As part of its bicentennial celebration, the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries is transferring three acres in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, back to the Native American Wyandotte Nation. At a ceremony tomorrow, land that the Wyandottes deeded to what is now the United Methodist Church (UMC) will be formally returned to the tribe—a rare occurrence in U.S. history.
A Special Missions Connection to the Wyandotte Nation
John Stewart, one of the first Methodist missionaries, befriended the Wyandottes in 1816. Stewart, an African-American lay preacher, respected the tribe’s culture and secured government funds to build a church on its land. His work led to the 1819 founding of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and when he died four years later, he was buried nearby.
Stewart befriended the Wyandottes during a tenuous time, says current chief Billy Friend. After the War of 1812, “Nobody knew what the future held for Indian people,” he says. “So when John Stewart came and began to preach hope and compassion and love, I think that was something our people needed to hear at that time.”
Despite initial resistance against the government’s relocation efforts, the Wyandottes moved to Oklahoma in 1843. Beforehand, the tribe deeded three acres of land to what became the UMC to prevent the desecration of its burial grounds.
“I think the Wyandottes knew that the Methodists were the ones that built the church, and they were the ones that showed genuine compassion toward them,” says Friend, “so who better to leave it in the hands of than the United Methodist Church? Looking back, I think that was the best thing that we had done.”
Local Methodists have maintained the cemetery and church, where worship services are still held during summer months.
The Ceremony and Its Significance
Saturday at John Stewart United Methodist Church in Upper Sandusky, leaders from the Wyandottes and the UMC will hold a ceremony to return the land. Celebrations include a march through town, a pipe ceremony of blessing, a tribal dance, and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in tribal sign language.
No money is involved with the transfer. The Wyandottes plan to apply for the government to keep the land in a trust, which offers legal protections. They’ll also apply for National Historic Landmark status.
Thomas Kemper, general secretary of Global Ministries, says it’s important to remember the “contributions indigenous people have made and continue to make to our Methodist heritage.” The relationship between Stewart and the Wyandottes represents an “admirable” account of the denomination’s history with Native Americans, Kemper says, but he admits that “regrettable chapters” occurred. “People have been killed, and we have been complicit in this,” he says. “This giving back of land is not taking anything away from this responsibility that we have as Methodists.” (For instance, the colonel who led the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre was a Methodist pastor.)
At its 2012 General Conference, the UMC issued “An Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships With Indigenous People.” Kemper says the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has assisted with 17 projects among 10 Native American tribes during the past two years. The denomination works with suicide prevention, provides school-supply kits, and gave a grant of almost $1 million to help a tribal community in Alaska relocate to a safer site.