Rodolphe Charles (1865-1947) and Marie Gerber Petter (1866-1910)
Rodolphe Petter was born in the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland. His parents were Protestants: father a Huguenot and mother a Waldensian. Both are French protestant denominations. Young Rodolphe was orphaned at age seven and then moved from one relative to another.
In his early teen years, a blind Huguenot pastor and theologian hired Rodolphe as an assistant. He read aloud theological treatises and newspapers, served as a travel guide and took dictation for the pastor’s letters.
When the pastor died Petter, in his middle teens, moved in with the Samuel Gerber family and worked on their farm. The Gerbers were Mennonites in the Jura region. At that time Mennonites, and especially the Gerbers, placed a high emphasis on mission work. Petter had a dream about becoming a missionary and so he enrolled in six year theological program at the Basel Institute for Linguistics and Missions.
Also, a romance blossomed between Rodolphe and Marie Gerber and upon completion of his education program, they married. Shortly after the wedding in 1890, Rodolphe and Marie moved to America and after a year of language study at Oberlin College, began their life work among the Cheyenne people in Cantonment, Oklahoma.
Initially they lived in a small house but after it burned down, a large tent (see photo) served as home, research station, classroom and church. The Petters were already fluent in French, German, English and Rodolphe could read Latin and Greek. Together, Marie and Rodolphe began to learn Cheyenne. It is a difficult language and according to the Cheyenne no one who was not born into the tribe had ever learned to speak it. They kept extensive notes on words, idioms, grammar and other linguistic patterns. Their attentiveness to the language made them welcome guests in many homes. Rodolphe’s training in linguistics enabled him to develop a Cheyenne orthography (written language) which is still in use today.
After nearly 20 years in America, Marie passed away in 1910. Three years later, Rodolphe married Bertha Kinsinger who was also a linguist with an interest in Native American languages.
After 25 years in Oklahoma, the Petters moved in 1916 to the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. While the Petters also thought that that Christianity, as a revealed faith, was superior to Native religions, they diverged from many other missionaries by advocating that the Cheyenne people, their language and way of life had value in itself. They worked against Native American assimilation into the American Way of Life!
Look at their body of work: a Cheyenne dictionary, a hefty tome of 1126 pages, a Cheyenne grammar, two Cheyenne hymn books, a translation of Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, the complete New Testament and most of the Old in Cheyenne illustrate their commitment to the Cheyenne people. The Petters also published a beginner’s guide for learning Cheyenne. All in all, they produced 8 books in a language that had, till then, never been written.
Lawrence Hart, Mennonite pastor and Cheyenne Chief has credited Petter with the preservation of the Cheyenne people. When everything else was taken away (buffalo, deer, fishing streams, native arts and horses) Petter helped sustain a Cheyenne identity by preserving the language. The Petters, wrote Chief Hart, are now viewed as Saints among the Cheyenne.
Surely the Lord would say of Marie, Rodolphe and Bertha Petter, “Well done thou good and faithful servants.”
The Living Mirror: Archaeology of Our Faith