The History of Bacone College Symbolized by a Single Work of Art

The Indian Christ in Gethsemane, a painting by Cheyenne artist Dick West, tells the story of the history of Bacone College.

It portrays a young Plains Indian as Christ in western Oklahoma kneeling before God the Father, praying, “Thy Will be Done.”

Dick West’s Cheyenne name was Wah-pah-nah-yah. He grew up on the Cheyenne Reservation in western Oklahoma. The Cheyenne had been relocated to western Oklahoma in the 1870s. They struggled with trying to adjust to a farming lifestyle in an inhospitable environment. The buffalo had long been their mainstay, but in Oklahoma they tried to live on government cattle; they fought against despair, disease, and resentment.

In the 1890s Baptist missionaries arrived at the Cheyenne reservation. One was Robert Hamilton. Another was Mary Jayne. Hamilton struggled to bring the Gospel to a people who were searching for the path or road that would take them from the despair and loss of hope that they felt. Hamilton told them of the Jesus Road: this road would take them from hunger and thirst to satisfaction, from pain and suffering to peace and hope, from the dismal past to the glorious future.

The Cheyenne were reluctant; the traditional tribal road took them on the road of their forefathers, the road where the someday the Indian would be avenged, the road back to the buffalo.

Hamilton was untiring. He relied on Cheyenne interpreters to bring the message of the Jesus Road, and persevered in his goal to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission.

One who had lost her son said that when he died, she had been tempted to throw away the Jesus Road, and take up again her old heathen religion, but that now she could see that it was better to trust in Jesus, and that she could see that His way was right, she asked the church to forgive her for her sinful thoughts, and promised to walk in the ‘Road’ more carefully.”

He was soon joined, in the 1890s, by Mary Jayne, a Baptist missionary from Iowa. She ministered to such people as Lightfoot West, his wife Rena Flying Coyote, and their young son, Wah-pah-nah-yah.

The young boy grew up following the Jesus Road. When he was of school age he attended Concho Indian School, then Haskell Indian School, then in 1936 came to Bacone College. He was now know as W. Richard, “Dick”, West: at Bacone, where he played football, his nickname was Bull West.

Mary Jayne, after a long career as a minister, had been matron to the boy’s dormitory at Barnett Hall, though when Bull West matriculated in 1936 she was in ill health, and died the next year. Bull West served as a pall bearer at her funeral.

At Bacone, Bull West studied art under Acee Blue Eagle and fell in love with piano instructor Maribelle McCrea. After graduating from Bacone, Dick West studied art under Oscar Jacobsen at the University of Oklahoma, then returned to Bacone to marry Maribelle. After serving in World War II, Dick and Maribelle returned to Bacone after the war, Dick teaching art, Maribelle teaching piano.

Tragedy came to this couple in 1952. Maribelle was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was given only half a chance to survive. During the experience of surgery and recovery, Dick painted the Indian Christ in Gethsemane. “Thy Will be Done.”

Maribelle’s friend Margaret Erickson wrote in her Memoirs: “the surgeon said to Dick later, ‘There is something about your wife, something I don’t understand. There was a serenity in our surgery, a serenity in and about your wife that I can’t explain.’ Well, Dick could explain it.”

Maribelle survived, of course. Years later, when Dick was showing a series of paintings called The Indian Christ, including the Indian Christ in Gethsemane, to Plains Indians in western Oklahoma, an “old Comanche Christian . . . said to him, ‘If we had those pictures in the early days when the missionaries first told us about Jesus, it would have helped us to understand him better’.”

The Indian Christ in Gethsemane symbolizes the history of Bacone College.

Bacone was founded in the 1880s by Baptist missionaries to the American Indians. From the beginning it was a source of Christian thought and culture, teaching the Jesus Road, to a peripatetic people who had suffered much and had been forsaken. But as the Chief of the Delawares and one of the original trustees of Bacone College, Charles Journeycake, wrote:

“We have been broken up and moved six times. We have been despoiled of our property. We thought when we moved across Missouri River and had paid for our home in Kansas we were safe, but in a few years the white man wanted our country. We had good farms, built comfortable houses and big barns. We had schools for our children and churches where we listened to the same gospel the white man listens to. The white man came into our country from Missouri and drove our cattle and horses away and if our people followed them they were killed. We try to forget these things but we could not forget that the white man brought us the blessed gospel, the Christian’s hope. This more than pays for all we have suffered.”

For 135 years the college has struggled to survive, struggled to find its path, struggled to keep to the Jesus Road at the same time as trying to direct others on the same path. All of the pitfalls that can be put in the human path—poverty, disease, war, hubris, sin—have been put in the path of this college. And yet it still endures. Why?

If there is an answer to this question, it is, I believe, revealed in Dick West’s painting, Indian Christ in Gethsemane. West and his wife prayed and persevered, accepted God’s will and continued to work, did what they could according to the grace of God.

Live, pray, act, work, and teach others: what more can we do?

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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