Essay

Prairie icon

By March 6, 2020 11 Comments

Someday, I’m going to put this one on canvas.

I know–it’s no stunner, but I loved the image before I saw it through the screen on my phone. I wanted to get a shot of it from the minute I was told that out there in the pasture across the gravel was a chunk of concrete that once formed the stairway into an old Catholic church. Today, a battle-worn tree almost obscures those lop-sided steps, but then out there on the plains life is demanding. It’s a landscape that once created millions of dreams, most of which died there just as surely. 

Something about the image suggests that. So much of  the fascination I feel for “the Great Plains” is here in this little iconic spot of Dakota ruins.

Rev. Leonard Verduin

Rev. Leonard Verduin, a man I revered at a moment in my own life when I probably needed him, grew up here long ago. He used to talk about the neighborhood with the kind of reverence we reserve for home. He wasn’t reserved about treacheries he’d never forget, the sins of his own people, the Dutch Reformed who picked up reservation land once the Dawes Act turned the Great Sioux Reservation into 160-acre plots and opened all that land up for white settlement. We’re in Spotted Tail’s country here, on the Rosebud reservation, among the Brule Sioux.

People dreamed great dreams here, Brule’ people, Dutch Calvinists, and black-robed Roman Catholics alike. I had no idea there’d once been a Catholic church pretty much right across the road from a Lakeview CRC. What’s left today is a skeletal tree growing–sort of–from a stairway leading nowhere. And it seemed little more than that, but I’ve been reading a ton lately. . .

I found this map in a book about Lakota Sioux Missions. Sure enough, there’s Lakeview, the church with the steps. It was named Sacred Heart, one of six Catholic stations that went by that name on the reservation.

St. Francis Mission established satellite parishes, tiny places to do mass and distribute the Holy Eucharist when circuit riding priests could get out there. Churches like the one that once stood here were run by catechists, Native men empowered to teach the Christian faith as they practiced it as a new Catholic way of living meant to replace a culture and language that had been destroyed by the white man.

But there’s more.

Eugene Robideaux

A man whose life story I’ve tried to understand once lived somewhere near. He listed Lakeview, SD, as his birthplace when he enlisted in Army sometime during World War II. He returned from the France without his legs, lost them when a German tank came up suddenly and took out foxhole. He had graduated from high school at the mission of St. Francis and was in all likelihood, Roman Catholic. When he was a boy, a disabled and decorated war veteran named Eugene Robideaux walked up those cement steps into church, the Verduins just down the road.

Once upon a time right here in the old Catholic church, Black Elk may well have preached the gospel, the Black Elk of Black Elk Speaks, the Ogalalla holy man who begat, some historians say, a kind of Great Awakening among his people while visiting a score of Black Robe missions. Black Elk converted to Catholicism but never really tossed the old ways. Today, Black Elk, who watched at the Little Big Horn and carried a rifle at the massacre at Wounded Knee, is being considered for sainthood, a holy man, which he was, in a way, in two cultures, two faiths. 

St. Katharine Drexel

During Leonard Verduin’s boyhood, Katharine Drexel, the heiress whose immense fortune constructed so much on Native reservations throughout the country, may have walked up those steps too. She and her sisters loved visiting the out of the way reservation places around the turn of the century. In 2000, the Vatican determined Katharine Drexel to be a saint for what she did for Indian missions. Her feast day was Monday, March 3.

Almost certainly, other “religious” visited would have come to this long-gone church, many of them immigrant European women with no idea what an American Indian reservation looked like. One of them, a postulant, wrote this to her Irish mother: “This is real prairie land—something you could never envision. Trees are miles apart and very sparse. Hills and valleys do not exist here, and one is often awakened at night by howling of the prairie dogs and coyotes.” 

To me at least, all of that is still somewhere here–and there, just across the gravel road, a woebegone tree and a tipped chunk of concrete. Amazing.

That’s why I’ll put it on canvas.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

11 Comments

  • Carla Dittmer says:

    Thank you for the history lesson. Do you ever think about becoming a history teacher?

    • James Schaap says:

      I’m long past making those kinds of decisions. I’m a retired teacher in fact–literature and writing.

      • Carla Dittmer says:

        I am well aware of your career. You taught at Dordt after I graduated. Your wife’s cousin was my cousin, too. I still think you would make a great history teacher.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    You awakened my imagination.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thanks for this, and also for the reference to Leonard Verduin, that totally independent man, who apart from his absolute devotion to Our Lord, did not fit any category used to classify CRC preachers. We corresponded.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Thank you for this meaningful essay and for the words about Rev. Verduin, a man I loved and respected deeply. I had the privilege of being jam-packed in an old station wagon on a six-week camping trip to the west coast with the Verduins. The year was 1961 and; although, a recent high school graduate, I was too young to fully appreciate what a magnificent opportunity I had to learn from the old scholar and consummate camper.

    I have more stories to tell about that trip than this space allows, but one that is related to your writing involves a stop we made at some touristy place in South Dakota. There was a member of the Sioux Tribe in full regalia whose job it was to engage the tourists. Rev. Verduin began chatting with him in his native tongue. After just a few seconds of exchange, the man said to Rev. Verduin, “I’m sorry, but your Sioux language skills are way beyond mine. We will have to speak in English.”

    What an amazing man he was.

  • Henk Ottens says:

    Always a joy to read your stories, Jim, complete with in-depth research into all the actors in the historical drama.

  • Don Reinders says:

    Jim, this is a neat story. Our neighbor here at Porter Hills Village is Cal Verduin, Leonard’s son. I just emailed the post to him, after calling him about it. He is quite informed about all this, of course, so maybe you’ll hear from him. Let me know if you wish his address.

  • Always good to hear yet again about my dad’s impact on those who knew him. I particularly appreciate the comment that he didn’t fit the mold that we used at that time to define “dominies “. Not even close!
    #2 son

    • James Schaap says:

      Cal, My wife and I met your parents when they were in their late 80s and spending their winters in the desert. He would occasionally preach at Palm Lane CRC, where we attended at the time. We visited them occasionally, loved the discussions. Our first child was born in Phoenix and baptized in a church across town (I was a teacher on the west side of the city at that time). Your mother, in no uncertain terms, indicated that our baptizing that child without a grandma to take our precious baby out, should she fuss, was somehow terribly wrong, so the two of them drove all the way over to the west side of Phoenix early one Sunday morning to attend the baptism. Don’t remember if our daughter raised cane or not, but that was such a wonderful gesture on their part. I didn’t know your father could speak Lakota, but that he could doesn’t surprise me. I don’t have to tell you that they were wonderful people.Thanks for writing.

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