How a Native American Warrior Became a Saint

A man with many names: Okuhhatuh, Medicine Maker, David Pendleton Oakerhater.

No one knows the date of his birth or even the year. Sometime between 1844 and 1851, a child was born on the Cheyenne reservation. Although it wasn’t a state at the time, today this area is presently located in western Oklahoma. He was given the Cheyenne name Okuhhatuh, later pronounced in English as Oakerhater. Sometimes Oakerhater used the translation Medicine Maker as his name. Over the course of his life, Oakerhater led Cheyenne warriors into battle, was a prisoner of war, and became an Episcopal deacon. Fifty-four years after his death, the Episcopal church counted him as a saint.

As a young man, Oakerhater developed a reputation for being a warrior. He battled the Cheyenne’s traditional enemies of Pawnee, Osage and Ute. In 1874, He fought against the US Army in the Red River War, a campaign to relocate Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa and Arapaho to reservations in Indian Territory. The US Army labeled him a attack leader, and arrested him and 72 other plains warriors. They were imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.

Even as a captive at Fort Marion, Oakerhater’s leadership was recognized. Prisoners were assigned to guard the Fort, and Oakerhater was placed as the Sergeant of Guard. During this time at Fort Marion, prisoners were given basic art supplies. The prisoners created images from their history, much like the drawings they put on their tipis. Today, this art form is called ledger art. Oakerhater signed his work Medicine Man. He was released from Fort Marion in 1878.

Oakerhater became friends with George Pendleton, a senator from Ohio. The Pendleton family sponsored Oakerhater’s move to New York where he was baptized as David Pendleton Oakerhater. In Syracuse, New York, Oakerhater studied ministry. In 1881 he was ordained as a deacon. Within a few hours of receiving his ordination, Oakerhater began the journey back to Indian Territory. There he spent the last fifty years of his life in ministry to the Cheyenne and other plains tribes. He died in 1931. Oakerhater was buried in Watonga, Oklahoma. There is a Cheyenne tradition to bury a person with the things they valued most. Oakerhater’s Bible with gold letters spelling out Medicine Man, was laid over his heart.

Saint David Pendleton Oakerhater

In 1981, a stone marker at his grave site observed the 100th anniversary of his ordination. Two years later, near the site of the mission that Oakerhater ran in Watonga, Oklahoma, the Bishop of Oklahoma celebrated mass and dedicated a monument to Oakerhater and the other early Cheyenne Episcopalians. In 1985, the Episcopal General Convention voted to include Oakerhater among notable Episcopalians, making him Saint David Pendleton Oakerhater.

Celebrating the Lesser Feast of Davis Pendleton Oakerhater at St. Paul's Cathedral OKC. Christ in native stories. Photo by Fr. Tim Sean Youmans.
Celebrating the Lesser Feast of Davis Pendleton Oakerhater at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oklahoma City. Photo by Fr. Tim Sean Youmans.

Oakerhater’s legacy is strong in Oklahoma. Oklahoma State University Library hosts a digital collection of his biography and letters. In January 2004, St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City dedicated a side chapel to Oakerhater. The alcove features a stained glass window designed by Tlinget artist Preston Singletary, and a portrait of the saint by Cherokee artist America Meredith. The Anglican Communion (worldwide community of Episcopal and Anglican churches) observe his feast day on September 1. It is celebrated with an honor dance in Watonga, Oklahoma. The Oakerhater Guild continues the mission work that Oakerhater started in western Oklahoma. In 2007, Oakerhater’s mission site was dedicated as the Oakerhater Episcopal Center. It is used for powwows, sweat lodge, mass, classes and tribal events.

The Oakerhater chapel located at St. Paul's Cathedral in Oklahoma City on the Feast of St. David Oakerhater. Photo by Fr. Tim Sean Youmans.
The Oakerhater chapel located at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City on the Feast of St. David Oakerhater. Photo by Fr. Tim Sean Youmans.

Author’s note: This article deals with the assimilation of Native Americans into Euro-American culture. It’s not my intent to praise or promote the idea of assimilation. I’m writing to share the interesting story of a life well-lived. Also, note that I am Episcopalian. 

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  1. Medicine Maker or Medicine Man seems to have been a fitting description of Oakerhater’s life. His dedicated ministry helped countless people heal their broken relationship with God.

    It also seems fitting that he would have been buried with his Bible over his heart. The Bible is where we find God’s plan to heal our sinful hearts. It’s obvious Oakerhater allowed its words to guide his life. The Bible pre-dates Euro-American culture. The Bible speaks to all cultures at all times and will continue to speak long after Euro-American culture is gone.

    1. It reminds me of my favorite quote from theologian and christian historian Jaroslav Pelikan “It is not enough to Christianize Africa. We have to Africanize Christianity.”

      Here he’s specifically referring to a creed used by churches in Africa.

      “We believe in one high God, who out of love created the beautiful world. We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, and showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by His people, tortured and nailed, hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch Him, and on the third day He rose from the grave.” That part about the hyenas gives me chills.

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