Indian Ministries, North America

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The first Mennonite ministries to First Nations peoples in North America were through the work of the General Conference Mennonite Church. The unifying principle of the General Conference Mennonite Church at its origin was to carry on home and foreign missions. The word "foreign" meant missions among "heathen," "as in unreached peoples not yet under the influence of the Gospel. Hence when an opening was found in the Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma, to carry on mission work among the Arapaho peoples, a school was built for about 25 pupils at Darlington. Mr. and Mrs. S. S. Haury arrived there in May 1880. In a few months other workers arrived, and by August 1881 the school building was completed. On 19 February 1882, this building was destroyed by fire, and four small children lost their lives, among them the infant son Karl of the Haury family.

Despite this terrific loss so early in the mission work, plans were made to build again. A brick building was put up, and when the government buildings at Cantonment, 65 miles northwest of Darlington, could be had free of charge for mission purposes the work expanded. With a government grant of $5,000 for the new building at Darlington, the work at Cantonment was undertaken in the fall of 1882.

Since the Arapaho and Cheyennes lived in close proximity in the Cantonment area, Cheyenne children were also taken into the school. For a number of years both schools had as many children as they could accommodate. The usual number at Darlington was about 50, that at Cantonment about 75. Some Indigenous children were taken to Kansas as early as 1884, and in 1887 Christian Krehbiel, president of the General Conference Mennonite Foreign Mission Board, at his own expense built an industrial school on his farm about one mile from Halstead. Gradually the schools were closed, when the government ceased giving subsidies to these missions.

In the meantime the Indigenous of both tribes had been allotted land and had settled in groups, and mission stations had been built in the more densely populated areas. Missionaries were placed at these stations to work with the adults as well as with the younger ones. The Indigenous people were largely illiterate in those early days, and only a few could understand English. These helped the missionaries as interpreters.

In 1891 Rodolphe and Marie Petter came from Switzerland to take up the work with the adult Cheyennes at Cantonment. Petter was well prepared to learn the Cheyenne language, knowing French, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and having studied English for a school year at Oberlin College, Ohio, just previously. He reduced the difficult language to writing, compiled a voluminous dictionary, worked out a comprehensive grammar, and translated Pilgrim's Progress, and the entire New Testament, as well as large portions of the Old Testament into the Cheyenne language.

In the mid-1950s there was one church, for the Arapaho people at Canton, Oklahoma. Among the Cheyenne there were churches at Longdale, Fonda, Thomas, Clinton, Hammon, and Seiling. The Indigenous children attended public schools with white neighbor children, and the English language was used almost exclusively in the mission work. Sunday school, daily vacation Bible schools, and young people's retreats were some of the special activities that helped to bring Christ to these people.

The General Conference mission work expanded to the Hopi people of Arizona in 1893. H. R. Voth, who had spent ten years as a missionary in Oklahoma, was sent to the Hopi and built a mission station at Oraibi. Here also pioneering cost sacrifices. H. R. Voth had lost his first wife through death in Oklahoma while in mission work there, and in Arizona his second wife passed away. Other missionaries came to establish mission work among the Hopi in other villages. The reluctance of the Hopi to accept the Gospel was even more evident here than in the work among the Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples. However, there were fervent Christians at the various mission stations who worked with the missionaries in Sunday schools and other activities such as proclaiming the Gospel over public-address systems in the villages, and women's work. By the 1950s it was, however, felt that a mission day school was a necessity. Hence a day school building was built with a capacity of about 80 pupils, and a new day for this mission field had come. The attendance initially averaged about 52. There were also small congregations at Oraibi, Bacabi, and Moencopi, Arizona.

A fourth opening was found among the Northern Cheyennes in southeastern Montana. The Cheyennes in Oklahoma often spoke of their relatives in Montana; so Petter made several trips there to study the possibility of using the Cheyenne translations in mission work there. As a result, in May 1904 G. A. Linscheid began work at Busby, Montana. Mission stations were subsequently built at Lame Deer, Birney; and Ashland, Montana. In this field the Cheyennes did not have the opportunities to learn the English language as early as their southern relatives.

Petter with his second wife, Bertha E. Kinsinger, was transferred to Lame Deer in 1916; and worked there until his death on 6 January 1947.

From the late 1940s to the 1980s Mennonites and Brethren in Christ added 20 or more new mission efforts to the work started by the Mennonite Brethren and the General Conference in the late 1800s among the Native people of North America. In 1986 these new efforts budgeted over $2.5 million and had more than 300 staff members, including many volunteers. In addition, local churches and individuals were involved in advocacy, foster and adoptive care, and participation in education, medical, social work, and administration for Indiginous peoples. For example, Widow Netha Buschman and her seven children began a reception home for up to 120 native people brought to Carrot River, Saskatchewan for medical care each month. The Croghan, New York Conservative Mennonite congregation helped defuse a potentially violent situation when traditional Mohawks laid claim to an abandoned camp in their area.

Alongside the expansion there has been attrition even in the newer work. The General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) closed churches at Thomas, Longdale, and Fonda, Oklahoma, and at Birney, Montana. The Mennonite Brethren gave up a church planting effort in Saskatoon, as did the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference at Roseau River, MB. The hospital and school of the Brethren in Christ Navajo mission were closed as the government took over these functions. Other boards have looked at possible cutbacks.

There has been a growing realization that injustices to Indigenous people have a bearing on their response to the Christian gospel. Most Mennonite work has included a concern for the educational, medical, and economic areas of life as well as the spiritual. For David Weaver, support of Choctaw Indigenous rights resulted in death threats and three bombings of the Nanih Wayia church. The interdenominational Project North, with the participation of Mennonite Central Committee (Canada), influenced the pace and direction of development in Canada's North. The Houma people, once thought to be extinct, were found by Mennonite Central Committee (U.S.) in Louisiana and helped, along with other unrecognized Indgenous groups, to establish their identity and gain government recognition.

Mennonites have become increasingly aware that they brought the Good News to the Indigenous people in a white man's cup, thus fostering Indigenous alternatives such as the Peyote religion. To help express the message in Indigenous languages, Mennonites have been involved in translations in the Hopi and Ojibwe (Anishinabe) languages and revisions in Cheyenne-language resources. Indigenous gospel songs have been collected in Comanche and Cheyenne hymnals and work is progressing on a Crow hymnbook. Some mission leaders are asking if the growing Indigenous spirituality provides common ground with the Christian faith in the manner of Paul at Athens.

Indigenous self-determination in the political realm has sometimes been ahead of that in the church, but Indigenous control of, and responsibility for, their churches is growing. A Native Mennonite Conference was formed in northwestern Ontario with participation by three missions; this group was eventually succeeded by the Christian Anishinabec Fellowship. Through the Mennonite Indian Leaders Council (GCM), Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Hopi Christians gained some control over their ministries in the General Conference.

Theological and geographical distance have made it difficult for Mennonite Indigenous Christians and mission workers to meet for fellowship and sharing, but several attempts have been made in the last 25 years. For example, an inter-Mennonite group gathered at the Brethren in Christ Navajo mission in 1973. Interdenominational gatherings, some of them sparked by Mennonites, have provided a forum for fellowship and learning.

In addition to traditional Bible schools, extension leadership training efforts, which draw on the experience of missions in Africa and Latin America, are being used. A few Indigenous Christian leaders want to plan their own patterns of training. Special training in recovery from and avoiding alcoholism has also been important. With most Indigenous church congregations numbering fewer than 50 active members, alternatives to the dependency-fostering salaried ministry are being sought.

Beachy Amish Mennonites, through the Mission Interests Committee, have worked with Ojibwe (Anishinabe) people (and also Cree people at Bearskin Lake and Fort Severn, Ontario, Canada) at Sioux Lookout, Red Lake, Hudson, Lac Seul, Sioux Narrows, Bearskin Lake, Fort Severn, and Kenora, Ontario. Church planting and education work began at Red Lake in 1956. Private Christian day schools were established at Red Lake (1975) and Sioux Narrows (1976). A boarding school (1956-64) and a short-term Bible school (1965-74) operated at Red Lake. A bookstore (1964-) at Hudson and prison ministry at Kenora, as well as organized congregations at Bearskin Lake and Red Lake, have been part of the work. Committee members, workers and pastors have included Mahlon Wagler, Ben F. Lapp, Ezra T. Peachy, David Hersberger, Loren Kipfer, David and Greta Mosquito, Elijah and Emma Stoney, Lazarus Stoney, and Sylvanus Schrock. The total budget in 1988 was $155,000 ($40,000 received for services). Mission Interests Committee Newsletter contains current information.

Brethren in Christ have ministered to the Cree people at Timber Bay, Saskatchewan (Timber Bay Children's Home, a dormitory for public school children, operated by Northern Canada Evangelical Mission, 1950-68, by Brethren in Christ, 1969-) and at La Ronge, Saskatchewan (Girls' Home). The Timber Bay home's budget in 1988 was $300,000, two-thirds of which was supplied by the government. Evangelical Visitor (Nappanee, Indiana) contains recent information.

Beginning in 1965 the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario sponsored programs in church planting and community development among Ojibwe (Anishinabe) people near Emo (Manitou, Sabaskong and Mines Center Reserves), ON. The budget was $4,000. Workers have included William Kurtz, Fred Nighswander, and Gleason Martin. The Ontario Informer contains current information.

The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (Holdeman), through the Christian Public Service Board (Canada) began an outpatient home among the Cree people at Carrot River, Saskatchewan, in 1984.

Evangelical Mennonite Conference programs have included church planting efforts at Virden, Manitoba (Sioux Valley Reserve), Kamsack, Saskatchewan (Cote and Keeseekoose [Ojibwe (Anishinabe)] reserves), and Swan River, Manitoba (Ojibwe (Anishinabe)). Pastors and workers have included Frank and Mary Braun, Dave Plett, and John and Brenda Cosens. A staff of four full-time workers was supported by a $45,000 budget in 1988. Information is found in The Messenger (Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada).

Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference (EMMC) sponsored church planting work with Ojibwe (Anishinabe) people through the Western Gospel Mission at Roseau River, Manitoba (1952-61) and has placed workers with the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission in York Factory, Manitoba; God's Lake, Manitoba; Thompson, Manitoba; Shamattawa, Manitoba; Lac la Biche, Alberta (Bible school, extension education); and Round Lake, Ontario. In 1960 The Board of Missions (EMMC) took over the work of the Western Gospel Mission at Roseau River, Manitoba (1961-71) and started work with a congregation (Lakeside Gospel Chapel) at St. Laurent, Manitoba (Métis). Workers and pastors have included Ben D. Reimer (Evangelical Mennonite Conference), Jake and Dora Hoeppner, Sara Gerbrand, Nettie Penner, and Arnold and Elvira Heppner. The budget was ca. $25,000 and staff members numbered five in 1988. Information is found in the EMMC Recorder (Winnipeg).

The Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches (Evangelical Mennonite Brethren) was involved with Ojibwe (Anishinabe) and Cree people in the Dallas Bible Church and the Fisher Bay Bible Camp at Dallas, Manitoba beginning in 1976 (two staff members; budget of $15,000-18,000 in 1988). Information is available from Gospel Tidings (Omaha, Nebraska, USA).

In Canada the Native Ministries program (formerly known as Mennonite Pioneer Mission of the Bergthal Mennonites of Manitoba) of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (GCM) has worked since 1948 from offices in Winnipeg. It has established a reception home, community development, leadership training, advocacy, and camping programs with Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Cree, and Métis peoples in Winnipeg (2 congregations), Wanipagow (resident ministries), Bloodvein River (resident ministries), Pauingassi (congregation since 1955), Little Grand Rapids (itinerant ministries, 1956-), and Cross Lake (Elim congregation since 1956; Cree), Manitoba. In addition, the Native Ministries organization has been involved with Métis people at Matheson Island (itinerant ministries, 1948-), Anama Bay (1953-54), Pine Dock (itinerant ministries, 1949-), Loon Straits (itinerant ministries, 1955), Riverton, and Selkirk (Selkirk Christian Fellowship, 1966-93), Man. Other programs include work with Blackfoot (Blood) people at Cardston, AB (1964), and with Métis and Cree at Saskatoon (1986-). These programs were carried out by a staff of 8 (plus 4 volunteers) with a budget of $437,400 in 1988. Workers and pastors have included David Schulz, J. N. Pauls, J. N. Hoeppner, J. W. Schmidt (at Winnipeg offices); Annie Janzen, Willie and Maria Guenther, Genny and Neil Funk-Unrau, Elijah and Jeanette McKay, Jake and Trudy Unrau, Neill and Edith Von Gunten, Jake and Martha Bergman (Métis); Oliver and Hulda Heppner, Evan and Arlie Schultz, Jacob Owen, St. John Owen, Spoot Owen, David Owen, Henry and Elna Neufeld (Ojibwe (Anishinabe)); Fannie and Jeremiah Ross (Cree); Margaret and Ernie Sawatzky (Blackfoot); Ray and Arlene Dumais (Métis and Cree at Saskatoon). Information is found in Mennonite Reporter and in Lois Barrett, Vision and Reality (1983).

The Mennonite Church Alberta (GCM) has sustained ministries with Blackfoot (Blood) people at Glenwood (church planting, 1944-66), Standoff (Bible studies, 1984-86), and Gleichen, Alberta. Workers and pastors have included Henry Klassen, John H. Dyck, Henry Kopp, and Alvin Lepp. The Conference of Mennonites in Saskatchewan has sponsored work with Cree and Métis at Rosthern (children's camp, 1980-) and Saskatoon (in cooperation with Native Ministries of Winnipeg). Workers included Henry W. Friesen and Ray and Arlene Dumais.

Mennonite Brethren work has been carried on by several district conferences. The Alberta Provincial Conference has placed workers through the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission, working with Cree people at Hobbema, Alberta in church planting since 1973 (Reinhold and Helen Fast). In British Columbia, the Harbour of Hope congregation at Port Edward (Anne Neufeld) has merged with the Prince Rupert Mennonite Brethren church and the provincial conference has placed workers through the North American Indian Mission at Seabird Island Reserve (1973-85; Ed and Dianne Cooper). The Saskatchewan Provincial MB Conference has supported church planting efforts among the Cree people and others in Saskatoon, 1974-85 (Reuben and Edith Block). Information on Mennonite Brethren work is found in Christian Leader and Mennonite Brethren Herald.

Mennonite Central Committee (Canada) has supported a variety of voluntary service programs (teachers, nurses, researchers, community development, resource development, justice witness) among Cree, Ojibwe (Anishinabe), Dene, Kwakiutl, Stoney, Métis, Inuit, and Innu peoples in several provinces, the Arctic Coast, and the Northwest Territories. Menno Wiebe has given leadership. The budget for the MCCC Native Concerns programs was $150,000 with a staff of 3 members in 1987 (ca. 200 volunteers, 1974-87).

Mennonite Disaster Service has repaired houses damaged by floods in Moencopi, Arizona (Hopi), Wounded Knee, South Dakota (Sioux), and Winisk, Ontario (Cree).

Northern Light Gospel Missions, beginning in 1953, with a center in Red Lake, Ontario, carried out church planting, translation work, and teaching among Ojibwe (Anishinabe) people in Ontario at Pikangikum (1953-    ), Poplar Hill (1953-    ; development school since 1962), Deer Lake (1955-    ), Sandy Lake (1956-    ), North Spirit Lake (1957-    ), Slate Falls (1957-    ), Grassy Narrows, MacDowell Lake (1960-    ), Cat Lake (1961-    ), Osnaburg House (1963), Pickle Lake (1967-    ), Savant Lake (1969-    ), Armstrong (1972-    ), Ear Falls, Stormer Lake (1973-    ; fellowship center, retreats, Bible school), and Thunder Bay (youth ministry). Leaders have included Irwin and Susan Schantz, Llewelyn and Edith Groff, Elizabeth Peake, Sam Quill, Patric Owen, Albert Strang, Moose Strang, John Strang, Cello Meekis, Gordon Meekis, Daniel Meekis, Saggius Rae, John Mamageesic, Frederick Kakagamic, Jacob Kakagamic, Johnny Rae, Enos Miller, Magnus James, Ralph Halteman, Jess King, Wayne Watson, and Lee Martin. The mission eventually was replaced by the Native Mennonite Conference, which evolved into the Christian Anishinabec Fellowship.

Clair and Clara Schnupp have worked with Northern Youth Programs among Ojibwe (Anishinabe) people in Dryden (ministry to high school students and families, 1967-    ; Beaver Lake Camp, 1971-), Stirland Lake (Wahbon Bay Academy, a high school for boys, 1971-86; coeducational since 1986), Cristal Lake (school for girls, 1976-86; family resource center, 1988-), Beaver Lake (Debwewin Bible Institute, 1980-) and Thunder Bay (urban ministry, 1986-) in Ontario.


Wiebe, Menno. Mission Focus 15 (September 1987): 33-39.

Author(s) Alfred Habegger
Malcolm Wenger
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Habegger, Alfred and Malcolm Wenger. "Indian Ministries, North America." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 23 Feb 2024.,_North_America&oldid=177465.

APA style

Habegger, Alfred and Malcolm Wenger. (1989). Indian Ministries, North America. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 February 2024, from,_North_America&oldid=177465.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 22-23; vol. 5, pp. 427-430. All rights reserved.

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