American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Episcopal Church

The Episcopal church, a Protestant denomination, played a major role in the implementation of the Peace Policy to assimilate Indians into American society during the late nineteenth century.

The Episcopal Church of the United States of America was established in 1783 as the church for American Anglicans after the achievement of independence from Great Britain. The key features of this denomination are its governance by a General Convention selected by members and the reliance on bishops to define the work of the church in their individual geographic areas, known as dioceses.

International Anglican missionary organizations were of little consequence in the United States because the church developed its own organization for foreign and domestic missions in 1820. Episcopal mission work with Indians had the twin goals of Christianization and assimilation of Native Americans achieved through the development of Indian clergy and reservation-based schools. The emphasis on education also was a part of the church's foreign missions and its outreach to freedmen in the post–Civil War South.

Approximately two-thirds of the Episcopal church's Indian work has been and remains in South Dakota, with missions to the Navajo the most prominent of its other efforts. The focus on the Sioux of South Dakota was the result of the work of Bishops H. Benjamin Whipple of Minnesota in the 1860s and William Hobart Hare, who was named Bishop of the Niobrara District in 1873 and made responsible for all Episcopal missions to the Sioux within the Great Sioux Reservation.

The Right Reverend Mr. Whipple gained national recognition for his humane response to Indian needs following Sioux attacks on Minnesota towns in 1862. His comments helped people to distinguish between active participants and innocent Indian neighbors in the face of the general tendency to classify all Indians as hostile. Episcopal missionaries fostered by Whipple in the years before this conflict accompanied the Indian communities when they were removed to new reserves along the Missouri River. These events made it logical for the administrators of President Grant's Peace Policy to assign the Episcopal church a major role among the Sioux in the trans-Missouri West.

The church responded to the new U.S. policy by creating the Niobrara jurisdiction to administer its work with the Sioux. William Hobart Hare, who was serving as secretary for the committee overseeing foreign missions, was consecrated Bishop of the Niobrara in 1873 after Bishop Whipple rejected the extension of his ongoing responsibilities to a new region.

Bishop Hare continued the effort of Bishop Whipple to develop Indian clergy to minister to Native people. In addition, he elevated the role of the Episcopal church among the Friends of the Indians. His invitation to Herbert Welsh, an artist and social reformer, and Henry Pancoast, a lawyer, in 1882 provided a stimulus to the creation of Indian Rights Association. Hare's writings appeared in national publications and his voice was heard during meetings of the Lake Mohonk Conference. His advocacy for assimilation included support for the breakup of the Great Sioux Reservation into smaller reserves and the allotment of Indian land into individual holdings. His term of service ended with his death in 1909.

The onset of the twentieth century ended the heroic age of Episcopal missionary work among Indians. Financial support from the federal government for sectarian schools began to decline in the late nineteenth century; local and denominational sources of funds could not make up the difference. Furthermore, national attitudes toward race turned against assimilation around the start of the twentieth century. A shift toward racism occurred in the wake of American imperial ventures overseas and the onset of segregation in the South. At the same time, growing national support for cultural pluralism reduced support of assimilation by emphasizing the need to respect cultural differences. Government policies that reduced or eliminated the use of tax dollars for mission schools hit the Episcopal church's missionary work harder than the later passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which sought to restore the traditional spiritual perspectives of Indians.

The evaluation of the missionary efforts of the Episcopal church in the early twenty-first century is mixed. Data suggest many American Indians are rejecting Christianity and turning more to traditional expressions of spirituality. Within the church are now a number of Indian clergy; in the years since the consecration of Harold Jones as the first bishop of Indian heritage, the number of Native bishops has grown. A series of face-to-face meetings connect Bishop Jones directly to the efforts of the Indian clergy created by Bishops Whipple and Hare.

The national archives of the Episcopal church are located on the campus of the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Each diocese has its own archives whose locations have been determined locally.

David S. Trask


Further Reading
Anderson, Owanah. 1997. 400 Years: Anglican/Episcopal Mission Among American Indians. Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement Publications; Cochran, Mary E. 2000. Dakota Cross-Bearer: The Life and World of a Native American Bishop. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
 

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