Indigenous Ministries

News from Minnesota

February 3, 2012
Indigenous Ministries

The First Nations Kitchen (FNK) celebrated its third anniversary of serving organic/indigenous meals to the local community every Sunday evening at All Saints Episcopal Indian Mission, Minneapolis, Minn. Partnerships include seven metro Episcopal faith communities and the Native American Law Students Association of William Mitchell School of Law. In 2012 it is anticipated that we will add three to four new partners. This network of volunteers and our collective focus on the Gospel strengthens our dedication to making high quality, healthy food available to the Native Community and to all. Recognizing the value of this ministry a friend of FNK has donated the money enabling us to purchase a buffalo. The meat, hide and other parts of the buffalo will put to good use by this culturally intrinsic program. For more information about FNK visit

On the evening of Sunday, Dec. 11 the four Episcopal Faith Communities on the White Earth Reservation will honor the White Earth Ojibwa Hymn Singers with a plaque dedication at the tribal headquarters. The plaque will list the names of all the Hymn Singers past and present. Below is a brief historical overview of the Hymn Singers by Michael McNally, a professor at Carleton College. This overview covers the tradition of the Lenten Hymn Singing that takes place on the Sunday evenings during Lent. Each of the Faith Communities on the Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth Reservations takes a turn hosting this gathering. The hymnal that was translated and compiled by the Rev. Edward Kah-O-Sed, Ojibwe, in 1910 is still used.

Lenten Hymn Singing Tradition
Michael McNally, Carleton College
Epiphany, 2009

“Ojibwe language hymn singing today is a beautiful, indigenized form of worship, and has much to teach us Episcopalians. When I first heard elders arrive to sing these sonorous laments in their own language late into the evening at a funeral wake in the gym at the Little Earth housing project in Minneapolis, I was transfixed by the beauty of the songs and the sincerity of the singers, and figured, ‘there has to be a story there.’ After many years of oral traditional and archival work, I learned there indeed was, and is, a story there, and here’s how it goes in brief.

I. Missionaries and Hymns

Beginning in the 1830s, missionaries (both Roman Catholic and Congregationalist) among the Ojibwe vigorously promoted the translation of evangelical hymns in the Native language. Translated hymns, the missionaries thought, would be an expert medium for inculcating the Christian story – and also the patriarchal, agrarian, Anglo American culture that those missionaries believed went hand in hand with the gospel. In the educational theory of the day, after all, hymns were taught to children to help them grow into adults. Because most missionaries believed Native people to be like children, needing discipline to grow up into ‘civilized’ people, promoting the translation of hymns made sense.

Interestingly, the translated songs captured the imaginations of Ojibwe people, and singing them took root even among those Ojibwe people who did not embrace the civilizing project of the missionaries. When James Lloyd Breck and other Episcopalians established missions in the region, in the 1850s they incorporated hymns already circulating in the oral tradition and translating new ones in mission worship. But for the Episcopalians, too, hymnody was not simply shared: it was deployed as a tool for rooting out the Indianness of Native people.

Even Bishop Whipple, for all his advocacy on Indian affairs was not immune to these views of his time, literally calling Ojibwe hymn singing ‘the sound of civilization.’ In 1880, Whipple mistook the beauty of hymn singing as a rejection of all things Indian:

‘No music so blinds my eyes with tears as the songs of these Christian Indians. Indian voices are very sweet and you could not believe that they were the same voices you have heard in the wild heathen grand medicine or the horrid scalp dances.’

The good news is that the Gospel is bigger than the boxes to which missionaries tried to confine it. Through all the noise of missionaries’ talk of civilization, many Ojibwe people heard a truth in those hymns and the Gospel message they carried. Translated into their language, they made the hymns their own and in no small part through those songs began a new story and it to their story we turn to understand the beauty of hymn singing today.

II. Ojibwe Hymn Singing

Ojibwe hymns, as with Episcopal communities took deep root among Ojibwe people during the darkest days of their history. In the 1870s and 1880s, while they were legally confined to reservations, deprived of the land and resources needed to make their own subsistence, (even the reliable wild rice crop had been flooded out in 1889 by dams created to make the Mississippi navigable to St. Paul), and suffering from epidemics of tuberculosis, malnutrition, and internal violence, many Ojibwe people turned to the Episcopalian communities at White Earth, Red Lake, and Leech Lake that were led by Native clergy and anchored by the elder women and men.

Pooling resources and creating strong networks across factional lines of family, band, and reservation, these communities of Anami’aajig (those who pray, Christians) lived out traditional Ojibwe ethics of hospitality, economic communalism, and the leadership of elders and wedded those traditional ethics with the Christian message and with Christian forms of worship. Ojibwe language hymns graced nearly every gathering of these communities: nightly prayer meetings, sickbed, funeral wakes, and Sunday worship.

The hymns set the tone and rhythm of the new life, and they are today remembered less as the stuff of cultural chauvinism with which they were originally deployed by those missionaries and more as the “Ojibwe songs” of those faithful Ojibwe people, making a new traditional way under difficult circumstances. In the 125 years, since, the hymns have become deeply associated with the deep wisdom of Ojibwe deacons, priests, and elders like Enmegabowh, Madwegononind, Edmund Kah-O-Sed, Suzanna Equaymedogay Wright, the Rev. George Smith, and the contemporary elders in those communities who are the principal singers.

III. Hymn Singing at Lent

Along the way, there emerged a tradition of gathering each Sunday during Lent to sing hymns, witness, and pray. The tradition likely goes back much before the 1950s, when it first shows up in the documentary record, but in any event it annually recreates a journey that stitches together the traditional communities of the Anami’aajig on the Northern reservations. Always beginning with Onigum village on the Leech Lake, and proceeding through Cass Lake, and other communities on the Red Lake and White Earth communities, and completing the journey at the mother church, St. Columba’s, White Earth. As with virtually any sacred moment in Ojibwe life, the sings begin with food, and often foods of the land: wild rice, deer meat, swamp tea, and of course Jello.

In keeping with this rich tradition, the hymns are always sung a cappella, beginning with #25 Ondashan Kiche Ochichag (“Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove”), and following with songs chosen by respected elders, who also set the texts to any number of tunes that agree in meter. Although hymn books remind singers of the texts, the bulk of this musical knowledge is carried in the oral tradition, where most knowledge of traditional importance remains.

The songs typically are sung very slowly, with a dignified calm and sense of sincere purpose, though it is subtly up to each song leader to set that tone. There is no metronome or piano or even clergy that regulates the life of these songs: importantly, they proceed according to the spirit. The language in which they are sung is a rich, imagistic language: the language that belongs to this land and which is tied to it in important ways. There are many ways that the Ojibwe language draws out distinctive themes and important matters of the Gospel, but it is also important that the songs bear the language as a living entity.

What happens between songs is as important to the sings as what happens during the singing. People – especially lay elders – may stand and offer prayers or testimony about their own faith, or words of advice and encouragement for others. The documentary record shows that such words have been offered whenever hymns were sung, giving hope to the people. So listen to these words, and this beautiful singing tradition. They teach much about the Christian life.”

–Submitted by The Rev. Canon Robert Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota Oyate, is the missioner for Indian Work and Multicultural Ministry for the Diocese of Minnesota. Fr. Two Bulls serves as the Director of the Dept. of Indian Work and is the vicar of All Saints Indian Mission in Minneapolis, Minn.

The Rev. Bradley Hauff

Missioner for Indigenous Ministries

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