reservation boarding schools served a crucial role. Many students matriculated by way of force or kidnapping, even into the 1950s. The schools were founded by the BIA and by Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church. The schools sought to eliminate indigenous culture, religious practice, dress, and expression through harsh discipline. Some people have fond memories of their time in boarding school — but reports of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse within church-run schools are also commonplace and well-documented.

Irene Rondell of St. James’ Church, Enemy Swim, chose to attend boarding school. “I wanted to go to boarding school. I wasn’t forced to, I wanted to,” she told TLC.

“I only went one year,” she said. She described strict discipline at the now-defunct St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Indian Girls, as well as some meager meals — toast and tea for Sunday dinner.

“If you didn’t break your bread in a certain way, four ways, those nuns would walk around and hit your hand with a ruler.”

Irene Rondell: “Those nuns would walk around and hit your hand with a ruler.” Download

Rondell, a lay reader, said her grandmother would send care packages of apples, oranges, and cookies — of which she saw little. “They’d all just rot away in this big barrel they kept them in,” she said.

Valorie Augustson, also a lay reader at St. James’, told TLC that the boarding schools seemed to have a chilling effect on her father.

“I always wondered why he never talked Dakota to me,” she said. “He did to his mom, my grandma. They talked back and forth all the time. But he never talked to me in Dakota.”

She said she has concluded the trauma — beatings for speaking Dakota in the schools — must have lingered in the back of his mind. “It brought back too many memories. I don’t know. It just seems unreal that people would treat people like that, but they did.”

Sam Crawford, a lay reader at Gethsemane and husband to Sylvana Flute, said he observed similar signs of trauma with his grandmother. She was forced to learn the piano at the Pipestone Indian School.

“My grandmother could play the piano so beautifully,” he said. “But she would never play it.”

When he became an adult, his aunt and uncle also told him why his grandmother kept a hidden garden in the woods: to keep her children safely out of sight. “They used to hide their kids back then,” he said. “They’d come around to take them to boarding school.”

“Whittled Down to Nothing”

The historical trauma from forced assimilation has made relations between native Christians and those who follow the traditional Dakota religion — which has seen a resurgence in recent years — more tense. Flute said people who do not attend church are likely to cite the abuses of the past as reasons to avoid Christianity.

For my part, I’ve been around a lot of the traditionalists,” she said. Flute participated in the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, and there she participated in prayer walks and smudging, she said. “I take part in those, but I also pray to God and Jesus as we’re walking.”

Flute grew up at St. John’s Church and recalls seeing a busy Ladies Aid (now Episcopal Church Women) group and a thriving church. “We don’t have that anymore,” she said. “We just lost a lot of things.” Flute left the church for a while but ended up returning by way of Gethsemane. She credits Chan’s accessible preaching. “He explained things,” she said. “It’s not like some pastors or preachers who go right off the Bible. Fr. Chan applies it to daily life.”

A consistent concern among many Episcopalians in the Sisseton Mission: efforts to blend Episcopal liturgy with traditional Dakotan worship. While they may seem well-meaning efforts, Flute said seeing Christians use a chanunpa pipe or traditionalists using Christian prayers in Dakota is just confusing. Chan said such efforts have often left both groups feeling hurt.

She added that younger people sometimes accuse indigenous Christians of practicing a colonial religion. “I hear the word colonized a lot,” she said. “Oh, you’re the colonized Indian. Especially from the younger generation, coming from Standing Rock.”

Flute said this accusation is also confusing. “We can’t go back to what we were. We can’t,” she said. And while a thirst exists to return to the land, few natives, Christian or traditionalist, are doing that. Frazier said only the nearby Hutterite colony qualified.

For Dakota Episcopalians, returning to tradition means returning to the tradition of the great-grandparents who founded the churches and are buried in the churchyards. It means going to church.

“I’ve returned to church and returned to my Christian beliefs, how I was raised,” Mike LaFontaine said. “We’re all Dakota. To say you’re traditional — I don’t know what that means anymore. We were raised as Dakotas. We hunted, fished, gathered, prepared for winter by canning foods, learned to survive winter without much money, but also sharing and helping others.

“I remember as a child, a lot of people would come to my mother’s house and need a little help with something. She was always giving; they would try to pay, but she wouldn’t accept even a quarter for some sugar or some coffee. To me, that’s being Dakota. That’s also being traditional.”

Santa Claus and Norbit Bellonger prepare to distribute gifts of candy and fruit after the Christmas Eve service at St. Mary’s, Old Agency.

LaFontaine, like other Episcopalians among the SWO, expresses a respectful attitude to his friends, family, and fellow tribal members who pursue traditional Dakota worship. “As long as it’s helping him to stay on a certain path,” he said. “If it helps others, power to them.”

Bonnie Bellonger, wife of Norbit Bellonger and treasurer at St. Mary’s, Old Agency, takes a similar tack. “I have a grandson that’s into that. He’s a sun dancer,” she told TLC. “I keep asking him questions; why do you do this, why do you do that. I don’t understand their way of doing those things, but I’m just there to support him.”

The growth of traditional worship — combined with old wounds from the church’s role in boarding schools, scores of people battling addiction, and modern distractions like video games — has put the primarily native churches of the Sisseton Mission in a difficult position. Elder parishioners spoke of going to full churches as children because that was the tradition on the reservation; everyone attended.

Augustson said she remembered going to Ladies Aid meetings on Thursday to find the church’s women making quilts together. “They’d all be sitting around, sewing. They’d be laughing and talking in Dakota,” she said. “Usually, it was about their husbands and the crazy things they did.”

Now a grandmother raising her grandchildren after her daughter suffered a fatal heart attack, Valorie Auguston described the church of her youth as place to come and learn about God, to play together, to sing together.

Donna O’Riley of Enemy Swim mentioned the same memories. “I can still close my eyes and remember how this was,” she told TLC. “I could see all the women there, over there in the little kitchen, cooking. And the stove was in the middle, burning. And you had the men sitting on the other side. Everybody would sit there, talk, and they’d laugh, and it was just full all the time.”

She said she was thankful to her grandparents for being involved in the church. Her grandfather turned away from drinking and toward God when she was very young.

“He joined the church, and he and my grandmother were very active in the church. That’s how I remember them: going to church,” she said. “The whole life of everybody was the church. Maybe somebody had a radio, but otherwise nobody had anything. So, we all had about the same thing. Everybody shared, everybody made sure we all got to church.”

O’Riley said the elders’ great-grandparents all started the churches, but now, “it’s whittled down to nothing.”

“I don’t really know what happened that people won’t come anymore,” she said. “We’ve tried different things, we’ve asked people why they don’t come to church. Nobody wants to say they belong to this church. What they do say, when they pass away, is that they all want to be buried here.”

This is a consistent refrain among the native congregations of the mission: funerals are packed to the rafters. They are often held in community centers because hundreds may show for a wake and funeral. Flute said that many on the reservation wish to be buried in the Christian cemeteries because their relatives are there. In a sense, a large number of SWO Dakotas are Episcopalians, but this is only apparent at funerals. Chan said with laughter, “I say they’re born Dakota, live traditional, and die Episcopalian.”

A young member of the Sisseton Mission

Most churches in the Sisseton Mission are composed of a few extended families. This brings large turnouts for funerals and Christmas, but it does not translate into healthy numbers on Sunday: attendance might range from a half-dozen to 30, depending on the church and the day. Churches are primarily composed of elders and their grandchildren, not unlike Episcopal congregations throughout America. Those between ages 30 and 60 are more conspicuously absent, though younger people are entering leadership. Rachelle Crawford and Jaime White Thunder were named co-chairs of the Sisseton Mission last year. Both are under 30 and are the youngest co-chairs ever. Younger families, like that of Sam Crawford and Sylvana Flute, also attend; and the niece and nephew of the Bellongers have started bringing their children to church in Old Agency. They presented children for baptism on Christmas Eve — two of several baptized that Christmas within the mission.

Just outside of the reservation, St. Mary’s Church in Webster finds itself struggling to grow. St. Mary’s is not part of the Niobrara Convocation. While it has been a mixed church, over the years, its leadership historically has been and currently is white. Unlike the native congregations within the mission, the church is not composed of families: among its five stalwart worshipers are three different families. Monte and Fran Rougemont, Stanley Lorenz, James Kurkowski, and Marcia Lefman all worship at St. Mary’s, keep the doors open, and replace the lightbulbs when they have gone out. White and gray hairs are common among them. All others who attend, including Dakota children who were baptized at Christmas, are from different families altogether.

St. Mary’s was taken into the Sisseton Mission when Chan first arrived in the Dakotas.

“We wouldn’t even be a part of the Sisseton Mission if it wasn’t for Fr. Chan,” Monte Rougemont, senior warden, told TLC. “Fr. Chan is the one that went to bat for St. Mary’s and said, ‘We need to bring them into the Sisseton Mission so they have priest coverage.’”

Having coverage from Chan, Parmeter, and the Ciesels, however, does not equate to having a full-time priest living in the community; all live at least 40 miles away. The last time a full-time Episcopal priest lived in Webster was 1982, Rougemont said.

“We love each one of those men and the sacrifices that they give to come out and to serve us and to worship here and to provide the Eucharist.” On the flip side, though, St. Mary’s finds itself struggling to connect with the town, and in spite of sound maintenance and weekly worship, the building has a reputation for being empty. “We have more people that come to us and say, ‘Oh you’re still open.’”

Kurkowski shared a story of replacing an exterior light at the church. “The first week that was on, I had no less than three different people say, ‘Gee I didn’t even know that church was open.’”

As with the reservation, some people who attended through high school and have stayed in town just stopped going to church, Rougemont said. Some have joined a nearby nondenominational church, which specializes in helping people who suffer from common rural problems like addiction and incarceration.

“This parish is shrinking, more and more and more,” said Lefman, who is married to Kurkowski. “It doesn’t seem like there’s anything being done, diocese-wise, to change that.”

Monte Rougemont: “The questions aren’t raised.” Download

St. Mary’s leadership said they have struggled to find resources within the diocese and the wider church to help a rural church of five dedicated people. Monte Rougemont said a recent diocesan retreat seemed to promise training for lay readers in mission fields like Webster. Instead, parishioners found themselves in a spiritual workshop. “The meeting was fine, especially if you were familiar with [Alcoholics Anonymous]. Because almost all of the conversation that day was very much a structured AA meeting.”

The parish has tried a few things, included a three-month study group. Advertising was limited, however, and newcomers did not show. The parish has found that programs made for elsewhere have not scaled up.

“This is something I wish the national church would address,” Parmeter said of St. Mary’s situation. “In the rural areas, we do have a different situation than what you find in the urban and suburban.”

Chan said canons that serve the church well on the East Coast tend to break down west of Chicago. Parmeter agreed. “You go west of Chicago, and it’s like the ‘dark continent of Africa.’ You don’t really know what’s there, and the rules that exist in the populated areas don’t apply, and oftentimes don’t work,” he said. “And so we as congregations and clergy have been forced to become more creative and more adaptive than you would expect in many places in order to comply with the expectations of the church at large.”

A pensive moment during a Christmas Eve pageant

Monte Rougemont said the local nondenominational church has grown precisely because it does not need to worry about numbers and other common concerns within the Episcopal Church. “I don’t think they’re worried about numbers whatsoever. I think they came into existence by saying, ‘There are people in this community that are falling between the cracks. There are people in this community that are not getting their needs met. There are people in this community that have problems. What is it that we can do to minister to these people?’ It had nothing to do with statistics and recordkeeping or that kind of stuff. I think, maybe, we’ve lost our way on some of those kinds of things.”

Rougemont added that the election of Gene Robinson — and former bishop Creighton Robertson’s vote in support of Robinson — also made life difficult for Episcopalians working in conservative communities like Webster.

Nevertheless, St. Mary’s challenges extend beyond Episcopal Church structures and politics. As members of a church on the edge of a reservation, parishioners have long enjoyed friendships and tight relationships with Dakotas both inside and outside of the church. Fran Rougemont mentioned two Dakota families that had recently attended church but then suddenly stopped. St. Mary’s leadership had been a part of their lives, feeling like family: going to children’s sporting events, socializing together, sharing warm hugs. Yet, as Chan pointed out, natives and whites place different limitations on relationships with people who are not family, meaning that St. Mary’s members may be unlikely to hear why those two families stopped attending church. That void has left parishioners feeling some grief and confusion.

Another challenge for St. Mary’s: being a crisis-free church in a mission and a diocese in which social problems outside and inside the church can be pressing.

“Native American congregations have very strong, legitimate problems. There are more issues than we could possibly address,” Monte Rougemont said. “So, a priest or a bishop comes to St. Mary’s and says, ‘I like coming here because there’s no crisis, no problem. This is easy.’”

Rougemont said this can create a sense that St. Mary’s — with its five exhausted members in a shrinking rural town and enough of an endowment to keep the bills paid but not to hire a priest — is toward the end of the line. “I want to be understood that we don’t advocate taking one hour of resource or one dollar of resource from anything that is addressing meth addiction and suicide or abuse,” he said. “Those are really important issues. We don’t face some of those issues here. I don’t want anybody to think that we’re saying we want some of that.”

St. Mary’s is eager to do something — it just is not clear what that something is.

“Right now, we could run an ad in the paper,” Rougemont said. “But what would we advertise? We don’t have a Bible study, we don’t have a young people’s group, we don’t have a Sunday school, we don’t have a Bible school. What kinds of things can we say to this community that you’re missing out on that you could find joy and help here at St. Mary’s? What is it that St. Mary’s, the Episcopal Church here in Webster, has to offer the people here?”

Unsure of the answer, St. Mary’s handful of faithful are still coming.

“We’re just lucky that the five of us here do feel like I’m here for a reason, I’m here for God,” Lefman said. “I’m not here for anybody else. I’m here to thank him for everything.”

“If You Catch on to One”

Back on the reservation, members of the Sisseton Mission also wonder how their churches might grow. They feel needed in the community. Mike and Coke LaFontaine both sing in Dakota, and are called on to sing and pray at funerals and other events frequently.

“Though there’s only a few of us that attend regularly, we have church every Sunday,” Mike said. “Whether we have just a few in the church or 20 or 30 that will be attending, we’re still needed in the community. “

While church attendance is light, he said, many in the tribe seek help from the church when families cannot make ends meet or a loved one has died. “They want St. Mary’s help, and also the Episcopal Church to help when they’re in mourning, when they’re grieving,” he said.

To the LaFontaines, this means more than an opportunity to sing. It is a chance to share Scripture with people who may need it. As lay readers, he said, they try to explain readings in ways that are accessible to everyone.

“Whether people like it or not, they’re going to hear Scripture,” he said. “If we plant one seed, at least that one will receive the Word of God and accept it.”

Norbit Bellonger agreed. “We’ve got a granddaughter, she’s eight now. But she comes to church, and Coke and Mike — she learns from them,” he said. “She asks questions. Why? Why did they say that? So, we’ve got to explain it. And now she’s learning how to sing. She learned from these guys.”

Norbit Bellonger and Mike LaFontaine: “If you can catch on to one.” Download

Mike and Coke LaFontaine help lead Dakota hymns on Christmas Eve.

“When we sing our hymns in Dakota, you can hear her,” Mike said. “She has a love for singing.”

Bellonger said that the LaFontaines were seeds themselves at one point. They taught themselves how to sing in Dakota. “They didn’t learn from the minister. I can witness to that, because I’ve seen it. And I’ve been here quite a few years.

“They teach the little ones. Even one. That’s all it takes: if you catch on to one.”

Even for children less involved, Bonnie Bellonger said, there is benefit. “They’re playing in church and they’re still listening, and they’re catching on.”

DuMarce said that at 59 he is among those who are holding onto the church. He turned away from it in his teens and 20s but returned “because I remembered what it was like.” He brings his son to church now; he exposes him to the traditional Dakota religion as well.

“I want him to have all the tools to make his own choice when he gets older,” DuMarce said. “Right now, he’s in the middle. He’s into dancing. He’s into singing Dakota songs.

Hymn 73, Itancan, Woyute Wakan, St. Mary’s, Old Agency. Download

“He’s not into the religion part of it yet, because he doesn’t understand that yet. But at least this way, he’s got them both and he can make up his own mind.”

Sam Crawford said he hopes the church will be there for his grandchildren. “For my part, I hope I can instill my beliefs, in the way I stand firm with the church and support it,” he said. He also hopes his children feel comfortable with their Dakota ways, a part of their culture. Yet, church is also part of their tradition. “I want them to know where they come from, that they continue to support the church.”

Jaime White Thunder (left) talks with Jamie German at St. John’s, Brown’s Valley.

At 29, Jamie White Thunder was among the Sisseton Mission’s children not too long ago. The mission co-chair, a role she shares with Rachelle Crawford, meets with the churches to help resolve conflicts and discuss new ideas for ministry, fundraising, and projects. They are also engaged, as are other parishioners, with trying to raise funds to host a future Niobrara Convocation meeting. White Thunder spends her time outside the church raising her six-year-old daughter Nadia and taking care of her grandmother. Crawford also has a full plate: she has a young son and is attending college, commuting a long distance so she can remain close to her family.

On Sundays, White Thunder attends St. John’s in Brown’s Vallley, and she brings Nadia with her.

Not many of White Thunder’s peers attend church. “I don’t think they think church is cool,” she said. “They don’t want to come. I grew up in the church, so I like coming. Church, to me, is a feeling of home: it’s a home where we pray and sing.”

White Thunder is glad to see her daughter in church. She thinks Nadia will be an acolyte soon. Nadia already knows how to sing some songs and the Doxology in Dakota, she said.

“When I was little, the church used to be full of people. But as we got older, they started disappearing,” she said. “I hope her generation will be the next to come and fill up the church again.”

Jaime White Thunder: “I hope her generation will be the next to come and fill up the church again.” Download

Personal Reflection: “Just a Glimpse”

It is easy to think that life on the Lake Traverse Reservation is nothing but hopelessness. Parishioners asked me to not lose sight of the good: advancements in education, new tribal projects, faithfulness within the church, the joy of baptisms, the dignity of Dakota funerals, the people who turn to recovery, and family members who look after each other no matter what the cost.


I enjoyed many hours in conversation with Fr. Chan, who first invited me to the reservation, but I have chosen to limit his remarks and contributions because I believe that the story of the Sisseton Mission lies among its members, not its clergy. Chan was adamant in spite of the hopelessness that exists on the reservation, and the pain that is perceived by the outside world, that hope and joy are abundant and visible: in the way that Jaime White Thunder and Rachelle Crawford look after the families while taking on greater responsibility in the church; in the way that hospitality is a rule rather than an exception; in the humor that is ingrained into daily life; and in the fact that faithful people continue to preach hope in Christ Jesus. “All these drugs, abuse, depression, all this stuff — if you just look at it, yes, it’s all negative. But if you cut through all the madness, you will find beautiful people here. The humbleness. The simplicity — in a positive sense, not being naïve. And the way they treat each other with generosity. People are nice people here, good people, but they are trapped in a very negative environment,” Chan told me. He said that people worry a great deal about protecting the natural environment but overlook the atmosphere of injustice that a people like the Dakota must endure. “How about getting rid of all that pollution and let these people live a normal life?” For his part, Chan helped start a scholarship fund to help students pay for college tuition, which has helped the mission’s youth pursue studies on and off the reservation. Parishioners have raised money for the fund by selling bratwursts and quilts.

Indeed, the people are generous and good. My wife and I were hosted by Jamie German, a member of the tribe and an Episcopalian, during our stay in Sisseton. We shared meals, our interior lives, our woes, and our hopes. Jamie helped us understand everything that seemed mysterious and was deeply patient with ceaseless questions. By the end of our stay, we mutually confessed that we suffered great trepidation about the month of December — strangers in her house, and us living with a stranger — but we praised God for working it all out in the end.

There is something, as Coke LaFontaine put it when I met with the congregation in Old Agency, to Indian values. “Nothing against Wasi’chus,” he said, using Dakota slang for white people. “When we go to hospitals, we stay there if we have someone sick or soon to pass. We stay with them 24/7.

“We’ve done it with our grandmothers, and I’m sure our grandmothers did that with their relatives. It’s just passed on to us. We care for them until they’re gone.” LaFontaine said that he feels sorry for those left to suffer alone. That just isn’t the Dakota way.

Fr. Les Campbell: “I pray for life.” Download

I spoke with Fr. Les Campbell days before he died; his health had been failing for some time, but he was eager to speak with me about the life of the church — and of the Dakota way. His love of the church was clear as he spoke of holiday gatherings, St. James’ Good Friday cross walk, his world travels, and the sudden healing of a sick child. He said he greatly admired the Dakota approach to funerals. “When a person dies, the relatives go into mourning — and, in order to heal themselves, they sew blankets, they make potholders, they make everything just by hand. A year later, they have a giveaway — they give everything away,” Campbell said. Even when a family has nothing to give, they find a way to give.

Fr. Les Campbell: The Story of Fr. Fox. Download

Far removed from urban light pollution, stars crowd the heavens on a clear, bitterly cold Christmas night on the Lake Traverse Reservation.

This culture has brought people back to the reservation. A number of people I spoke with had left the reservation for places like Minneapolis, such as Coke LaFontaine and Valorie Augustson. Mike LaFontaine served in the Marines. But they came home — to a place where everybody knows each other, and the expectation is they’ll look after each other. The problems are real, but a layer of profound relationship exists in ways that are not easy to spot in other parts of America. And as people returned, so have some traditions: ECW has started sewing quilts again at St. James’.

For all of these reasons, Bishop Tarrant suggested I ask readers to approach with a mind toward further exploration.

“It really is a story that can only be fully embraced when one comes out and listens,” he said. “The most divisive aspect of our culture is that we talk more than we listen. To fully appreciate Indian ministry, you really need to come out and listen. People will be surprised that if they come out, Natives will talk.

“It’s like a painting. You can paint a sunset, but it’s not the sunset. You need to experience the sunset. You can paint a scene of the prairie, but it’s not a prairie. Until you come and sit on a prairie and you listen and you smell and you’re present, you don’t fully understand.”

Tarrant said, “You might need to say that this [article] is a glimpse — this doesn’t explain anything. It’s just a glimpse.”

Those interested in making donations may send checks to: Sisseton Mission, c/o Charley Chan, 716 7th Ave W., Sisseton, SD 57262. Checks should include a memo for specific needs, such as propane and utility bills, or scholarships. Large donations (more than $1,000) should be sent through the Diocese of South Dakota via Bishop John Tarrant (jtarrant@episcopalchurchsd.org) or 605.494.2020.


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