Photo Credit: 
Cheyenne Belew | The Chronicle

Many know that Oklahoma is home to the Comanche, a proud people who planted their roots in this area hundreds of years ago. But fewer know that they got their start farther north. The Comanche were once part of the Shoshone tribes of Wyoming. In the 1600’s, the Comanche left and made their own way, moving into the Southern Plains. They quickly adapted to change when they acquired horses from the Spanish and soon became skilled horsemen and nomadic hunters, gaining their title as “Lords of the Plains.” The Comanche used this new mobility to extend their reach, hunting and conducting raids as far south as what is now Durango, Mexico. These ventures also produced captives and established the Comanche’s dominance in the area. They conquered vast amounts of land in present-day Oklahoma, Texas, Northern Mexico, and Eastern New Mexico. In the 18th century, however, the Comanche aligned with the Kiowa, an alliance which still stands today.

The Gospel Message

Although the Comanche believed in the Great Spirit, the Gospel Message was first brought to them by Christian missionaries who came to the area. One of the first missionaries to share the Gospel with the Comanche was Methodist preacher J.J. Methvin. Methvin moved to Anadarko in 1887 to work with the Comanche. During his mission work, Methvin learned of the Big Looking Glass Band of Comanche, who lived on the Little Washita River about 30 miles away, near present-day Fletcher. This band had no preacher. In 1892, Methodist Church leaders sent Andrew E. Butterfield to do missionary work among the Big Looking Glass Band. Butterfield moved his family and quickly established a mission there.

Little Washita Mission

Butterfield’s early mission work was conducted in an old government issue building on the south side of the Little Washita River. According to church members, services were held there, in the same building from which the government handed out commodities to Indians. Early Indian converts helped Butterfield with the work of the mission. The task was dangerous and the hours long. During Butterfield’s seven years working among the Comanche, he lost an infant son, and his young daughter, Annie Butterfield, suffered a rabid skunk bite, from which she eventually recovered. In 1893, one year after his arrival, Butterfield’s mother died while visiting him at the mission. Tribal leaders consented to her burial nearby. After this, other members of the Big Looking Glass Band began to bury their dead there as well. The plot of land would later become known as the Little Washita Indian Cemetery.

Change comes slowly

The early beginnings of what would become the Little Washita Indian Methodist Church had begun and there was no stopping it. One of the first Christian Indians, Guy Quoetone, became the church’s first pastor. The teachings of the church were difficult for the Comanche at first, especially having only one wife. This was foreign to the Comanche, many of whom had several wives. But over time, things changed. The Comanche changed. Within a few years, a small building was constructed two miles south and the mission continued its work there. However, Butterfield failed to get government approval for the construction of the mission and establishment of the cemetery. When the area was opened for homesteading in 1901, a man named George Bundy claimed the area for his 160-acre homestead. However, when he sold it in 1906, he deeded 20 acres of his land to the Methodist Women’s Board of Missions. In recent years, the Women’s Board of Missions deeded 3.99 acres to the Comanche Indian Cemetery Association for cemetery use.

Little Washita Cemetery established

Although Butterfield’s mother was thought to be the first buried at the cemetery, a 1988 inventory of graves there revealed the first burial to be in 1890. The headstone had to be rubbed to be legible. It reads: Wilde, Died March 1890, 35 years. The historic cemetery is also home to two important Indian Scouts who aided government officials: Ane-Po-Ti-Yerp and Toacey. It houses three Comanche Indian Code Talkers, who’s service was invaluable during the Second World War through the use of the Comanche language. Code Talkers buried in the cemetery include Perry Noyobad, Anthony Tabbytite and Ralph Wahnee. On the east side of the cemetery are eight sets of ancient remains, which were disturbed by construction or other means and reinterred there between 2000 and 2004. According to longtime church member Roger Tehauno, there are also some mass graves there which are attributed to two smallpox outbreaks.  

The church building

After allotments in 1906, Charles and Julia Connywerdy Wahnee donated the five acres on which the present-day church sits, five miles north of Fletcher. Today, there are four buildings in total. The main church building was constructed in 1930. A parsonage was built during World War II by the women of the church, who stayed behind. Another structure, which houses Sunday School classes, was formerly a church in Cyril that was moved to the property in the 60s. Later on, a dining hall was built by a Methodist work group who volunteered.

Church traditions recounted

Church members recount traditions which have shadowed several generations. In the early days of the church, members enjoyed Sunday school under a large tree on the property. Then came hotdog cookouts at a nearby pond before service and Comanche-Kiowa camp meetings. Other events include Vacation Bible School, Easter dinners and egg hunts, Christmas dinner and nativity program, Wednesday night house meetings, a Halloween carnival, and, more recently, a haunted trail in the woods near the church. Today, a staffing shortage has left the church with no pastor. However, church members have stepped up and taken turns leading devotion and singing, with about 25 in attendance on Sundays.  

Church history lives on in its members

Eighty-five-year-old church member Ramona Gooday’s parents, Owen and Velma Wooth, helped build the main church in 1930. She recalls her childhood in the church. Gooday’s grandmother did not speak English, only Comanche. This enabled Gooday to become fluent in Comanche. Early on, she says an interpreter was used in the services because many members did not speak English. At first, Comanche hymns were sung, but they were eventually translated into English and are still sung today. Ramona Gooday lived with her grandparents and even recalls the Methodist Rev. White Parker, son of famous Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, staying with her family for a time. Church records show White Parker served as a pastor of the church.

When Gooday joined the Navy as a young woman, she probably did not expect to meet and marry another Comanche in the service, but that is exactly what happened. While serving in Alexandria, Virginia, Gooday recognized a young soldier from Apache. Lupe Gooday Sr. was half Comanche and half Fort Sill-Apache Indian. It was too much of a coincidence to ignore. The two hit it off and were married in 1956. Ramona Gooday got out of the Navy when she married Lupe. After four years of active duty, they moved back to the local area and Lupe finished out his time in the army with 20 years in the reserve.

Indian churches and schools intertwined

To Comanche church members who grew up in the Little Washita Indian Methodist Church, one thing stands out in their memories and the memories of their parents: Indian schools. The role Indian schools played in the lives of the Comanche in the early years of the church was key to their conversion to the Christian faith. It taught them English and the ways of the church.

Church member Roger Tehauno’s parents attended the Fort Sill Indian School in the 1930’s. Besides learning the English language and church ways, the girls learned homemaking skills and the boys to farm. Other Indian schools included the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, which is still in operation, and the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Despite being far away, the Carlisle Indian School was attended by several church members. Indian schools were designed to help in the conversion process. Yet, in the process, the Comanche lost a vital part of their culture: Their language. Indian students were often punished for speaking their native tongue at school, but many still managed to maintain fluency. Roger Tehauno remembers his grandmother speaking to him in the Comanche language at home.

Roger Tehano is proud of his family’s heritage in the church. He recounts the story of how his family name came to be. Roger Tehauno says that when his grandfather “Tehauno” was born, his parents were on horseback just south of the Red River in Texas. Because the baby was born in Texas, his parents decided to give him the name “Tehauno.” At that time, he explains, individuals only went by one name. Roger Tehauno also has a grandfather, Ralph Wahnee who is one of the code talkers buried in Little Washita Cemetery.

The next leg of the journey

The history of the Little Washita Indian Church has been kept alive through individuals like church historian and piano player Delores Karty, who passed away in 2019. Both Karty and Tehauno have contributed documents to the church history. Although church attendance has declined in recent years, church members are proud and maintain that the church will remain long after their passing. To quote church member, Ramona Gooday, “The Little Washita Indian Church will continue to go on after I’m no longer here.” However, in order to continue, the torch must be passed on to someone new. Someone who will record and propagate the history of the church and the Comanche People, in general.

Whose history is this?

Stories like that of the Little Washita Indian Church are an integral part of Oklahoma history. Our history. With each generation, some of it is lost. Stories vanish. Cultures fade. However, while Indian schools sought to diminish the Comanche language, there is hope for a new generation of Comanche culture on the horizon. While many seek to promote cultural awareness, others see a need to resuscitate and embolden a local native culture that played a central part of southwest Oklahoma’s history — Comanche culture.

A new hope

One such effort is Comanche Academy, a new breed of charter school in Lawton. Set to open in the fall of 2021, Comanche Academy will use the Comanche language alongside English to instruct students in a co-cultural, bilingual environment. The school will give Comanche students a chance to learn more about their culture and the language still spoken by only a small percentage of the Comanche population. It is efforts like this which give Oklahomans hope for keeping the spirit of the Comanche people alive.