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A Brief History of the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota

Our Diocese has a unique history in that the Native American ministry of the Episcopal Church here began with the Minnesota Uprising of 1862. After years of government treachery and deceit, many Dakota people were driven out from their homeland. Many lives were lost, and despite the fact that Christians among the Dakota saved the lives of the Missionaries and some settlers, surviving Native Americans were imprisoned and later expelled to the Dakota Territory.

Bishop William Hobart Hare

Bishop William Hobart Hare

In 1868, the U.S. Government created the Ft. Laramie Treaty which, among other things, set aside for the Great Sioux Nation half of present-day South Dakota extending into North Dakota and Nebraska. The buffalo roamed in the South Dakota plains until 1870. The Lakota followed the buffalo herds which provided the First Peoples food, clothing, and shelter. Approximately 30 million buffalo were killed as a government decision for land. In 1874, the government ordered a military expedition into the sacred, Lakota-owned Black Hills by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer; gold was discovered and the great land grab began. Bishop William Hobart Hare, the first Missionary Bishop of Niobrara, protested the government’s taking the Black Hills away from the Lakota, serving as an advocate for his people.

Episcopal priest Samuel Hinman, who had served the Dakota people in Minnesota for three years, accompanied them to the Dakota Territory. The chaos of the Civil War, however, prevented the establishment of a new jurisdiction until 1871, when the Missionary District of Niobrara was established in the Dakotas. In 1872 the House of Bishops elected the Reverend William Hobart Hare as the first Missionary Bishop of Niobrara and he was consecrated in 1873. Thus, he began his ministry of thirty-two years.

On November 2, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed the declaration of statehood for South Dakota.

Bishop Hare designed the Niobrara Cross, which was given to each new Native American Christian bearing the inscription “that they may have life.” A Niobrara Cross is given to each new confirmand and clergy person in the Diocese.

The Niobrara Cross

The Niobrara Cross

During these times, the government allowed only missionaries to go into Native American lands. The missionaries failed to recognize a naturally spiritual people as they imposed Christianity. We still feel the effects, both positive and negative. Bishop Hare wasn’t sure how to start his ministry in Chief Red Cloud’s and Chief Sitting Bull’s agencies, but it is noted that on the Pine Ridge Reservation alone, he baptized 100 persons, a great achievement.

One of the most important events of the missionary work of The Episcopal Church in the United States is the annual meeting in South Dakota known as the Niobrara Convocation, which was first held in 1870 at present-day Santee, Nebraska, then a town in the Dakota Territory along the Missouri River. The Dakota/Lakota/Nakota people managed, in their own fashion, to fit the values of their old traditions and rituals into Christianity. The Niobrara Convocation served the same social function as the Sundance when friends and relatives came together in the summer from all directions. The Convocation custom of the Native Americans from different reservations camping together was not unlike the traditional spots held in the camp circle by the various tribes.

The Niobrara Convocation grew to be a loved and much looked-forward-to annual event in South Dakota. Non-Native Episcopalians and persons from other denominations, as well as government officials and even U.S. President Calvin Coolidge visited. The gathering was, and still is, frequently honored by visitations from presiding bishops, including current Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, as well as regular attendance from bishops of the Anglican Communion.

Only three times did the Niobrara Convocation not convene: 1876 because of Bishop Hare’s poor health; 1901 because of the danger of smallpox contagion; and 1945 because of WWII conditions when gas and tire rationing and enforced lower speed limits made travel difficult.

In 1971, the Missionary District of Niobrara became the Diocese of South Dakota with the Rt. Rev. Walter Jones as bishop. We have been served by Bishops William Hare, Frederick Johnson, George Biller, Jr., Hugh Burleson, W. Blair Roberts, Conrad Gesner, Walter Jones, Harold Jones (Bishop Suffragan, the first Native bishop in the United States), Craig Anderson, Creighton Robertson, and John Tarrant.