Birthplace and Early Childhood
Rodolphe Petter was born on February 19, 1865 in Vevey, Switzerland, near the shores of Lake Geneva. His father died when Rodolphe was a young boy and he and his brother spent some time living in an orphanage, because it was too much for their widowed mother to care for them.
Calling and Training
When Rodolphe was 10 years old, he was awakened one night from his sleep by a village bell. Very clearly he felt God was calling him and he responded by dedicating his life to the Lord's service. Sometime afterwards, his brother Auguste and he were sleeping in the same bed and his brother woke him up and told him he had a dream that he saw Rodolphe standing in front of a large camp of Indians, preaching to them in their own language. Through years to come, Rodolphe often thought that the goal of going to America as a missionary appeared too high and the ways to reach it so limited. But God had means and ways to make this goal attainable.
A few years afterward he attended a large mission gathering near the shores of Lake Morat, Switzerland. Here he was again impressed with the need to commit himself to mission work. Following that, he took formal religious instruction and upon completing his catechism, he again felt the urge of God to commit himself to missionary service. Through a group of earnest Christians in Lausanne, Switzerland, he met a blind evangelist. For nearly two years he was a guide for him and they traveled throughout Switzerland, France, and Alsace. He would read books to him and take care of his correspondence. Through this work, he met Wagner-Groben, a pastor and author of several religious books. Wagner-Groben advised Petter to go to Basel, Switzerland, to the Missions Institute to prepare for mission work. While at the Institute, Petter stayed with a wealthy family who had no children of their own. He was a medical doctor and they begged him not to become a missionary, but urged him to become their adopted son and eventually inherit their money. Petter knew in his heart that God had other plans for him and would not consent to that. His widowed mother would not consent either.
Petter studied for almost seven years at the Basler Missions Institute. Here he received thorough courses in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, the Semitic languages, theology and medicine. These courses were taught in the German language, which he had to learn first as his mother tongue was French.
Through his contacts in the Swiss military, Rodolphe became acquainted with a Swiss Mennonite family by the name of Gerber. When he went home with one of the Gerber boys, he met Marie. From all I have read, that is also how Petter first became acquainted with the Mennonites. In Petter's own words:
With the close of my studies I expected to serve as missionary for the Basler Mission either in Africa or India, but God led me another way, which neither I nor my teachers had thought of before, nor chosen, namely the way to the Cheyenne in Oklahoma. At a conference of the Mennonite churches in the Swiss Jura mountains, I was accepted as their missionary, and shortly after that Marie Gerber became my life companion and co-worker.
This took place in the early part of 1890.
Coming to America
Soon after their marriage they bade farewell to family and friends and left by ship for America, landing in New York on August 7, 1890. From there they went to Philadelphia where N.B. Grubb welcomed them into his home. Together with A.B. Shelly, the secretary of the Mission Board, they visited many of the Pennsylvania Mennonite churches. From there they traveled through Ohio and Indiana, especially visiting the Swiss congregations. From there Petter traveled to Marion, South Dakota to attend the General Conference Mennonite Church assembly in the fall of 1890. It was there that they were appointed as missionaries to serve among the Oklahoma Cheyenne.
Coming to the Cheyenne People - Oklahoma
Since neither of them spoke much English, they were asked to spend the winter in Oberlin, Ohio, attending classes at the college and seminary. It was there that they were immersed in the English language. In the spring of 1891 they were called to Halstead, Kansas, where the Mission Board was meeting. Together with several board members they made a visit to the Oklahoma mission stations at Darlington and Cantonment. That fall they were ordained as missionaries at the Halstead Mennonite Church and from there they arrived in Cantonment, Oklahoma on October 1, 1891. They lived in quarters at the Cantonment Mission School where "he could give his undivided attention and time to the learning of the Cheyenne language and visiting the Indians in their villages and lodges. A large Cheyenne camp was near the mission school, so it became easy for us to be in constant contact with the Indians." Petter continues:
We were deaf and dumb among them, for of the languages we knew was none they understood. Only pantomimes or gesticulations made it possible to get what was wanted. The Cheyenne language was then unwritten, so the sounds had first to be given letters before words could be written. When the latter could be put on paper, they had to be tested over and over to assure they were correctly written. This necessitated close attention and continual contact with the Indians in their villages and lodges, where we were from morning till late in the day, until all the Cheyenne sounds were fixed and words could easily be written down. The collecting of words and sentences had often to be done by pointing the finger to people, objects, and surroundings. In the evening the gathered material was sifted and arranged, to be read to the Indians the next day. This was repeated, corrections made, until the Indians could readily understand what we read to them. After a time a large amount of words and short sentences was thus collected; but it was like a pile of building material, out of it was to come the structure of the language and late in the day, until all the Cheyenne sounds the final use of the same to bring God's message to the Cheyenne in their own tongue.
Petter struggled to find Cheyenne people who knew English and would help him understand the complexities of the Cheyenne language. One even told him that no "white man" could learn their language, but Petter was not deterred. Finally he found Harvey Whiteshield, who was willing, able, and anxious to help him.
In the early part of 1893 the Petters went to Kansas for the birth of their first child, Olga. While they were in Kansas, the Cantonment Mission School burned down, together with all of their belongings, except for most of his books. Upon returning to Oklahoma, he erected a strong wooden frame over which he stretched canvas in the middle of the Cheyenne village. This became their home for the next 9 months, and again afforded him good opportunities to interact with the Cheyenne in regards to their language and way of life. However the tent became hot during the summer months and in Petter's words,
Our little girl sickened from day to day, until her condition gave us grave fears, for she could not even open her eyes for sheer weakness. One evening Chief Thundernose came in, looked at the child, stroked her hands and arms, then turned to me and said, 'Your child cannot live much longer this way, I am going to call out in our camp that a young Cheyenne mother may come immediately and nurse Mokie (Olga's name).' Soon after he had called out, a young Indian woman entered our tent and nursed our child as it had been her own. Next morning Olga was better, and after one week of Indian mother's milk the child was so restored that we could undertake a long trip among the Cheyenne living along the Washita River.
This interaction on a personal level was a big key in success of Petter's work in the language and as a missionary.
Coming to the Cheyenne People - Montana
The Oklahoma Cheyenne had often spoken about their relatives living in Montana and urged Petter to visit them. So together with planning from the Mission Board, Petter made his first to Montana in 1899. The Oklahoma Cheyenne gave him gifts to take up north. One old man named Lonewolf brought him a thin blue scarf in which he had made peculiar knots. He told Rodolphe, "This is a message to my brother in Montana. When you are there and the headsmen sit together, show them this scarf. My brother will recognize it and know what I tell him." When he met a group of Cheyenne near Lame Deer, he amazed them by speaking to them in Cheyenne. One old woman shouted, "A white man who speaks Cheyenne! He must be the Messiah or sent by him." She lifted her hands and fell before him. One day as many of the leading men sat in a circle, Mr. Petter took out the knotted scarf of Lonewolf and held it up. Immediately Chief Two Moons stood up and said, "This is for me from my brother Lonewolf in the South. He tells me that you are his friend." Later another chief said, "My name is Vohokass (Light). I long for light for myself and my tribe. Could you not live among us and tell us this message of God in Cheyenne? And if you cannot now, please do not forget us." It became clear to the General Conference Mennonite Mission Board that the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation should be taken up as their further mission field.
Petter made two more visits to the Montana Cheyenne, one in 1901 and another in 1903. During his last visit he made efforts to secure information about mission prospects and sought assurance from the Indian agent in Lame Deer that the government would permit building a mission station. Mr. Petter and his wife would have liked to transfer to Montana, but Mrs. Petter was sick with tuberculosis and could not have endured the cold Montana winters. On July 31, 1910, she died on the mission field, after giving almost 20 years of devoted service to her husband, children (Olga and Valdo) and to the Cheyenne of Oklahoma. On November 28, 1911, Rodolphe Petter married a co-worker, Bertha Kinsinger, in the Indian chapel in Cantonment, Oklahoma. Bertha had come to Oklahoma in 1896 and had helped Rodolphe as secretary to file the Cheyenne words into a dictionary and grammar, and to proofread the translations as they were published. Soon after his marriage to Bertha, the decision was made that Rodolphe and his children would go to Kettle Falls, Washington, to spend concentrated time working on getting the English-Cheyenne Dictionary typed and printed. The Petters had purchased an apple orchard there and he and his son worked tirelessly for 18 months to complete this project. During that time his "new" wife, Bertha Petter, stayed in Cantonment, Oklahoma and carried on the church work together with Agnes Williams.
In 1916, Mr. Petter made his fourth trip to Montana, this time with Bertha. They had received a call from the Mission Board to occupy the Lame Deer station. Here Mr. Petter spent much of his time completing the translations of the Cheyenne New Testament, portions of the Old Testament, and songs. I am told that Mr. Petter would spend most of his time in his study doing translation work and Mrs. Petter would meet people at the front door and often kept them from seeing him, so he could concentrate on his translation work.
Death and Burial
Rodolphe Petter died in 1947 and is buried in the Lame Deer (Montana) Community Cemetery, together with his second wife, Bertha Petter, who died in 1967. The Mission Board had a policy that no missionary shall retire on the field. Since Rodolphe was from Switzerland, he asked for a special exception to this policy and it was granted. However, he died before he retired. The Mission Board then asked Mrs. Petter to retire away from the mission field, however, she refused saying that since they had granted an exception for her husband, that included her. That caused considerable disagreement.
My Evaluation of the Work of Rodolphe Petter
- Rodolphe Petter was a linguist far ahead of his time. Modern day linguistic work really began to flourish in the 1930s and 40s.
- He was adept at learning languages, having learned 7 languages well, namely: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, German, English, and Cheyenne.
- He contributed much to the entire Cheyenne language cause.
- He had a deep commitment to God and the mission cause.
- His Cheyenne language work was influenced by his German, which made it harder to read by Cheyenne people.
- He was a product of his time and was not always open to the ways that God was revealing himself to the Cheyenne People. For example, when Harvey Whiteshield came to minister to the Northern Cheyenne, he brought with him some of the Cheyenne Spiritual (Indigenous) Songs that God had given to Cheyenne Christians in Oklahoma. Rodolphe spoke out against those songs and advocated using only translated songs.
- Rodolphe was a man with strong convictions and great perseverance, however, Bertha could be very critical and often influenced Petter in this way.