written by Kate Hennessy-Keimig
First ordained Native American priest in the Episcopal Church
In 1996 the Diocese of Minnesota commissioned the Rev. Johnson D. Loud, Jr. to create an American icon of Enmegahbowh. Enmegahbowh is pictured in a scene of a northern Minnesota lake at sunset. He carries a pipe, the symbol of Indian spiritual culture. The flame represents the Holy Spirit and Emmegahbowh’s zeal for the Gospel. The embroidery on the tippet is in traditional Ojibwe beadwork design. The halo incorporates the Medicine Wheel used by the Dakota. The combined decoration signifies the peaceful relations which Enmegahbowh helped to achieve among the Indigenous people of Minnesota.
From the earliest stories in the Old Testament to those of the saints and prophets we honor in our own time, we are reminded again and again that God calls people then gifts and equips and blesses them for God’s work in a particular time and context. One of those called is the saint we honor today, Emmegahbowh, the first Native American to be ordained an Episcopal priest in the United States.
Emmegahbowh, whose name means “the one who stands before his people” was born and raised in Canada in a Christian Anishinaabe village affiliated with the Methodist church. At a young age, Emmegahbowh’s grandfather, a medicine man of high rank, prepared and inducted him into the tribal religious organization Mdewiwin. As a young man, he came into the United States as a Methodist missionary, and he served in this capacity, serving as a catechist and interpreter and founded several missions throughout Northern Minnesota.
After the Methodists abandoned their mission efforts in Minnesota, Enmegahbowh, who had continued on alone for several years, decided to give up his efforts and return to Canada. During the trip, after encountering heavy storms, the story is told of Emmegahbowh having a visionary experience involving Jonah, which convinced him to return to his missionary post. Not long after this, Emmegahbowh met Episcopal priest Ezekiel Gear at Fort Snelling, and decided to join the Episcopal church. Gear introduced Enmegahbowh to the Rev. James Lloyd Breck, and together they founded St. Columba’s Mission at Gull Lake, MN. Enmegahbowh was ordained a deacon in 1859, and in 1867 he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Whipple at the Cathedral in Faribault, MN.
During his years as a priest, Emmegahbowh was a close advisor to Bishop Whipple on Episcopal Church relations with Native Americans, and traveled to Washington on more than one occasion in support of better and more just treatment for his people, meeting a total of nine presidents. He was a strong advocate for peace between the Indians and the white settlers, and encouraged Chief White Cloud’s mission to establish peace between the Ojibwe and the Sioux. For a time, this made him unpopular among the Indigenous tribes and he was sheltered by white settlers. But Enmegahbowh also stood up for his people through his constant reminders to Bishop Whipple about the horrible living conditions they endured as the white settlers moved into their lands, and he encouraged the Bishop in his efforts to obtain justice for them. Emmegahbowh trained a generation of Native American clergy and helped translate many religious texts into the Ojibwe language. In his book, Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, Bishop Whipple portrays him as a man of serious temper with a large streak of humanity and wit, who is steadfast in his devotion to God, his people, and his bishop. Whipple called him the most faithful of men in the face of faithless times and events.
The Rev. M. Lucie Thomas, who has studied the life and work of Emmegahbowh, says of him, “It was his truth-telling, always gentle but always steadfast, that I most notice about Enmegahbowh. He told the truth as he understood it to his fellow Indians. He told the truth as he understood it to his bishop and to other whites and to people in Washington and even to several U.S. Presidents. He was at times unpopular because of this, but he managed throughout his life to spread the Good News, to train new clergy, to help found missions.”
In these highly charged and divisive times in which we find ourselves, may we follow Emmegahbowh’s example, steadfastly telling the truth to one another and to those in power about the sins of our personal and systemic racism that lies in direct opposition to the Gospel message.
Almighty God, you led your pilgrim people of old with fire and cloud; grant that the ministers of your Church, following the example of blessed Enmegahbowh, may stand before your holy people, leading them with fiery zeal and gentle humility. This we ask through Jesus, the Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen. From the Collect for Enmegahbowh
The Rev. Kate Hennessy-Keimig is bi-vocational priest serving as Priest Associate at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Omaha, NE and as an integrative psychologist.