Bird Woman

Daily Reading for January 8 • Harriet Bedell, Deaconess and Missionary, 1969

Determined to become a missionary, Bedell gave up her job to train as an Episcopal deaconess in New York City. . . .She threw herself into her work and gradually gained the love and trust of her people. She was adopted into the tribe and given the name of Vicsehia, which means Bird Woman, because she sang, hummed, and whistled constantly while she worked. Harriet devoted herself to the Cheyenne until she contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Colorado to recover. There she attended a healing service and became free of symptoms, which she called a miracle. Instead of returning to Oklahoma, she was sent to Alaska where she worked for many years among the native peoples. In 1922 she journeyed to Portland, Oregon, to be ordained a deaconess in The Episcopal Church, returning to her mission in Alaska.

In 1932 while she was enjoying her first sabbatical with her family in Buffalo, the Bishop of New York asked her to visit the chain of missions in Florida to recruit church workers. On this trip she first encountered the Miccosukee tribe. She decided to remain in Florida to help the Miccosukee. With the backing of Bishop Wing in Miami and the Collier Corporation in Everglades (now Everglades City), Bedell set up a mission to minister to local people and the native Americans. She taught Sunday school, sewing, literature, hygiene, music, and a variety of other skills to the Miccosukee and the young children of Marco Island and Collier County.

The tribe adopted her and gave her the name Inkoshopie, woman who prays. Bedell borrowed on her salary and made an arrangement with the Collier Corporation to finance sales of Indian craft, including beadwork, clothing, pottery, carving, and leatherwork. With the proceeds, she repaid the loans and gave the Indians company script which they could spend at the store in Everglades. Bedell was tireless in persistent efforts for her people, traveling as far as Washington to prevent Japanese imitations of the craft work from entering the country, and to New York to sell Indian items to large department stores. She continued to do this work after her retirement, augmenting her meager income with loans from the Colliers, who eventually deeded over to her the small dwelling she occupied in Everglades. Every Christmas she arranged an enormous party with feasting and entertainment and gifts for all the Indians and children from Everglades.

In September 1960, Harriet was forced to evacuate her home when hurricane Donna struck. The storm leveled her property, destroying her typewriter, sewing machine, children’s books and gifts set aside for the upcoming holiday celebration. The bishop insisted that Harriet finally give up her active life at 85, and she moved to the Bishop Gray Inn in Davenport, Florida, a home for retired Episcopalians. Refusing to be idle, she planned and taught Sunday school, worked in the infirmary, and gave speeches to recruit mission workers. A huge birthday party was thrown for her when she turned 90; . . . Bedell died on 8 January 1969, just short of her 94th birthday.

From “Harriet Bedell” by Ormonde Plater, on his website “Through the Dust”:

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