Nearly six hundred people gathered in Upper Sandusky, Ohio on September 21, 2019 to witness The United Methodist Church deed back land to the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. The land includes the original mission building and a cemetery where the denomination’s first missionary, John Stewart, is buried along with Wyandotte tribal members.
“It’s a great day for the Wyandotte Nation,” said Billy Friend, chief of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. “We are truly honored by the people who gathered here to celebrate with us.”
The Wyandotte Nation brought more than 100 tribal members to attend the service; the most tribal members in Upper Sandusky since they were forced to leave in 1843 as part of the Indian Removal Act. The United Methodist Church has held the land in Ohio in trust for 176 years.
“When we see a Christian denomination returning the land back to its original habitants it is significant,” said the Rev. Chebon Kernall, executive director of the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan and member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. He says returning the land to the Wyandotte Nation is an example of what can be done to improve relationships with Native American and indigenous communities. “We are re-writing history and crafting our future in shared wellness for all of our peoples and communities.”
The day-long event included a Service of Remembrance at John Stewart United Methodist Church and a procession to the site of the mission located a mile away. Wyandotte members stopped along the route to place tobacco on headstone markers of tribal members who were buried near the site where the Wyandotte Council House once stood.
“When we were marching from the church to the mission site, people came out of their homes, cheering and clapping,” said the Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of The United Methodist Church and member of the Choctaw Nation. “It made me feel so good for Native peoples, especially the Wyandotte, to see people embracing them coming back once again.”
The melodious singing of missionary John Stewart is credited with launching the historic friendship between the freed African-American slave and members of the Wyandotte peoples in 1819, according to Friend. Descendants of John Stewart were also in attendance to celebrate the Wyandotte returning to their homelands.
“We drove over five and half hours to be here today,” said Victoria Nolan, John Stewart descendant. “It means a lot to be here; the Wyandotte are important to us because they are connected to our ancestor.”
Stewart began the ministry at a rough point in the history of the Wyandotte Nation. In 1819, Chief Tarhe had passed away. The United States government had promised the tribe 148,000 acres of land in what is now Kansas City, Kansas. When the Wyandotte people, totaling 664, arrived on the banks of the Missouri River, they found the land had been given to someone else. They were left with nothing.
“We lost 200 people that first year,” said Friend. “If it wasn’t for the missionary work that John Stewart did, our people wouldn’t have survived. He brought the gospel and gave us hope for the future.”
The mission, which is designated as one of 49 United Methodist Heritage Landmarks, the most sacred places in global United Methodism, has been restored over the years and cared for by members of John Stewart United Methodist Church.
Friend says he plans to continue the partnership with the church. “We are forever indebted to the people here locally,” he said. “The church standing today is a testament to their hard work over the years to keep this preserved.”
The Wyandotte Nation made a $10,000 donation to help fund upkeep on the mission site.
“People are looking for instances where they see something going right in the world and this is one of those times,” said Kernell.
The tribe, located in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, has 6,475 tribal citizens. The return of the land coincides with Methodism’s bicentennial of the mission, recognizing 200 years of ministry.
Underwood is a communication consultant based in Yukon, Oklahoma. She is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.