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Old 09-07-2004, 04:47 PM   #1
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Cherokee bishop brings American Indian perspective to the Episcopal Church

Cherokee bishop brings American Indian perspective to the Episcopal Church

Posted: September 07, 2004 - 10:53am EST
by: Bobbie Whitehead / Correspondent / Indian Country Today

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Bishop Suffragen Carol Joy Gallagher, the first American Indian woman to become a bishop suffragen with the Episcopal Church, hugs her mother, Betty Walkingstick Theobald, after the consecration ceremony in April 2002. (Photo by Bobbie Whitehead)
PETERSBURG, Va. - Two years ago in a ceremony that made history, Carol Joy Walkingstick Gallagher became the first American Indian woman bishop with the Episcopal Church.

An enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, Gallagher’s ceremony included prayers in the Cherokee language and made use of American Indian ceremonial rituals. The event drew hundreds of people, both Indian and non-Indian, to St. Paul’s College, a school established in Lawrenceville, Va. in the late 1800s to educate free blacks.

Now serving as bishop for the Episcopal Church’s Southern Virginia Diocese in Petersburg, Va., Gallagher said she serves as the overseer, visiting different congregations each Sunday and having service with them.

"Usually, I celebrate and preside over the communion each Sunday," Gallagher said. "It’s part and parcel to who I am."

Raised a Christian by her Cherokee mother, Betty Walkingstick Theobald of Tahlequah, Okla., Gallagher said her mother grew up during a time when the Cherokee were taught not to practice any of the traditional Cherokee cultural rituals. Her mother, who later moved to New York, made friends within the Onondaga community, keeping in touch with Indian people and culture, she said.

But now with more acceptance of American Indian culture, Gallagher said she tries to incorporate the Cherokee traditions in some of her services.

"Singing in traditional languages is one thing I do," said Gallagher, who recently completed her doctorate in urban affairs and public policy from the University of Delaware.

Although Gallagher isn’t fluent in the Cherokee language, she grew up hearing it spoken. Her grandfather, who was a native speaker, lived with her family off and on when she was a child.

"He taught us some things, but none of us are fluent," said Gallagher, who hopes to complete a language immersion study course to learn the Cherokee language. "But we’ve all studied it."

Inside her office, Gallagher keeps photos of her three daughters, Christian symbols such as crosses and angels along with Indian items. She even has a painting from her aunt, Kay Walkingstick, a well-known Cherokee artist whose work is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Gallagher grew up a Presbyterian - her father having been a Presbyterian minister and ordained 52 years ago. But she and her husband, Mark Gallagher, a Roman Catholic, decided to join the Episcopal Church a few years after their first daughter was born.

In 1990, Gallagher became a priest, and she became the rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Middletown, Del. in 1996. In 2001, the Rev. Gary Rowe, a priest, and the Rev. Wayne Wright, a bishop, both of Delaware, put Gallagher’s name on a nominating list for bishop suffragen with the Diocese of Southern Virginia.

"I didn’t know if I wanted to be bishop or not," Gallagher said.

The process of becoming a bishop is a lengthy one - after being placed on the nominating list, a committee of 16 people reviewed resumes and began interviewing those from the list, she said. Three months after her interview in June 2001, the committee narrowed the list down to five people, and Gallagher was on that list.

In August 2001, she was elected bishop.

"Being the first American Indian woman bishop is quirky enough that people are fascinated," Gallagher said. "It’s not been a negative issue, but more of a fascination for people."

Shortly before her consecration, Gallagher received a call from Wilma Mankiller, former Cherokee Nation principal chief, and was asked to help with a ceremony of healing and reconciliation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.

"It was a wonderful service," Gallagher said.

Mankiller, in a statement to Indian County Today, described Gallagher as a strong spiritual leader "primarily because of her personal characteristics and her Cherokee heritage."

"Bishop Gallagher is a person of enormous faith; her father was a minister and her mother, like most Cherokee people, is a deeply spiritual woman," Mankiller wrote. "Rather than viewing spirituality or religion in a dogmatic or segmented way, Bishop Gallagher tries to incorporate Native culture into her religious teachings."

Gallagher brings her "identity and worldview as a Cherokee woman" to the church leadership, Mankiller said.

"Informed by her mother’s teachings, she will bring a strong sense of community to leadership," Mankiller said. "One of the most enduring cultural attributes of the tradition-oriented Cherokee people is a commitment to maintaining community and close reciprocal relationships with extended family and friends. Bishop Gallagher brings to leadership an understanding that spirituality is not predicated on a certain set of compartmentalized rituals. She understands that everything in life is sacred and therefore has a spiritual element."

Mankiller also said that Gallagher brings a "much-needed" woman’s perspective to her leadership role in the church.

As the only American Indian woman bishop, Gallagher describes her experiences and her background as interesting to many people within the Episcopal Church.

"There are times when it’s hard to explain to people what it’s like to be a Native person in a hierarchical church," she said. "I don’t always see things the way other people do. That’s a positive thing. It can be isolating, too. I don’t have an Indian community around me who readily understands the difference in function or perception."

As an American Indian with the church, Gallagher said she does a lot of interpretation in helping people to understand American Indian issues and needs.

"I also wasn’t raised on a reservation, so I don’t try to interpret for anyone but my family," she said. "But I spend a lot of time acting as a bridge between cultures." This article can be found at
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