Saturday, August 23, 2014


Browning Methodist Church in the early days.

A more recent view of the church.  The entrance is now at the side.

The history of any group is like the history of a person and yet it includes many persons over time and that means far more complex dynamics and forces.  The national culture will have a lot to do with the small local group, so that in some ways the little three-church Blackfeet Methodist Parish has been at the mercy of the nation, particularly since it is on  a reservation in a remote place where Jesuits had been since the very earliest white contact.  The assumption that religious people would automatically be conscientious, moral, and protective -- as well as being prepared to convert people to a whole new way of being in the world -- was at war with the reality of religious political competition.  Clearly these guys were not active in their local churches.

Brother Van went hunting with the Blackfeet, but earlier the Jesuits went with them to battle
 and they won.  Long coats trumped short coats.

The US legislature found it convenient to escape from accusations of corruption on reservations by assigning each to a different religious group (denomination) and trying to make them responsible for the results.  This backfired bigtime in the way things do when many boundaries are introduced.  One of my themes on this blog has been that creating boundaries with different rules on the two sides always creates devious ways of creating profit.

Demonize and extrapolate however you want, human local greed has always been the mice that eat the leather hinges of the armor, as they did in the armories of the Middle Ages, so that the rigid pieces meant to be protective were simply useless.  This quick list of clergy (which includes me) begins in 1893 with the official designation of Rev. E.D. Dutcher as the pastor/missionary and Rev. W. W. Matson as the director of the Boarding School.  Brother Van had been a sort of free-lance missionary and good-will ambassador before that, but he had wandered off from the difficult reservation scene and became popular among the settlers.

White people on the reservation in early days tended to be Anglo-Scots so there was a Presbyterian church as well as the Methodist group.  The Presbyterian minister was Rev. James Gold, the father of the Doug Gold who is sometimes a focus of blame (mostly because he conflated cultural naivet√© with IQ) and sometimes praise.  He brought in a doctor to address the plague of trachoma that was blinding so many and also instigated the building of what is now the elementary school, built with local Indian labor, then acted as the first superintendent.  But in the end the Presbyterian congregation shrank and finally gave over its remaining members and all its assets to the Methodists in 1942.  

The Methodist congregation then became an awkward combination of mission church, meant to do good works and convert those who were still in their old culture, but also an institution for the support of the white middle-class ranchers, shop-keepers, BIA and IHS employees.  The total failure of the government to even feed the people had been loaded onto Rev. Major John A. Young (1876 to 1883).  In 1883-84 600 Blackfeet people died of starvation and disease and were piled on Ghost Ridge near the Badger Creek crossing with highway 89.  It was a worse tragedy than any bloody massacre.

This is a list of clergy actually assigned to the church. It is drawn from the Centennial History (1893-1993) and is necessarily sketchy.  The most complete history is by Howard L. Harrod“Mission Among the Blackfeet.” (1971) A Yale graduate teaching at Vanderbilt, Harrod is gone now.

Rev. Francis Asbury Riggin (1899) was the first. The church was built along Willow Creek outside of town.  

Rev. A.W. Hammer (1909) The “Methodist ranch” was defined in these years.  Acounts differ as to who provided the land, the government or the Blackfeet person who was assigned that allotment. In 1913 the church building moved into town.

Rev. Henry Mecklenburg (1921) encouraged female social workers who went into homes, something like the social workers in city tenements after WWI.

Rev. Allen C. Wilcox (1926) seems to have shifted the emphasis to upgrading the property.  He left at the end of the war in 1945.

Pulpit carved by Albert Racine

Altar carved by Albert Racine

Rev. Stephen C. Smith (1945) was confusingly followed by Rev. Edgar B. Smith (1947), who started the business of used clothing that grew and grew until it nearly crowded out the people.

Rev. Paul Hollenbeck came as a summer interim before Rev. George Ritchey (1952) arrived to support the post-WWII boom.  Children were a major part of the growing American interest in a church home and so the classroom extension was added. 

Rev. George Cox (1956) came next.  He was a stone mason and built the fireplace in the relatively new Babb log church.  Rev. Charlotte Bridges, a Baptist minister from New Hampshire served as interim.

Rev. Jim E. Bell and family arrived in 1959.  Bell was an officially commissioned missionary who wished to expand both Babb and Heart Butte.  The Babb land was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Thronson, who were both buried by myself, acting as interim minister in 1988-89.  In 1961, when I came to teach high school English, I was merely an attendee of the church but I lived in one-half of a small duplex that also housed “Papa Harry Pearson,” a retired lay worker who provided all sorts of support. (1963-79)

1964 was a time of disaster.  The Babb church burned down and there was a terrible flood that swept away Swims Under Church at Little Badger.  A second ministry team, the Rev. Conrad Himmels, arrived to free up Rev. Bell’s energy for the larger reservation.  Mrs. Himmel opened Browning Day Care Center in an Air Force base building moved across from the church.
Rev. Walter Mason

Rev. Walter Mason and his wife Alagene came in 1974 and stayed until 1981.  Apistatoke Church in Heart Butte was closed.  Money was a major problem -- the churches were shrinking as the nation’s interest in religion was fading in favor of social justice.  

1981-83 was a double ministry: Rev. Vicki H. and Rev. Richard Marine. They were followed by Rev. James R. Bentley who directed a lot of improvements, including to the historic Methodist cemetery outside of town.  The first set of stained glass windows, created by Brent Warburton, were installed in 1985.  Work camps from the midwest began to arrive in the summers of these years.

One of Warburton's windows.

Rev. Ron Barr arrived in 1896 and took a special interest in Heart Butte, acquiring a bus to transport the people into Browning and then reopening the church there in a quonset hut-type building.

Peggy Salois, a lay leader, and Rev. Mary Scriver, a UU minister, served between 1987 and 1989 when Rev. Richard (Jake) Jacobsen, a Navy chaplain, arrived, went into culture shock, and left.

Rev. Donna Lee Martin came in 1990.  Her husband Marshall was a major contributor to the maintenance and programs.  This period was remarkable for the expansion of programs and outreach to both local tribal people (Charles Newbreast) and people like Evelyn Attwood, a Native American certified as a Rural Chaplain.
Heart Butte Methodist Church

Rev. Rowland Freeman (1994) led a group of young people in making the stained glass windows in the bell tower.  

I think I'm missing a couple of people in these years.

Rev. Jim Barth has been the most recent pastor.  He and his wife, like  Rev. Jim and Mary Bell, lost a newborn child.  They were able to make this into a ministry.  They began to call the parish “BUMP” which disconcerted me, since I’m aware of the movement to use Blackfeet words.  But then I watched the vid.  Both the language and the music were there.

Rev. Calvin Hill

Now a new page begins.  Rev. Calvin Hill has arrived.  An enrolled Navajo, a speaker, he also speaks Hopi, Zuni and English.  Rez and boarding school raised, he has a lot in common with many Blackfeet.  Perhaps now the two shadow cultures can merge into one creative way of going forward.  "Hurry up please, it's time!"

(Previous posts about this parish begin in May, 2009.)


Anonymous said...

Rev. William Henderson Matson was the Director of the boarding school. He died February 26, 1904, Browning, MT. I am trying to find his burial information. His biographical information can be found in Northwestern Christian Advocate, Volume 52, at Google Books:
He is listed as having been buried at the Methodist Cemetery, but I cannot find any records for a Methodist Cemetery with interments going back that far.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Dear Anonymous -- a blog is NOT interactive. No one can give you information if you don't provide an identity and address. What I know is that there was a specifically Methodist cemetery west of Browning and its state was addressed a few years ago. I don't know what records the Methodist church found or revived, but you might contact them directly the old-fashioned way: a landline phone call.

There was also a burial ground near the boarding school, mostly for the many children who died at the residential school, but it would probably have been considered as belonging to the Blackfeet Indian Agency. Those records might be in the archives of the agency.