WYANDOTTE, Okla. — Wyandotte Nation Chief Billy Friend summed up the gift his tribe will receive this week in one word: “monumental.”
On Saturday, the tribe will receive the deed to a historic tract of land in Ohio that it considers sacred. It is part of the last federal reservation the Wyandot tribe, now known as the Wyandotte Nation, had in Ohio.
Although small — only 3 acres — it is also home to a historic mission begun in 1819 by John Stewart, a minister sent to the tribe by the denomination’s forerunner, the Methodist Episcopal Church. The tribe’s history after Europeans arrived was one of disruption and removal. Once found along the upper Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, the tribe relocated to Ohio beginning after 1700.
An 1817 treaty opened up Northwest Ohio to white settlement, with the tribe given permanent use of what was known as the Grand Reserve. That use was short-lived, however, as the 1830 Indian Removal Act forced all eastern tribes to be relocated west of the Mississippi River.
In 1843, the tribe was forced from Ohio to Kansas City, Kansas — the last tribe east of the Mississippi to be removed. Their journey didn’t end in Kansas, however, and after the Civil War, the tribe was relocated again, this time to the far northeast corner of Oklahoma.
Before leaving Ohio, tribal leaders deeded the church and its two cemeteries to the Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as United Methodist Global Ministries.
The move, said Friend, was designed to keep the sacred grounds from being desecrated.
It is that organization, along with representatives from the church’s General Commission on Archives and History, that will return the land to the tribe.
Friend said Saturday will be a historic day for the Wyandotte Nation: “Our ancestors left the care of the church to the Methodists until we could come back — because they were in the mindset that we would come back. One hundred and seventy-six years later, the day has come.”
Friend said he is “blown away” by the gift, as well as grateful. He said the tribe will continue to maintain it as a sacred and historic site for both the tribe and the church.
“Our mission is to preserve the future of our past,” he said. “Now we look forward to working together with these people in preserving and maintaining this historic landmark.”
For Thomas Kemper, general secretary (chief executive) for United Methodist Global Ministries, the gift comes at the right time.
“For over 200 years, the people called Methodists have had a unique bond with members of the Wyandotte tribes,” Kemper said. “John Stewart, our first-ever missionary, launched a historic friendship with them in 1816. “Since 1844, we have served as stewards of this sacred land and these historic spaces. Now, it is time to return these lands to the Wyandotte people so they can continue the generations-long tradition of honoring our collective heritage.”
About the mission
In 1816, Stewart — a freed slave — was sent to Upper Sandusky, Ohio, south of Toledo, by the Methodist Episcopal Church to serve the people known as Wyandots.
Friend said it was a time of uncertainty for the tribe, as one of its greatest chiefs, Chief Tarhe had died in 1818.
“He (Stewart) saw it as a mission to bring hope back to the tribal community,” Friend said, explaining the mission also operated a school, teaching members of the tribe how to read, write and operate in European society.
The church building on the site dates to 1824.
“His purpose was first and foremost to bring the gospel of Christ to the tribe,” Friend said. “But he also helped the people be able to survive in the society, which was coming their way. The mission was instrumental in our survival.”
Like earlier chiefs who became Christian ministers, Friend has served as a licensed pastor, although with the Pentecostal Church of God. Now as chief of the Wyandotte Nation, he said he continues to see himself in the role of a shepherd.
“I serve the 6,000-plus tribal citizens,” Friend said. “I see them as my congregation.”
Since 2007, Friend and others have taken Wyandotte youth to Upper Sandusky — pilgrimages designed to help them learn more about their heritage. He said the trips are important, allowing youths to see their homeland and gain knowledge of their past.
During the pilgrimages, Friend even preached from the pulpit once used by Stewart.
“The first time I stood there, to share the gospel with the local people, a feeling I can’t describe came over me,” Friend said. “I know my own ancestors worshiped in the church, sat in the pews.”
Friend said one of his ancestors, Samuel Brown, served as an interpreter for one of two Wyandot chiefs who eventually became Methodist ministers.
“It feels like you are home,” Friend said, describing his feelings at the mission. “You have a kinship with the people there. It feels like you are a part of it.”
Stewart, who died within a few years of his arrival, is buried at the site alongside a Wyandot chief.
‘It belongs to them’
The return of the mission coincides with the 200th anniversary of the Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.
Kemper said members of the Global Ministries rediscovered Stewart and his significance as they prepared for the bicentennial.
The site is considered one of 49 heritage landmarks that exist within global Methodism and is recognized as the first Methodist mission on American soil.
He said the bicentennial seemed an ideal time to give the site back to members of the Wyandotte Nation.
“It belongs to them,” Kemper said. “It was given to us in trust, as friends. It is part of our own history, representing an astonishingly long relationship with them.”
While the mission sits within the West Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, it is near the edge of the East Ohio Annual Conference. Kemper said it is fitting that the bishops of the two conferences, both of whom are African American, plan to speak at the upcoming ceremony.
Kemper said he also views the return of the property as a continuation of the act of repentance members of the United Methodist Church made in 2012 out of a desire to form new relationships with Native Americans.
More than 100 tribal citizens will travel to Ohio for the ceremony. For many, it will be their first trip to their ancestral home.
“I’m excited for the people to go there and literally stand on the ground of their ancestors,” Friend said. “This helps cement a piece of our history. We will be able to have it seven generations from now. Our children and grandchildren will be able to go back and know the importance Methodists played (in our history). The church and school is where our ancestors learned to read, write and farm.”
He added: “The Wyandotte Nation is a strong, vibrant nation. It’s important that we are going back and getting fully connected with our past.”