One of the last battles between Native tribes on the Plains and the new inhabitants of those Plains occurred at Adobe Walls in Texas in 1874, the same year that the railroad
delivered Mennonites in droves to Kansas to settle on the Plains. Cheyenne warriors had participated in that battle and were arrested and removed from the Plains in larger numbers than were warriors from any other tribe. The destinies of the Southern Cheyennes would be linked with these incoming Mennonites in Oklahoma schools, missions, churches and, eventually, in the person of principal Peace Chief of the Cheyennes and Mennonite minister Lawrence Hart.
Lawrence Hart was born into the Cheyenne tribal community on his family’s allotment near Hammon, Okla., in 1933 during the hard years of the Depression. The sixth child of Homer and Jennie Hart, he was delivered and taken to her own home by the midwife for the tribe, Cornstalk, his paternal grandmother, when his mother was too ill to care for him. He spent his childhood years with his paternal grandparents, Corn Stalk and Chief John P. Hart (formerly Peak Heart, but the name was changed after he attended Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania).
Because he lived with his grandparents across the yard from his parents’ home, the young Lawrence spoke Cheyenne; his grandmother never learned to speak English. His grandfather, Chief John P. Hart, was the son of Afraid of Beavers and Walking Woman, both survivors of the massacre of the village of the great Peace Chief Black Kettle on the Washita River in Oklahoma in 1868. Chief John P. Hart handpicked Lawrence to teach him the ways of the Cheyenne people. When Lawrence reached school age, his parents came to his grandparents bearing gifts of gratitude for their help in rearing him during his early years and brought Lawrence home to put him in the local school where he learned to speak English. Lawrence remained close to his grandfather, traveling with him during the summers, when, as a peacemaker between tribes and well-known missionary of the Native American Church, Chief John P. Hart conducted services with the Ute Mountain Utes in Colorado and around the Four Corners region in Colorado.
Lawrence’s parents, Homer and Jennie Hart, were able to survive the Depression on their family’s allotment. They also provided key support as lay ministers in the local Hammon Mennonite Church, where Lawrence grew up. Homer Hart, who translated for the missionary pastors, preached in Hammon and surrounding areas for 40 years.
Selected for his helper at age 12 by Rev. H.J. Kliewer, the first pastor to the Hammon Church, Homer had converted to Christianity and become an active Mennonite by age 17. The first baptisms at Hammon had been performed by Rudolphe Petter, the Swiss Mennonite linguist who would translate the Bible into Cheyenne and write the Cheyenne dictionary. Lawrence tells the story of his older brother Sam and him as high school age teens listening carefully to their father each time he was called upon to translate an entire sermon from English to Cheyenne, not line by line, but in its entirety, during which they were never able to catch him omitting a single story or illustration from the missionary’s original English version.
Rev. Arthur Friesen, Lawrence Hart’s pastor during his high school years at Hammon High School, would send Lawrence into the Mennonite world. When he and Lawrence discussed colleges, Rev. Friesen mentioned that there was Bacone
Indian College in eastern Oklahoma, which he believed to be a fine school, but there was also his own alma mater, Bethel College, which he told Lawrence was an excellent college. Pastor Friesen remembered the young Lawrence saying that since he would have to live with white people, he might as well start. Thus, Lawrence attended Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., for two years, 1953-55, before he left to realize his dream of flying jet fighter planes in the Navy. He married fellow Bethel College student Betty Bartel, a young Mennonite woman of the Bruderthal Church of Hillsboro, Kan., and they became partners in church and tribal work.
When Grandfather Chief John P. Hart died, Lawrence was called out of the military to become a Peace Chief of the Cheyennes—after which he returned to finish his history degree at Bethel and go on to study at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., to become a Mennonite pastor. Thus, he grew into a principal Peace Chief to the Cheyennes, a Mennonite pastor at Koinonia Church near Clinton, Okla., and a leader in the Mennonite church. He has spent his life negotiating this delicate stance, one foot in the Cheyenne world, one foot in the Mennonite world, a sometimes prophet to his mixed flock. Always he has served as peacemaker, cultivating the traditions of servanthood in the peace chief tradition, reinterpreting Bible stories for Mennonites and Cheyennes to help his diverse flocks understand the tribal Jesus he knows. He has taken on a myriad of roles as peacemaker: chief, preacher, orator, negotiator, testifier, surveyor, protester, cultural historian, carpenter and more.
Lawrence Hart still remembers the Mennonite gathering in Fresno, Calif., where as a young pastor he told for the first time the story that changed his life and helped him understand the servant leadership he would be called to practice. Peace testimonials were called for, and Lawrence found himself going forward to take the microphone. His story of the reenactment on the Washita, an event that occurred in 1968, 100 years after the massacre of his people on that site, would presage the work Chief Hart would be called to do in the Return to the Earth project in later years.
Lawrence and Betty Hart and their two young children, Connie and Nathan—youngest daughter Christina was not yet born—had agreed to participate with the Cheyenne people in a commemorative historical reenactment of the Washita Battle of 1868 on the condition that the local museum in Cheyenne, Okla., bury the Cheyenne remains that had been recovered from that battle but were still in the museum. The Cheyenne people set up tipis on the original site of the battle beside the Washita River and appeared in their traditional garb. But they had not been told that the Grandsons of General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry from California would be in attendance, and there was an ugly scene far too real as the Grandsons came thundering in on horseback firing weapons, the Cheyenne children screaming in terror. The Cavalry even played the battle tune, “Garry Owen,” that their grandfathers had used on that fateful day 100 years earlier. Finally, the enactment over, the old chiefs huddled with Lawrence, a young chief, and made their way into Cheyenne to the museum to bury the remains as they had promised, with the careful dignity and ceremonial songs mandated by Cheyenne tradition. Again, the Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry showed up to salute, and the young Chief Lawrence Hart was horrified that they would tread on this hallowed ground to salute one their grandfathers had killed.
Then, as the small coffin was carried by the crowd to the burial site, a young woman, Lucille Young Bull, respectfully stepped out of the crowd and placed a blanket over the coffin. Cheyenne tradition mandated that this blanket be given to someone in attendance before the burial, someone like the governor of Oklahoma, who was in attendance that day. However, the old chiefs instructed young Chief Hart to call forward Captain Eric Gault, the commander of the Grandsons: They chose him to wrap in the blanket. Onlookers were moved powerfully by the wisdom of the old chiefs—as was the Captain, who took the “Garry Owen” pin from his uniform and handed it to Chief Hart to accept for his people, promising that the Cheyenne people would never again hear this battle song.
Years later, as a NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) reviewer, Chief Lawrence Hart discovered that there were thousands of Native remains on shelves in museums in the United States, and he took as his mission the work of burying them with dignity— enlisting the aid of Mennonite Central Committee and denominations all over the country in the ongoing project designated “Return to the Earth.” Chief Hart has established a site at the Cheyenne Cultural Center outside Clinton, Okla., as a place where up to 25,000 of the remains, still unidentified and thus unclaimed by the tribes, might be returned to the earth. Convinced that they might perform some small act of restorative justice through their action, Mennonites with other denominations are studying the MCC study guide on the Return to the Earth project, building cedar boxes and cutting muslin cloths to hold Native remains for burial.
Working with Betty, Lawrence has found ways to bring together the peace traditions of the Cheyennes and the Mennonites with a view toward reconciliation. He remembers long conversations with college friend Larry Kaufman as he struggled with the pacifist approach the Mennonites taught in a church history course he took while a student at Bethel. Later, he experienced a profound sense of call upon learning of Larry’s death by drowning in the Congo in 1956 as part of the first group of PAX men to serve in the Congo. Lawrence later said he determined that if he were to lose his life, he wanted to lose it as his friend Larry Kaufman had, in the cause of peace. As a peace chief, too, he was called by the Cheyenne tradition to a life of service and peace in which revenge was forbidden.
In 2004, Lawrence Hart brought his friend Howard Zehr with his Little Book of Restorative Justice to the Sovereignty Symposium in Oklahoma City to the annual meeting of the tribes and Oklahoma legal experts to discuss the Cheyenne way of justice. The Cheyenne Way (Llewelyn and Hoebel, 1941) had long been studied by experts and is still used today in legal studies. Lawrence himself had built that winter the red cedar stands that held the pictures and case stories detailing the Cheyenne way practiced by his tribe. Howard Zehr discussed the concept of restorative justice and as an international expert confirmed Lawrence’s belief that the Cheyenne people did indeed practice concepts of restorative justice. Then, as preacher and Cheyenne peace chief, Lawrence Hart closed the discussion at the Symposium, showing how the Hebrew tradition of justice dovetails with Cheyenne justice, neither being Anglo models. In the Cheyenne stories depicted in the display, the audience could witness the Cheyenne practice of making a way for the offender to re-enter the tribe.
For more than 40 years, working together with Betty, Lawrence has pastored Koinonia Mennonite Church, just outside Clinton, Okla., with Cheyenne worshippers. Nearby they built the Cheyenne Cultural Center, and from those two locations they have hosted hundreds of people to teach history, tradition and ritual—both Mennonite and Cheyenne. In a major undertaking in 2006, underwritten and planned by the Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee, that brought together people from across the United States, Lawrence and Betty Hart led the planning and hosting of “Cheyenne, Arapaho, Mennonite: Journey from Darlington,” a conference in Clinton, Okla., to celebrate and review the interconnected faith stories of the Native tribes and the first Mennonite mission that had begun 120 years earlier. (See April 18, 2006, page 19.)
In 2000, at the Native Assembly gathered on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, Hart delivered a compelling manifesto he titled “Culture and Christianity,” Hart’s answer to the questions of Christ and culture. He spoke of a tribal Jesus too often whitewashed in the Euro-Western reading of the Scriptures. The Jesus way he explicated for his mostly Native audience described a tribal Jesus who healed by using rituals akin to those used by the Cheyenne people. Hart cited Mark 8, where Jesus uses his own spittle to heal a blind man as the Cheyennes use spittle in purification ceremonies. Jesus’ sojourn on earth as a tribal person manifests God’s choice to reveal himself in a way no televangelist in a luxurious sanctuary will ever understand, Hart said. Rather, this Jesus, born in a manger with dust on his feet, was not Anglo; tribal lenses for viewing Jesus’ ministry have a better chance than the Anglo lens for seeing Jesus for who he was.
Hart concluded that address as he does so much of his oratory—with a lament for both Cheyennes and Mennonites who have lost their respect for and connection to the earth. Hart as historian often recalls that songs sung in the Cheyenne tradition to express the Christian faith must be connected to the earth. Though an English version of a song may not include reference to the earth, the Cheyenne translation must recognize the sacred earth. He cites the old German Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” translated by Rudolphe Petter, the Swiss missionary linguist, aided by informant Harvey Whiteshield. For Hart the Incarnation is an impossible concept without the Cheyenne word for earth, “ho ‘e va,” embedded in its expression. The axis mundi too, that center pole that stands for a connection between heaven and earth in tribal ritual, is an understanding central to Lawrence Hart’s theology that God’s love comes to touch his people where they are on earth. Hart reads John’s vision quest in the book of Revelation as a heavenly manifestation of humanity’s myriad cultural forms of worship.
Creativity may be the greatest attribute of the peacemaker. In the person of Lawrence Hart, envisioning peace has meant reinterpreting history, reimagining the biblical story, bringing to Anabaptist theology the tribal views he learned as a child. Even as his own life has moved between Native and dominant cultures, military and pacifist, government and populist, he is able to bring together unlikely elements for a new vision of the possible. Not until he could compare the Washita site where his ancestors died to the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Building was he able to convince those in the Senate hearings to secure those grounds as a national historic site. He has compared the martyrdom of Chief Black Kettle in the Washita River to that of the Anabaptist Felix Mantz, who was drowned in the cold waters of the Limmat in Zurich. He called on Amish craftsmen for help in building the cedar boxes to remove his ancestors’ remains from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He sees in the Cheyenne priest who blesses the earth toward the four directions the words of the Psalmist. Chief Hart’s oratory, which so often fuses cultures and rituals, eras in time, the public and the sacred, the denominational and the tribal, is powerful in its testimony to the life he himself has lived in complete humility as both warrior and peacemaker, servant and chief, statesman and prophet.
To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments and comments don’t appear until approved. Anonymous comments are not accepted. Writers must sign posts or log into Disqus with their first and last name. Read our full comment policy.