Land and people: Camp at Dwight Mission

The schoolhouse on the Dwight Mission property.

The schoolhouse on the Dwight Mission property.

Growing up in Oklahoma, I had a complex relationship with how I learned about Indigenous people and land — about how we were founded as a state and how to this day we still have territories. At larger church gatherings, I was always asked why a blonde hair, blue-eyed kid came from Indian Nations Presbytery.

To those who drive through my state, they see what they would deem “weird” names of towns, or they wonder why there are signs saying “Entering Citizen Pottawatomie County.” There is a complex weaving of Indigenous culture with white culture. And growing up I learned about this complex history, but I also lived and witnessed firsthand the continued relationships.

When I was younger, I attended Sequoyah Elementary, where I was able to learn about the legends of who this influential person was.  As an elementary-aged child, I was taught that he created the Cherokee alphabet that helped make reading and writing in Cherokee possible. I was fascinated by this. I could not comprehend how he was able to create a syllabary.

This fascination continued when I attended church camp for the first time. For the camp located in Vian, Oklahoma, held a special artifact: The site of my childhood camp holds the first Cherokee language printing press from Indian Territory (now Eastern Oklahoma). I was drawn to the old building and this machine. It sparked more questions for me and this place that I was quickly falling in love with.

Not only was my camp the site of this piece of history, it was also a former residential school for native children. That statement alone feeds into the complex relationship I have with the place that taught me so much about God, myself, my church, my neighbor.

Recently, my childhood camp came into the national spotlight, for the ownership of Dwight Presbyterian Mission was signed over to the Cherokee Nation. I was overjoyed when I learned of this news. I was also struck again by the convoluted relationship of how my holy place came to be and its historical roots. (Read the Outlook story on the transfer of the camp property.)

I think it was in part due to the headlines that ran in the early days of summer, after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered on the grounds of a large residential school in Canada. It caused many in my church circles to shake their head in shame, to call on Canadian leadership to investigate and to express outrage. And if I am honest with myself, I didn’t feel outrage. I felt sadness that the long-held stories of the hurt that generations of Indigenous people carry was confirmed and brought to light. It was a heartbreaking “I told you so” moment for Indigenous people — one that white people can no longer hide from.

The news and headlines from this case and the investigations that followed caused some to wonder about our denomination’s impact in our residential schools. And so, I was once again drawn to my beloved Dwight. I recalled the stories I learned and the past this place held, and I wondered if anything would come from this story and relationships.

I remember the story that we learned as young campers that told of a bad dormitory fire from back when Dwight Mission operated as school. There was a large dormitory fire that killed 13 children, aged 9 to 17. After the fire, the bodies of the children were returned to their hometowns, to their families. A memorial was erected for them on the property: a visible reminder for those who roam the land of the past. As I was remembering this story and others about the land and buildings, the news was shared that the Cherokee Nation was acquiring the land.

It was a small gathering, but one with a profound impact. For both parties present on that day, the Cherokee Nation and the Presbyterian partners, have a shared interest in preserving and sharing the history and place with one another and future generations. The land and history of Dwight Mission are important to Sequoyah County (where the land is located) and the Cherokee people.

I am aware that this place isn’t perfect, even if it is holy and sacred ground for me and countless others, but the fact remains: There is a shared history for the Cherokee Nation and the Presbyterian Church that exists on that piece of land. There are generations of campers, Cherokee and area residents that hold their stories and the history of this place together, in a beautifully complex way. And not one of us knows what the future will hold for this sacred piece of land. However, both the Cherokee Nation and the Presbyterian Church want to work together — knowing that our story is an imperfect history of interwoven relationships that still have countless chapters to write.

And so, I am hopeful. I am excited. I am joyful. I look forward to seeing what this next chapter holds. I’ll be watching to see what the great Spirit is up to in this next phase of our life together.