Monday, May 05, 2008


*The small print says: “Donald, 7 years; Deborah, 5 years; Huldah, 3 years; Picture taken November 18, 1947.” The wife and mother remains anonymous -- as was typical of pastor’s wives. I expect this was meant to be a Christmas card. I see that the girls are wearing matching dresses and I suspect their mother made them. Huldah has hold of her mother’s blouse collar just above a silver pin that appears to depict a deer. There’s nothing on the back of the card.

This card was sent to me by Ruth Barton of Putney, VT., through the assistance of Cleone in Billings, in the spirit of returning a bit of vital history to the Methodist Blackfeet Mission.

The definitive history of this parish -- which was both a “parish” meaning a specific topographical area plus a “gathered congregation” meaning that anyone who felt they might fit in could join -- is “Mission among the Blackfeet” by Howard L. Harrod, a longtime faculty member at Vanderbilt University, now passed on.

Edgar B. Smith features largely in chapter ten, which begins:

The decades between 1940 and 1960 were years of tension and occasional conflict in the Methodist church for the church in Browning was struggling to resolve its identity problem. Was it to be a middle-class white church with a minority of largely assimilated middle-class Indian members? Or was it to be an institution which included a broad segment of the Indian population, not simply as objects of charity but as full participants? Related to these institutional questions was the continuing problem of the minister’s role in Browning. Was he chiefly a minsiter to the town population, or was he primarily a mssionary to the Blackfeet? The forces which had maintained an equilibrium between Indians and whites through parallel programs was upset when the Presbyterian church was closed. This event marked the beginning of the decline of Indian participation and the increase of white domination of the church.”

When I came to Browning in 1961, I attended this Methodist church and sang in the choir. It was very much like the Presbyterian churches I’d attended in the Forties and Fifties and the place was full of people, quite active. The minister at that time was the Rev. Jim Bell -- his wife’s name was Mary -- and he was a sympathetic missionary. That is, he didn’t try to dissuade the Blackfeet from their old ways, but tried to fit the old ways into the Methodist ways. He was a light-handed sort of theologian, who did for Bob and I the formal counseling my mother’s Presbyterian church back in Portland required before we could be married in her church.

In 1942 the wife of the Rev. Allen Wilcox, a mission-focussed pastor, claimed that the Indians didn’t attend services because they wore moccasins and blankets, which embarrassed them. By 1988 when I served this congregation as an interim (I was technically Unitarian and probably listed as a lay-leader), membership had shrunk to a minimum and the mission consisted mostly of collecting and distributing clothing, both second-hand and excess from clothing stores, given as a tax write-off. But the problem of whether this was a free-standing church or a mission was still pressing on everyone.

The Browning Presbyterian church had had somewhat the same split. The minister, Rev. James Gold, was sent from Pennsylvania as a missionary. He was prone to depression and it was thought that being in the “healthy” West would help him. Born and highly educated in Glasgow, he was a dedicated man who did his best, but his congregation on Sunday morning was local white “elite,” including my in-laws. His son was Douglas Gold, controversial superintendent of schools and author of “A Schoolmaster Among the Blackfeet.” His granddaughter, after a career as a special education teacher in North Carolina, lives here in Valier. When Dr. James Gold could no longer sustain his ministry, he was not replaced. He’s buried in Cut Bank. Since respectability in the WWII years and after was based on church attendance, the elite whites migrated to the Methodist church, bringing along their assets.

In 1945 oil was struck on the Blackfeet Reservation and, in anticipation of riches, the Methodist church proudly “bought out” the mission with $300. Rev. Stephen Smith, the minister, felt that 80% of the Indians were Catholic and that charity was not appreciated. Uproar ensued. One Board of Missions missive claims that $60,000 had been sent over the years for a MISSION. This minister left and the interim was Rev. George Ritchey. The Presbyterian windfall was used to build on a youth wing and to remodel the building as a whole. Oil revenue didn’t flow to the church.

The Rev Edgar Smith was the pastor of the Methodist Blackfeet Mission through the Fifties, the Golden Age of the congregation as a “gathered” and mostly white or mixed-blood group. When the BIA turned to Indian Preference for hiring and then even more when Red Power became so strong that many whites simply left, the group shrank drastically. Now membership is mostly mixed blood, often descended from the original white members.

Smith always had good memories and sometimes returned on vacations. I met him once in the early nineties. When they had been here, they still lived out on the “Methodist ranch” directly to the west of town. Mrs. Smith told me that they were very poor and that there were so many boxes of unsuitable shoes (high-heeled sandals, for instance) that she used to burn them in their wood stove. She said they generated a lot of welcome heat, but those years are always associated for her with the stink of burning leather.

Such small matters, postcards and smells, can return the reality of our past instead of locking us into matters of protocol and control, though historical analysis like “Mission Among the Blackfeet” can also break through stereotypes and unreasonable expectations. Though people often speak in simplistic terms of “us against them,” the reality is always far more complex.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Since I am mention as being 7 years old, very interesting.
If interested, e-mail me at:
I have original postcards for several years
questions .. ask
Mary: relative of Bob?