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Power of forgiveness transcends generations


September 25, 2008
-Deborah Froese

CLINTON, Okla. — Forgiveness and reconciliation have a compelling effect that can transcend generations. Just ask Cheyenne Peace Chief and Mennonite pastor Lawrence Hart, or the group from Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry with whom he shared his story during Native Assembly in Clinton, Oklahoma this summer.

A tour of local historical sites prompted Hart to tell his guests about an incident that he says taught him the true significance of being a Peace Chief.

The town of Cheyenne early re-enacted the Battle of Washita which took place in the winter of 1868 when General Custer and the Seventh US Cavalry attacked the camp of Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle. They announced their assault by playing “Garry Owens,” their unofficial marching song.

Although the re-enactment had always taken place without the local native community, on the 100th anniversary, the town invited Hart and his people, including other Peace Chiefs, to join them. “I told them there was no way we can celebrate that event,” Hart said. “But they persisted.”

By the time the town presented their third invitation, Hart responded with a challenge. “I told them we could come and commemorate the event without celebrating if they would allow the reburial of bones [of our people] that had been unearthed by erosion.” Hart also requested a burial place for those bones, which had been on display in the Black Kettle Museum. The burial would take place at the end of the event.

“The town agreed,” Hart said. “They even provided a small bronze coffin.”

As Hart watched the unfolding scene from a nearby stage, he learned that the young re-enactors approaching in authentic uniforms and carrying authentic weapons were the Grandsons of the US Seventh Cavalry Grand Army Republic, descendants of the men who had killed his ancestors. Hart was furious that he had not been told of their participation.

It began to snow, just as it had 100 years earlier, but this time as the cavalry attempted to play “Garry Owens,” their instruments froze in the cold.

After the re-enactment and as the funeral procession emerged from the Black Kettle Museum, Hart discovered the Grandsons were waiting to take part in the ceremony. They saluted the coffin as it was carried toward its resting place. All of this angered Hart even further.

But as the procession continued, a Cheyenne woman removed a beautiful Pendleton blanket from her shoulders, folded it and placed it on the coffin in tribute to her ancestors.

Tradition demanded that the blanket be given away and Hart was instructed by other more senior Peace Chiefs to call forward the captain of the regiment to receive the blanket. Hart’s respect for the other chiefs forced his compliance.

“Two paces away from us, he [the captain] drew his sabre and saluted us,” Hart recalled. “I asked him to do an about face and one of the other chiefs put the blanket on his shoulders. That was a moment that people will never forget, an act of reconciliation. Throughout the crowd in the cold and snow, there was not a dry eye.”

But the proceedings were not yet complete. The regiment followed the Chiefs back into the museum. “All of them, especially the younger men, were crying and they started to embrace us one by one,” Hart said.

Hart and the captain were the last to meet. The captain removed a small oval pin from his uniform lapel and showed it to Hart. It was a “Garry Owens pin,” a symbol of the dreaded marching song.

Hart remembered the captain’s words clearly. “Lawrence, I want you to have this. Accept it on behalf of all your people. I want you to be assured that never again will your people hear the ‘Garry Owens.’”

The emotional impact of Hart’s story was not lost on those who heard the retelling. Hart admitted that he often sees tears in response.

“It was very moving,” said Edith von Gunten, who co-directs Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry with her husband, Neill, and helped to organize Native Assembly.

Native Assembly is held every other year and it is co-sponsored by MC Canada Native Ministry and Native Mennonite Ministries, a partnering organization of Mennonite Church USA.

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