For almost twenty-six years, Marlane Sturm directed Music Ministry at Aldersgate UMC in Fort Wayne, IN. Music was not her only calling. She nurtured a fierce interest and commitment to Native Americans, especially the Sioux, and created the Bear Creek Mission. Her aim was to help. She understood their beliefs and culture. She never went to the reservation to preach, only to help, and in time, was given their trust and respect—not an easy achievement.
I only know bits and pieces of the indigenous peoples of the costal and southern US. Due to a character in one of my works, Jacob Sampson Williams, I had to research the plains tribes. Since there is so much written, and I wasn’t a scholar, I chose to use the perspective of the Northern Cheyenne.
John Stands in Timber, the late tribal historian for the Northern Cheyenne wrote Cheyenne Memories. His book became my source material for Jake, half Indian, whose mother was a German immigrant. In 1860, she travels west to help a relative and is nearly killed when pitched from a carriage during a prairie fire. She would have died, if not for Jake’s father, who finds her wandering in shock.
The Northern Cheyenne, at that time, had a different viewpoint when it came to crazy. We lock up, drug up, or shun people with mental issues. They considered them somewhat blessed, touched in the head by spirits, and therefore, were carefully treated. The camp accepted the woman who would become Jake’s mother as Human, one of the People.
Another profound difference between our belief systems is the Native American respect for Nature, their understanding that all things relate to all things. The world, its peoples, the stars and moon, everything is interconnected. Some plains tribes thought of farming the land as “cutting the Mother’s breast,” while Eastern tribes were wonderful farmers.
Two hundred years ago, our expansionism refused to accept that Indians had nations, spoke and believed differently, until they realized tribal feuds could be a useful tool. The battle at Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) is quite different in Cheyenne Memories from the deification of Custer’s role. Industry and railroads owned the politicians and newspapers. It was essential to vilify anyone and anything seen as a barrier to expansion. The mutilations to dead soldiers at Greasy Grass was exploited in the press. The mutilations and horror of Sand Creek, where Black Kettle had been told to safely camp, then ruthlessly massacred, were far worse than Creasy Grass and included the women and children. Warriors had no respect for anyone who hurt the innocent and had long memories.
Unlike our culture, tribal leaders were chosen for their generosity, (often the poorest in camp due to giving away everything they owned), or for their spirituality and wisdom. All males fought, while the women and children hid. Some women stayed behind to fight, but children were cherished. To bombard a peaceful village was incomprehensible and profoundly evil to the People.
Why all the sad parts of history? The point is to illustrate the differences in cultures and how Marlane understood and demonstrated her awareness. We live in a world where strict adherence to religious dogma has created chaos and violence. I knew nothing about Muslims until one married into our family. He explained the kindness inherent in those who practice the Muslin faith with true dedication. I felt shame and despair that doctrine is used as a justification for hatred. I learned from his patience with my ignorance, discovered a need to study other religions, and have had my own faith enriched by the differences.
Marlane was graced with an understanding—the heart to know and live it. There are Lakotah who will never think of her as a waśicun but as wicaśa okinihan.
Enjoy your well-deserved retirement, Marlanie, but we will miss you.