Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Bird Woman" - "Woman Who Prays"

In February, 1875, the Kiowa Indians, under their leader, Guipago or Lone Wolf, surrendered themselves at Ft. Sill.  The following month of March proved to be a busy one for the U.S. Congress, which enacted a Civil Rights Act, invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1883; and which authorized a 20¢ coin, lasting only three years. Georges Bizet's opera, Carmen, premiered in Paris on March 3, and on the same day the first recorded hockey game took place in Montreal.  Maurice Ravel was born on March 7, and on March 15 John McCloskey was named the first U.S. cardinal in the Catholic Church.  Four days later, March 19, Harriet Bedell was born in Buffalo, NY.

Who is Harriet Bedell, you ask?  Had you posed that question to me two months ago, I couldn't have answered you.  I'd never heard of her until I was skimming through Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 and found her commemoration listed for January 8.  I haven't been able to find anything about her early life, except that she was trained as a school teacher.  When she was almost 31, in the winter of 1905-06, an Episcopal missionary came to her home church and she was greatly inspired by his talk about the need for volunteers to work in the missions of China.  In 1906 she left her teaching job and was accepted into the New York Training School for Deaconesses in New York City, where she received instruction in missiology, hospital nursing, hygiene, teaching, and religious aspects of missionary work.  She spent another year, by her choice, studying nursing in Buffalo, and soon after was appointed as an apprentice deaconess.  She was first sent as a missionary-teacher to the Cheyenne people at Whirlwind Mission in Oklahoma, where she assisted Deacon David Pendleton Oakerhater, dubbed "God's warrior" by the Cheyenne.  The Episcopal Church also commemorates him on September 1.  

Harriet energetically embraced her new work: educating women and children, caring for the sick and poor, organizing social services for native Americans, providing religious instruction.  She gradually gained the trust and respect of the Cheyenne, to the point that she was adopted into their tribe and given the name "Vicsehia", meaning "Bird Woman". The name was apparently inspired by the fact that Harriet sang, hummed, and whistled as she worked.  Eventually, her labors took a toll on her when she contracted tuberculosis and had to be sent to Colorado to recover.  According to Harriet herself, she was miraculously cured of her affliction after attending a healing service.

When Harriet Bedell was 41 an Episcopal bishop asked her to consider an assignment in a remote area of Alaska. Though saddened by having to leave her people in Oklahoma, she nevertheless accepted the new missionary work in Stevens Village, Alaska.  Six years later, in 1922, she travelled to Portland, OR, where she was ordained a deaconess in the Episcopal Church.  She continued her labors in Alaska, although the mission at Stevens Village was moved eventually to Tanana so that a boarding school, funded by church members' contributions, could be established for the children unable to travel in the severe winter weather.  Then came the Great Depression.  By 1931, funds were so scarce that Deaconess Bedell returned to New York to plead for more contributions.  There was little response because there was little money available.  Though the church paid off the school's existing debt, Harriet realized that there was no point in returning to Alaska.

She remained in New York on a sabbatical with her family in Buffalo, and during that time the Bishop of New York requested that she visit missions in Florida in order to recruit church workers.  On this trip she encountered the Miccosukee-Seminole tribe.  She was appalled by their living conditions, and set about improving the quality of their lives, living and working among them.  With the backing of Bishop Wing in Miami and the Collier Corporation in the Everglades (now Everglades City), Harriet set up a mission to minister to native Americans and other local people.  She taught Sunday school, sewing, literature, music, hygiene, and various other skills to the Miccosukee and to children of Marco Island and Collier County.  She sought to revive doll-making and basket-weaving skills which had almost become extinct.  She encouraged the incorporation of intricate patchwork designs, made by Indian women, into articles of clothing for both women and men.  Sales from the clothing, beadwork, pottery, carving, and leatherwork at the store at Blades Cross Mission helped improve the income of the Miccasukee-Seminoles.  

As with the Cheyenne, the Miccasukee responded to Deaconess Harriet's self-giving love by adopting her and giving her the name "Inkoshopie", "Woman Who Prays".  Every Christmas she would throw a huge party, with feasting and entertainment, as well as gifts for all the native Americans and children from Everglades.  She worked tirelessly, even in her retirement, to promote the sales of native American cultural items and to prevent cheap imitations from entering the country.

Hurricane Donna struck Florida in 1960, during which Harriet, now 85, was forced to evacuate her home.  The hurricane leveled her property and destroyed her belongings, among them her typewriter, sewing machine, and children's books and gifts which she had set aside for the upcoming holiday celebration.  The bishop finally insisted that, because of her advanced age, she retire from active ministry, and so she moved to the Bishop Gray Inn, an Episcopalian retirement home in Davenport, FL.  Nevertheless, she continued planning and teaching Sunday school, working in the infirmary, and recruiting for mission workers.  In 1965 she was given a huge 90th birthday party, and Coronet magazine featured her in an article.  There were write-ups in many other newspapers and magazines, and even two books written about her: A Woman Set Apart, by William and Ellen Hartley (New York, 1953), and Deaconess of the Everglades, by Elizabeth Scott Ames (Cortland, NY, 1995).  Harriet Bedell died on January 8, 1969, just short of her 94th birthday.

The life of this dedicated deaconess and missionary was marked by her emphasis on health and education, rather than on religious conversion, for native Americans.  And so the Episcopal Church prays today:

Holy God, you chose your faithful servant Harriet Bedell
to exercise the ministry of deaconess and to be a missionary
among indigenous peoples: Fill us with compassion and respect
for all people, and empower us for the work of ministry
throughout the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord...  


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