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In a Reservation Cemetery

What we found on Four Bear’s grave.

To read what was there on the grave stone was not a great surprise. I had known for some time that Joseph Four Bear was a believer in Jesus Christ. His granddaughter, Marcella, who is 98 years old, had told me as much. I’d asked her about Christianity, if any; and she’d told me how Mom, Dad, two brothers and two sisters would step up into the wagon and go to church, twice a week, in Promise, South Dakota, a village on the Cheyenne River Reservation so small you can find it only on specialty maps, if it can claim to exist at all.

Her grandparents were Christian believers “in that time,” she’d explained, as if Christianity were a short story in the epic of both her life and the history of her Lakota people. When Joseph Four Bear put his thumbprint on the Ft. Laramie Treaty in 1868, she said, he promised peace and tolerance for the white man, and was thereby given title to the land where he and his family had been living for years. The Great Father graciously advised him that, now that he’d signed the treaty, he could live where he had before.

“Isn’t that crazy?” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

We were on our way to her grandparents’ graves just outside of La Plant, South Dakota, a town where once there were eight or nine churches. On a good day, La Plant’s population is 250 or so, but only if you count volunteer workers who come from white churches somewhere vaguely back east. “They build houses for the people,” she told me, pointing at one painted in a peculiar style. “There’s one right there.”

I was a bit surprised she commended those volunteers, but she did. La Plant, the census claims, is one hundred percent Native. Close to 70 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, but then the Cheyenne River Reservation is among the poorest regions of the country.

La Plant’s Episcopal Cemetery sits up the hill north of town. Marcella claimed we would find Joseph Four Bear’s grave somewhere within. It was me driving, Marcella beside me, and two of her great-granddaughters in the back seat, bright kids who wanted to learn some things about this long-gone ancestor, Joseph Four Bear. On the way up the hill, we tried to string together just how many “greats” they needed to precede his name – after all, the man whose thumb-print adorns the Ft. Laramie Treaty is their great-grandma’s grandpa.

Despite her age, Marcella got out of the car with us, and we all walked through uneven grasses between upright stones festooned with the adornments that flourish in most Native-American cemeteries.

Faithful, loyal

A molting meadowlark – young and a little woeful – sat up high on a set of deer antlers tethered to a pole above a cemetery stone, letting his or her mother know he was there. Behind him, and behind us, as far as you could see in every direction, reservation grassland ran invisibly into a sky so bright the sun seemed little more itself than an ornament. In a couple of hours, it would be scorching.

One of the granddaughters let out a yell and pointed when she found the Four Bears plot. The morning sun spread so bright on all that open land that Joseph Four Bear’s stone was just about unreadable. Marcella came over slowly, smiling, while the granddaughters stooped and visored their eyes with flattened hands to read an inscription almost fully there: “For more than 36 years, a faithful Christian and loyal friend of . . . .” The inscription was faded. “Of the whites?” one of them said, guessing. Look for yourself.

It was not what they’d expected. “Grandma,” one of them said, as if shocked, “our great-great grandpa was a Christian?” She’s a Gates scholar, on her way to study botany. “Joseph Four Bears was a Christian?” she said again.

That last word was repeated in a tone that registers as something akin to a wound, as if she’d been slapped into humiliation, wounded by a testimony written forever in stone. She had been imagining some old tribal chief in the line of Crazy Horse.

“Seriously?” she said, and looked up at Grandma.

I’ve only rarely lived outside the company of Christian believers. I’d never heard words spun to that effect in a snickering voice.

When Grandma spoke to her granddaughters, she did so warmly. She wanted them to understand how to grasp the difficult trek that is the history of the Lakota people. She told them what she’d told me, that Christianity lent a helping hand during the hopelessness of the transition time, when the people had to adjust to a way of life unlike anything they could have imagined. For a time back then, going to church and praying to a white man’s god were simply passages in their lives, experiences that had to be lived through, a necessary but temporary entanglement in the much greater Lakota story.

Native people aren’t the only ones who register disdain for the Christian faith. You can hear it here, there and everywhere, and the Bible claims derision is a given for those who believe. Grandma didn’t hammer away at the white man’s Christian faith, not at all. Christianity had to be used, she claimed, for a time at least; laced-up leather boots had to replace moccasins; wool coats wore better than blankets around the shoulders.

The snickering that morning stayed with me, in great part because it left me speechless. What could I say, really, a white man who’d always embraced Christianity? It wasn’t the time for Four Spiritual Laws or John 3:16. There I stood, grieving, not simply for my heart’s emptiness, but for the sins of my people, a white culture who weaponized “Manifest Destiny” to use it in the arsenal of assimilation and acculturation.

There I stood, an old white man who’s written a half-dozen books of meditations, a professor who spent 37 years teaching in a Christian college, and more of my life in church than most Americans can even imagine. I had nothing to say to a couple of Lakota kids who were saddened and snickering that a cemetery stone said their ancestor had been “a Christian and a friend of the whites.”

Occasionally, it seems our sharpest epiphanies are received in wounds. Some revelations carry the anguish I heard just then in the song of that motherless young meadowlark, 50 feet away, perched on an antler strapped to a grave, somehow searching. 

  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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