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7/22/97 After alcohol & Indian activism, Whitecloud met the good shepherd

CHULA VISTA, Calif. (BP)–Alice Whitecloud holds a clear memory of her maternal grandmother: an Apache sheepherder who wore her hair in long braids and fought all government attempts to relocate her and the 200 sheep she tended.
As a child, Whitecloud lived with her fiery grandmother on the San Carlos Apache Reservation about 80 miles east of Phoenix.
“She was very outspoken. She went to jail,” remembers Whitecloud. “But she never yelled at me, not one time. Not even when I lost a sheep because I was drunk and asleep.
“My grandma drank. At 4 or 5 years old, I took my first drink.”
When she was 10, Whitecloud attended boarding school on the reservation. After her grandmother’s death, Whitecloud’s mother and stepfather took her to live with them in McMinnville, Ore. There, Whitecloud found herself in a school full of white children.
She remembers the other girls wore nice clothes and shoes — she wore hiking boots. “There was a dance at school. I was afraid to go. Mother bought me a colorful dress and some green shoes. The kids laughed. I walked back to our ranch. Five miles.”
At first, she was passive in the face of peers’ taunts. “I walked with my head down.” But eventually, Whitecloud retaliated. “I hit a girl who was being mean. Then I beat them all up. It felt good to fight back. I quit hiding my face.”
By age 15, she was emotionally drained by school fights — and by sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. “I told my mother, and she told me to do whatever he said. I went out the window. I hitchhiked back to the reservation. I raised myself. I got me a hogan, and set up camp. I got me chickens, sheep and a horse. I worked for the elders. They knew my grandmother had fought for the land. They gave me some respect.”
Whitecloud believed she had found a worthy cause when the Indian movement marched across the reservations toward South Dakota and Wounded Knee. “They let me join. I carried a rifle and kept guard at night. I felt that I had a reason to live. If I died, I had fought the good fight. By then,” she admits, “I was an alcoholic.”
For Whitecloud, the trail out of Wounded Knee was littered with hatred, heartbreak, years of alcohol abuse and violence. She was a single mother looking for a way out of her misery when a missionary invited her son, Strongeagle, to Bible school. She was repeatedly surprised by the man’s kindness. And she was curious about a book he had given her, “Women of the Bible.”
“I opened it to the story of Mary Magdalene. It said with her long hair and her tears, she washed Jesus’ feet. All of the men I had known had been no good. For someone to do that for him, I thought, this Jesus sounded like a wonderful man.”
Later, she stepped out on her porch and prayed, “Grandfather (Creator), are you Jesus?” Then she asked, “Do you love Indians?”
“I felt something so beautiful. I was happy. I was laughing and laughing. I understood Mary Magdalene. I had no perfume. But I felt like I could wash Jesus’ feet with my tears. I wanted life to be like this forever.
“I gave my life to Jesus Christ. Then I ran to my neighbor Joseph. I used to tell him that getting drunk was the only way out. Now I said the answer is Jesus.”
Understanding that has made all the difference. Whitecloud began bringing her own children — sons Strongeagle and Littlehawk and daughter Yellowmoon — to church, and she now reaches out to youngsters and families in their apartments.
“She is like a magnet,” notes her pastor, Oren Teel of Hilltop Baptist Church, Chula Vista, Calif. “All the kids in the neighborhood flock to her house. They trust her.” Even delinquent teenagers who had tried to involve Littlehawk in their gang have listened to Whitecloud, Teel says. “One night she called them down to her apartment. When I got there, they had already received Christ into their lives.”
Two summers ago, 38 children in the area enrolled in a Backyard Bible Club held out under the trees. Now, a brown ’84 Ford church van regularly stops at the apartments to pick up kids for church. Whitecloud opens her apartment for a Bible study for single parents. “She is a strong force for the Lord,” Teel notes. “Those apartments are her mission field.”
Because she is fluent in Spanish, she also assists with a mission to American prisoners in the La Mesa State Penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. On Wednesdays, David Walden, associate pastor of outreach at Hilltop, puts 100 loaves of bread or other food behind the seats of his emerald Mazda pickup and, with Whitecloud and other volunteers, crosses the border.
The prison is a city within a city, roughly 3,500 inmates in an area approximately the size of a football field. They get food rations: beans, rice and tortillas. Those who can afford it, rent cells. The rest sleep on the roof, in hallways or on the ground. There are no toilets or running water. In winter, when blankets are scarce, says Whitecloud, “A man was killed for his blanket.”
There, homosexuality, prostitution, violence and drug abuse run rampant, says Walden. “When you move through the crowd of men and women, they are pulling on you. They want whatever you have, food, money, jewelry, clothes, anything they can pull off of you.” The ministry is full of personal risk, as Whitecloud is well aware. “One time, people who were hungry jumped us for the donuts. I said, ‘Pastor, they are going to kill us for the donuts.'”
Their mission is to help the Americans — they bring blankets, clothing, food, letters from the prisoner’s families back in the United States. But Whitecloud says, “I interpret because I want the Mexican people to hear, too.”
From a small Bible study with two or three, the ministry has grown to work with 20-30 American men and women. Notes Walden, “Even though Whitecloud is a small woman, she is strong. Because she has been in jail herself, she relates well with these women and men. She makes a lot of eye contact. There is compassion in her speech. She is an encourager. “Whitecloud gets them to take their eyes off of themselves and fix their eyes on the Lord.”
Whitecloud says, simply, she knows what it means to live without hope. “But I can say to the women who get beat up, I have been beaten up. There is hope. To the children who get sexually abused, I know there is hope for them.
“Jesus is my shepherd. When alcohol was taking over in my life, there was a time that I hated my sheep. I left them. But Jesus is the good shepherd. He never leaves us.
“The Word says he chose us. I am so glad he chose me.”

    About the Author

  • Celeste Pennington