Henry Long Feather leaned against a tree and studied the white woman. She taught the children from the Bar FB three days a week and often brought them out of the little shack Fairbanks had built for a school. This was a rare thing for a white teacher to do, but she—Laurie Wilcox—was different from most whites Long Feather knew.
She was older, like him. Perhaps fifty summers or so, but youth still lived in her smooth skin and ready smile. Everything about her was light and delicate and fascinating to him. From her long, golden braid that gleamed even when there was no sun, to her slight nose, to her haunting eyes—the icy blue of a stream in winter. But they warmed him, like now.
She raised her gaze over the heads of her students and beamed at him. “Mr. Long Feather. Come to join us for a lesson?”
A dozen little cowboy hats and twin braids all swung round to him, showing young faces bright with curiosity. Shoving his hands into his pants pockets, he pushed off the tree and strode over to them more than happy to forget the event with the bull. “Not today, Mrs. Wilcox. I have come for Joseph.” He tapped the top of a brown hat and the freckled-face boy of eight beneath it grimaced up at him. “Yes, you. Your father has need of you in the blacksmith barn. He asked me to send you over.”
“Aw,” the boy moaned, kicking at a dirt clod.
“That’s perfect timing. We just finished our lesson.” Mrs. Wilcox snapped her Bible shut. “You go on, Joseph. Don’t keep your father waiting. The rest of you,” she surveyed the ring of a dozen or so students, “Spelling test tomorrow. Make sure you study.”
The children gave her their own collective groan and drifted away, a few darting for trouble at various places on the ranch. When they were gone, their teacher rocked on her heels and smiled up at Long Feather, an awkward kind of sign that he couldn’t read. But there was much he did not understand about Mrs. Wilcox.
“What kept you busy today, Mr. Long Feather?”
He shrugged, not quite prepared to share all the details of his day. “The boys brought in a couple of Indian ponies Fairbanks wants me to train to the saddle. They are willing. It will not be much work.” Unlike this new task of training Joel Chapman. “And you, Mrs. Wilcox? What does a teacher do with herself when the students have gone?”
“Please, call me Miss Laurie. Everyone does.” He nodded, acquiescing to her request and she continued. “I have my own homework—some papers to grade.” She bit her bottom lip and tilted her head in a way that made him want to brush his hand down her cheek. “Could I see them? The Indian ponies.”
“Surely.” The answer slipped out before he’d had a chance to think about it. A missionary, Miss Laurie was liked on the ranch, but the hands kept their distance, as if her religion might be catching. Long Feather harbored no such fear. Instead, he wondered what they would say about her strolling with an Indian if she wasn’t preaching at him.
She scrunched her forehead at him. “You don’t want to show me?”
Her perceptiveness caught him off guard. “No, it is not that. You are a white woman.”
“Yes, I was born with the affliction.”
Her joke took a moment to light on his brain, but when it did, he offered her a reserved chuckle. “You don’t understand—”
“I understand perfectly, Mr. Long Feather. And as a child of God, I love all people. I can’t help what others think about that. I don’t let their prejudices dictate with whom I stroll.”
He pushed a hand over his mouth, sighed, and gestured back toward the way he’d come. “After you.”
Hmmm. What trouble awaits this relationship? I hope you’ll read and find out. Get your copy today!
22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 1 Corinthians 9:22
Too often, the history of missionaries in America has been one of overriding a group’s identity to Christianize them. Capt. Richard Pratt said, referring to Native Americans in 1892, “Kill the Indian in him, save the man.” But I discovered a missionary who did it right and the Cheyenne loved her.
Marie Gerber Petter came to America from the Swiss Jura Mountains with her husband Rodolphe in 1890. The couple arrived with the express purpose of taking the Gospel to Native Americans. But first, they had to learn English and raise funds for their goal, which they did by visiting Mennonite churches in the mid-West.
In 1893, the couple moved to Cantonment, OK to live among the Cheyenne. Rodolphe and Marie were fluent in French, German, English, and Rodolphe could read Latin and Greek. Together, he and Marie began to learn Cheyenne. Their perseverance and passion for the language impressed the Cheyenne greatly. The Petter’s shared the Gospel but did not denigrate the Cheyenne religion in the process.
Instead, they tried to copy Paul’s example and be all things to all people.
When Marie realized the Cheyenne women had some amazing needlecraft and beadwork skills, she immediately set about creating sewing circles. A beautiful, nonconfrontational way to find common ground with the women in the tribe. They sewed together and spoke Cheyenne, the roles of teacher and student going back and forth. And Marie was an eager student. She was on fire to learn the language because she desperately wanted the Cheyenne to meet her Savior.
The Petters not only brought the Cheyenne the Gospel, but they also did the tribe a huge service by turning an oral language into written form. The couple produced a Cheyenne dictionary, a Cheyenne grammar book, two Cheyenne hymn books, a translation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, the complete New Testament and a beginner’s guide for learning Cheyenne.
I found the following quote in the Chicago Community Mennonite archives that I thought summed up what this amazing couple accomplished for the Lord: “Lawrence Hart, Mennonite pastor and Cheyenne Chief has credited Petter with the preservation of the Cheyenne people. When everything else was taken away (buffalo, deer, fishing streams, native arts and horses) [the] Petter[s] helped sustain a Cheyenne identity by preserving the language. The Petters, wrote Chief Hart, are now viewed as Saints among the Cheyenne.”
Now, that’s how you spread the Gospel.
Marie and her husband served among the tribe for over twenty years, always respecting the culture and fighting assimilation, yet modeling the love of Jesus Christ in a way that is still winning Cheyenne souls to this day.