Missionary Life Among the Dakota Indians

By Mrs. J.F. Cross

It is hard to get the most interesting experiences of a missionary’s life, because they belong to the daily routine and so are often unmentioned. But here is a description of life and travel among the Indians, by the wife of a missionary just going to the Dakotas:

The land of the Dakotas—what a distance! How long the miles seemed from my home! How frightful the land seemed to me, from the tales of blizzards and cyclones! How strange to go to live among the Sioux Indians, known to me principally for the Minnesota, Fort Fetterman and Custer massacres; to be a friend to Sitting Bull, Brave Bull, Gall, Grass, Swift Bear, Red Cloud and many others with names no less picturesque! With such impressions I left my home to accompany my husband to his home and work at Rosebud Agency, South Dakota.

I was soon relieved of the idea of the distance, for only a few hours took us across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota to the border of Dakota. Here we left the railroad to attend the general conference of the Dakota Mission at Flandreau. How quickly all the impressions of years can be changed, when the impressions are wrong and we see the true state of affairs. In this case, seeing hundreds of bronzed faces, lighted up with joy, as they sung “I hear Thy welcome voice” in their own tongue, there was enough to change all my former opinions of Indians in general and of the Dakota Indians in particular. It was like coming into a new world. That is, it was finding those whom I thought belonged to another, lower, baser life, living the same life with myself; rejoicing in that which is my greatest joy—childhood with God the Father. And after meeting Ehnamani, Grey Cloud, John Wakeman, Spotted Bear, and many others; after hearing them discuss living topics—living topics to them because they belong to the change from heathen to Christian life; after hearing them pray—though I could not understand a word, yet from their earnestness I could understand the spirit of their prayer; after all this, I could scarcely believe that these men had ever been Indians in paint, feathers, dances and on the war path. Thus I spent my first four days among Indians. And even if preaching, prayers, discussions were in an unknown tongue, I perhaps, understood as much as I would at many a Presbytery or Conference meeting. And I got as much good from the Dakota sermon as I have from many an English sermon.

Not the least pleasing of my new impressions were those made by the missionaries present. Rev. John P. Williamson, of Yankton Agency; Rev. A.L. Riggs, D.D., of Santee Mission and Normal School; Rev. T.L. Riggs of Oahe, or rather the apostle to the Tetons, were the life of the meetings whether in English or Dakota. They came from and returned to the work to which their lives are given. I did not meet these men with the greetings of a certain minister there, who asked, “How many years have you been in the Indian work.” “About twenty,” was the reply. Then the minister said: “Well, you have been in the work so long that you would not be much good anywhere else.” My impression was that such men would be now, as they always have been, successful in any field of labor. But I must leave Flandreau with its citizen Indians, ready to vote for prohibition in the Constitution of South Dakota, for this is not our field of labor.

The next scene is one which I shall long remember—our reception at a mission home. Other homes may be happy and other people may welcome me to their homes; but few—none that I have met—can welcome one so cordially as Mrs. Riggs welcomed us to her home at Oahe. This is a long-to-be-remembered experience. And after spending a week at Oahe, meeting the teachers and pupils of the school, and the citizen Indians there we started for our own home and work, Park Street Church Station. This place has been the home of my husband for a year.

Crossing the Missouri is one of the first of our experiences. The team and wagon are loaded on the boat, the men row a few rods, then the boat stops. “Bar,” remarks Mr. Cross, “got to tow;” when, horrors! “Is this a missionary I see?” Mr. Cross is in the water, sometimes to his knees, sometimes to his waist. Thus they tow the boat a half mile. From the way they hold their breath the water must be cold. Well, it is October 10, in blizzard-swept Dakota. But after two hours of work we are safely landed on the west side of the river and soon we are toiling slowly out of the breaks of the river. After a ride of a few hours we come to a creek with no water but plenty of wood. Here dinner is announced. This is [pg 16] camping in earnest. This is not play. Camping in the East is generally within sound of the cackle of the hen and the low of the cow. But here you must live off of the land or out of your mess-chest. We combine the two. Many hotels and families could learn a good lesson from an experienced traveler and camper. In less than thirty minutes from the time we stop, horses are unharnessed, fire built, prairie chicken dressed and cooked, coffee made, table spread, blessing asked and we busy with the tender and juicy chicken. This is the same order at each meal.

At night we sleep on the earth and under the sky, with but little between us and either sky or earth. This is a new and somewhat larger bedroom than I have been used to. But with no house within twenty miles we are unmolested. What a place! I listen. “All the air a solemn stillness holds.” I look. “So lonesome it is that God himself scarce seems to be there.” But the clear air and quiet night soon lull me into unbroken slumber. Thus we travel until we reach Park St. Church Station, where we find our comfortable log house of one room ready to receive us. Though we reach the house at eleven o’clock at night, a full half dozen come to greet us, saying, “Catka, winyau waste luha, lila caute ma waste.” “Left Hand, (Mr. Cross) you have a good woman, so I am happy.” Sunday comes; at eleven o’clock we go to the neat little room, chapel and schoolroom. Here fifty men and women with children of all ages, listen with eagerness and attention to Mr. Cross as he tells them of the wise men who came to seek Jesus. Some of the faces are dirty, and so is much of the clothing. But all listen as if they perhaps might see this same Jesus. This is Dakota, our field, our people to save.

New Church at Fort Yates, North Dakota

Rev. T.L. Riggs

On Sunday, the 8th, we took steps here in the organization of a new church. By invitation, two of our Oahe Church, Solomon Bear Ear and David Lee, were present from the Cheyenne River Agency, and it was judged wise to organize. The Apostles’ Creed and a short Covenant were offered as Articles of Faith and the pledge. The nine members of our Oahe church whose homes are at Grand River and Fort Yates will become members here on dismission at Oahe, and the native workers and other missionaries will also transfer their connection, so that if all do so, the new church will have a membership of eighteen or twenty.

In connection with these services the new chapel was dedicated to the Master’s service by public expression; it has already been so consecrated. I doubt not, in the heart of the giver of the funds, as well as by the prayers of all who have been interested in it. Is is a bright, pleasant room within, and has a snug appearance from without. I think Mr. Reed has made a very creditable success in this his first building.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied .

American Missionary Association, 1888-1895

American Missionary Association


Dakota, History, Sioux,

Various. The American Missionary, Vol. 43, No. 8, August, 1889.

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