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the Empathy List #106: My Favorite Missionary
The Deaf Female Baptist Missionary who turned Indian Rights Advocate
Hello friend, Liz here.
I’m popping in to share with you an essay I just published at Current. I think you’ll like it… because it’s about my favorite defiant, culturally-sensitive lady missionary. ;-)
The name of this disabled female saint is Isabel Crawford, and once I heard her story of advocacy and love for a tribe of Kiowa in Oklahoma, I could not easily forget it.
So I wrote about it. :)
Enjoy this excerpt and then click through to finish the story.
An Indigenous Rights Reformer in the Age of “Manifest Destiny”
Of all past Christian endeavors, missions may be the most maligned—and not without reason. Imperialism and Christianity, in fact, arrived in many lands inextricably linked. Yet Isabel Crawford was not like the others. The deaf twenty-something Baptist missionary from Canada served on the Oklahoma reservation of the Kiowa nation from 1893 to 1906 during one of the most tumultuous periods of Euro-American and Indian relations.
However, her culturally sensitive approach of bringing Christianity to the Kiowa defied the norms of her time, offering an example of exceptional mission work to which we can still aspire today.
I believe the reason lies in Crawford herself. Crawford was not meek and mild.
Instead, as she described herself in her journals, she possessed “a castiron [sic] constitution, a Scotch backbone, and a fully developed Irish funny bone,” according to Marilyn Färdig Whiteley’s research in her book More Than I Asked For: The Life of Isabel Crawford. And Crawford certainly needed a hardy constitution, for fulfilling her assigned mission to the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma amid the roil of U.S. and Indian politics was no easy task.
A few years into her tenure Oklahoma would officially turn into reservation lands and would become a testing ground for the U.S. government’s most harmful policies toward native peoples.
Across the country these policies cleared the way for an array of destructive political acts: kidnapping (as it surely appeared) indigenous children and sending them to boarding schools; disallowing nomadic tribes from hunting and fishing in favor of farming within inhospitable climates; exiling warriors from their tribes after the U.S. military had defeated them; quashing the most defiant native voices; allowing settlers to grab land formerly designated as tribal territory and to hunt the buffalo to near-extinction; and forcing tribes to assimilate entirely into the European ideal of “civility” while seeking to stamp out any remnant of native culture, language, history and religion.
According to The Red Road Project, reservations in the nineteenth century resembled “prisoner-of-war camps” instead of homesteads.
Much U.S. policy revolved around the popular adage “Kill the Indian, save the man,” a slogan also endorsed by many religious leaders at the time, including Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt once wrote, “I am a Baptist because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” (Pratt is also famous for his 1892 speech in which he said, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one.”) In the mouth of Pratt, the sacrament of Christian baptism turned into a violent metaphor for indoctrination into white “civilization.”
While Pratt’s view was extreme for the time, American missions often matched the government’s colonialist aims. Evangelism in the 1800s became an aggressive act, born of a conception of truth that discarded all of a “heathen’s” past life, especially any past life that differed from the cultural norm of white protestant ideals.
Missionaries acted as unofficial government agents in enforcing a policy of native ethnocide.
As historian Clyde Ellis elaborates in the introduction to the Bison Books edition of Crawford’s 1915 memoir, Kiowa: A Woman Missionary in Indian Territory, “Here [on reservations], under the watchful gaze of teachers, missionaries, and government farmers, policymakers hoped that the tribes would build a future in which they would be culturally indistinguishable from their white patrons—civilized, industrious, Christianized, white in every way except skin color.”
Into this stew arrived Isabel Crawford. The daughter of a Canadian Baptist minister, “Belle” Crawford had been, in her words, “a terror” as a child and adolescent. At eighteen she contracted “consumption” (tuberculosis), and its treatment of quinine had the unfortunate side effect of leaving her deaf.
She communicated by signs (including Plains Indian sign language), never quite mastering lip reading, and utilized various medical technologies of the time to aid her in hearing (a “conversation tube” and later an acoustic headband). Her illness may have left her health precarious, but it only made her faith more zealous. Her streak of religious fanaticism led her to pursue the career du jour for single women in her time: She would be a missionary. No longer a “terror,” she wrote, but now a “holy terror.”
No doubt, she understood that she and her colleagues were expected to carry the gospel of European supremacy to the Indians alongside any Christian teaching. But her memoir makes clear that she would not comply.
She wrote in the preface, “The aim of this book is to contradict the statement that ‘the only good Indian is a dead one.’” (I can almost see her glaring in Pratt’s direction as she writes this, furious that she and he claim shelter beneath the same denominational umbrella.)
So while Crawford did share many of the conservative ideals of her generation of Baptists (particularly her protestant work ethic and strong adherence to gender roles), her ministry in Oklahoma differed dramatically from her co-workers’.
One more thing: I could not spend as much space as I wanted to in this essay on the history of Kiowa hymnody. But the unique tenderness and cultural sensitivity of Crawford’s ministry among the tribe resulted in hundreds of hymns written by Kiowa for Kiowa Christian worship services, including this one, sung by Ralph Kotay.
For those of us who need proof that God is faithful across generations, I was floored by the example of these Kiowa who both welcomed Crawford as a sister and accepted the gospel as their own, so much so that their art reflected their love for God. Then they passes these songs down to their children so that we still have them to this day—and this despite the horrors done to them in the name of “Christ”!
In fact, the Saddle Mountain founded by Crawford in rural Oklahoma continued on past the ministry of this single missionary because of the hard work of tribal elders such as Ralph Kotay, who until his death in the early 2000s was still teaching these hymns to younger members of the tribe as means of preserving the Kiowa language.
As Kotay described in The Jesus Road, an ethnography of Christianity among the Kiowa and a record of many of these hymns, “When this Christianity came into our area, they [Kiowas] were so dedicated to this Christianity that these songs [came to them]… Because I grew up as a Christian, I heard these Kiowa hymns my whole life... All that time, those songs were going into my mind, songs that came from the early churches—like Saddle Mountain. …We say, then, that these church hymns are something that God gave to us, to us as Kiowas.”
Friends, God does not fit into a white European box.
Instead, God grants equal access and care to Kiowa as much as (or more than?) to the missionary who told them the story of God. (Thank goodness!! The meek really will inherit the earth.)
And now, over 100 years from the efforts of this one missionary and these faithful elders, I feel honored to learn from these saints.
Thanks for reading.