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The Johnson American Indian Art Collection

Missionaries Received An Assortment Of Artifacts While Among The Sioux In South Dakota

By Laura Johnson Osswald

Two years after the Battle of Wounded Knee, on a cold and blustery Thanksgiving Day in 1892, my grandparents arrived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The Rev. A. Fulton Johnson, a native of New Brunswick, Canada, and an 1890 graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, was sent by the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. as a missionary to the Oglala Sioux Indians. He married Louise A. Cornelius that same year in Halifax, Nova Scotia, just before embarking on his journey. Their only child, Julius Kenneth Johnson, my father, was born in 1904.

In South Dakota, their home and church was on an acre of land on the edge of a little town on the reservation that was known as the Agency, the government headquarters for the reservation. Twenty-five miles to the nearest railroad, it was a remote, windswept prairie with cold and stormy winters. With no modern conveniences, life wasn't always easy. The Johnsons soon learned that while the name "Sioux" was used to refer to the American Indians on the reservation, they called themselves Dakota.

In the early 1800s, missionaries were behind the first attempts to produce a written form of the Dakota language. Subsequent missionaries began the translation of the Bible into the Dakota language. It was a painstaking process, but one that produced an excellent translation.

In the mid-1800s, after years of hostilities and suffering at the hands of the white man, the Indians began to trust the missionaries and began to embrace the Christian faith, and many new churches were organized. One very influential missionary was the Rev. John Williamson, and under his ministry many new missions were established. It was his father who helped translate the Bible into Dakota.

In 1892, when the Rev. Johnson was invited to go to Pine Ridge Reservation as a District Missionary, he was an assistant to Williamson. In a 1934 essay titled "One Hundred Years of Missionary Work Among the Sioux," church historian John M. Somerndike wrote: "Pine Ridge was an armed camp, and there were only a few Indians in that area who were influenced by Christian teaching. But Johnson made friends among them, and even though they were slow to respond to his efforts to win them over to the white man's religion, he was unmolested in his missionary labors, going in and out among them always unarmed and unafraid. The massacre of the Indians at Wounded Knee two years before was still fresh in their minds, and they were bitterly resentful toward all white people. Chief Short Bull, one of the strong leaders of the Ghost Dance, was one of Johnson's earliest converts."

And so the Rev. Johnson became a beloved influence and dedicated Christian missionary among the Indians. Somerndike also wrote: "For over forty years, this heroic missionary has been preaching the gospel to the Dakota people. He has been their patient teacher and counselor. With his own hands he has built churches and manses for them. He has pleaded their cause with the government and has contributed in a helpful way to the training of native missionaries." He was a master of the language, speaking it fluently, and he even authored some books in the language.

Mrs. Johnson was also loved and respected as a partner and support to Johnson's ministry. An art teacher for four years before their marriage, she shared her talents in art, sewing, music, and literature with the people of Pine Ridge. She was active with the Agency's boarding school, Sunday school classes, and club and guild work.

During their many years on the reservation, the Johnsons witnessed countless Indian ceremonies in which Indians in their native costumes would participate in The Give-Away, The Dance, The 101 Ranch Show, and the Omaha dances, to name a few. On those occasions, the Indians would proudly wear their beaded outfits and headdresses.

It is fitting that our grandparents and father were recipients of such a wonderful assortment of clothing and artifacts given to them by their friends, the Oglala Sioux Indians. Now, my sisters and I are prepared to offer these items to the public, while at the same time remembering our grandparents as amazing people who devoted their lives to their missionary work and the Dakota people.

Laura Johnson Osswald and her sisters, Helen Johnson Grout and Frances Johnson Chase Montgomery, have been caretakers of The Johnson American Indian Art Collection for nearly three decades.