Monday, April 27, 2009


(This is a continuation of the Early Methodist Church history on the Blackfeet Reservation begun earlier.)

Mrs. Mecklenberg
, in the traditional way of wives being extensions of husbands, managed a group of Indian women who did beadwork for sale. She reported on the practice of calling on full-bloods as follows:
“We make a few casual remarks about the weather, the health of the children, or admire some new . . . blanket, or . . . piece of beadwork that an old grandma is working on. Then on giving our invitattion to them for a social at the church or urge their presence at the Sunday services. We feel they have appreciated our call for they have asked us to come again.”

Ironically, the Methodist lack of a strong sacramental element freed them to be more tolerant of Blackfeet sacraments, while the Catholics went head-to-head over the competing liturgies. But in another irony that cut in the other direction, the Methodists were way behind when it came to anthropological and linguistic skills that the Catholics had been honing since the New Continent was discovered. Probably the Methodists simply didn’t take Blackfeet ceremonies very seriously, while someone like Father Mallman at Heart Butte was bitterly opposed, though he was wise enough to tolerate an occasional horse sacrificed on a grave if it would avoid confrontation.

Mrs. Mecklenberg wrote: “If we want to take away [Blackfeet] religion, we must give him something to take its place . . . we cannot condemn his religion if we can’t replace it with soething better. The thing to do is to draw out from his religion the good that there is in it and gradually get him to come into the Xn realm. He worships a great Spirit and so do we.” This easy tolerance was based on blindness to the actual content of Blackfeet beliefs, a trivialization and underestimation, as well as what leaps to the contemporary eye as gender conflation, particularly relevant since Blackfeet religion depends in large part on women, esp. virtuous and very aged women. Not Madonnas.

For Mrs. Mecklenberg material culture was everything. At a white cattleman’s house she noted: “At first sight you could not detect it from the average white home. There is a piano, perhaps a violin, there are books and magazines, good furniture tastefully arranged, and the occupants are dressed as good as the average white person and often they are dressed better.” Probably her own house and clothing was not as nice, so she is to be commended for not letting jealousy overcome virtue.

The Rev. Mr. Mecklenberg
seemed to pursue a strategy that left the hub in Browning to white folks (Junior and Epworth League, Ladies’ Aid, Brotherhood, Camp Fire Girls, and Boy Scouts) while maintaining Sunday schools and other forms of religious education in East Glacier, at the Boarding School and other points. One has to giggle a bit at Camp Fire Girls and Boy Scouts, organizations meant to impart the romantic worldview of American Indians to white children across America, right there in the middle of the very real phenomenon. In short, the church was managing mostly by compartmentalization and lack of realization.

Mecklenburg left in 1926. Mrs. Wilcox, wife of the next minister, Allen C. Wilson, continued the practise of journaling. She reported that “the parsonage was a 4-room house with a coal stove in the kitchen-dining room, and coal heater in the liviing room. Outdoor plumbing, and all water carried in and out. Two bedrooms upstairs and no electricity.” “We had to work hard, and get up early because the Indians came to our house both early and late. . . They had great faith in Allen’s prayers and he would be called any time in the night to pray for the sick.” However, his prayers for money to improve the parsonage where the family included small children were not effective. The denomination itself was struggling. It was the Great Depression.

The ugly details of the worsening situation are recorded in correspondence traced by Harrod in “Mission Among the Blackfeet.” Only one official managed to get to Browning and witness. His urgings were also ignored. Finally the denomination turned on their missionary and blamed him, saying that he had mismanaged everything. Philadelphia headquarters took two conflicting points of view, one being that the thing to do with Blackfeet was to offer charity in the form of old clothes they could clean and repair and the other was to forget about Indians and take care of the white people in town.

Wilson ignored them both and out of his own sense of mission created a small institution still mourned on the reservation: The Church of the Little Sweet Pine. In 1932 it arose spontaneously from the community along the South Fork of Cut Bank Creek, fourteen miles north of Browning. Walter Torbert, church official said it “is a very comfortable building. The Indians like it. I think it cost entirely too much money -- but that is neither here nor there -- it has been done.” Nevertheless, he considered it a sort of playhouse of little importance.

This is what the Indians said, according to Mrs. Wilson: “Long before our grandmothers can remember [a] Medicine Lodge. . . was held here. Instead of using the cottonwood and the quaking aspen trees as they did then and do now, on this particular Lodge they used the Sweet Pine branches. After that this creek was known to all as Sweet Pine Medicine Lodge Creek. We want to call our church “The Church of the Little Sweet Pine.”

Harrod reports “Soon the Church of the Little Sweet Pine became a social center as well as a place for the celebration of the significant events of life -- birth, death, marriage, and baptism. It was distinctively an Indian church and dominated by Indians.”

This was a true grassroots synthesis between old and new ways, but it was doomed. Not everyone was as clear-eyed as the Wilsons. They saw competition for a dominant institution -- at least they intended for it to be dominant! When the creek undermined the foundation of the cabin, a crew of white men went up and sawed the Church of the Little Sweet Pine into firewood. Wilson had left in 1945.


jay said...

Perhaps I missed something.
Was Mrs Wilcox actually married to Mr. Wilson?--or has there been a typo?

prairie mary said...

Mrs. Wilson was actually married to Mr. Wilson. I don't know quite what misled you. Maybe it was that she quoted local Blackfeet at the end of this post.

Prairie Mary