Fr. Eugene Buechel S.J. was a German Jesuit who labored as a missionary among the Lakota (Sioux) of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in southwestern South Dakota. Although not formally trained as an anthropologist, he made important contributions to knowledge of the Oglala and Sicangu bands through his friendship with many Lakota people and through astute study and recording of various aspects of Lakota language and culture.
Fr. Buechel was born the last of 10 children in Schleid, Germany, 6 years after the Lakota signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and 2 years before the Battle of the Little Big Horn. His father, Heinrich Joseph Büchel, was a farmer. According to his own reckoning, Eugene attended grade school in Schleid from 1880 to 1886, and then gymnasium, which was part high school and part college, from 1886 to 1896, and a year of seminary in the neighboring town of Fulda. He left the diocesan seminary in 1897 to enter the Jesuit novitiate in Blyenbeck, Netherlands.
In response to political and religious struggles in Germany and the growing spiritual needs of German Catholic immigrants in the United States, German Jesuits and members of other religious orders began immigrating to the United States as early as 1847. Fr. Buechel came to the United States in 1900, 14 years after Fr. Jutz S.J. inaugurated the first Jesuit permanent mission to the Lakota of the Rosebud reservation. Buechel continued his Jesuit training in the United States, studying philosophy at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin (1900-1902), teaching religion and music and serving as a prefect at the Catholic boarding school (1902-1904) on the Rosebud reservation, where he also began learning the Lakota language.
He completed his studies in theology in St. Louis (1904-1905) and was ordained in 1906, completing his last year of Jesuit training (tertianship) in Cleveland, Ohio. Although Fr. Buechel showed great aptitude for languages while studying Latin and Greek, his persistent headaches rendered him unsuitable for scholarly pursuits in his superior’s opinion, and he was assigned to work as a mission pastor. Fr. Buechel’s time was divided between the Catholic Jesuit missions of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. He was the superior at Holy Rosary Mission from 1908 until 1916, a remarkable distinction given that he had been ordained for only 2 years and was just 34 years old. He served as superior of St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud reservation from 1916 to 1926, returned to Holy Rosary on Pine Ridge until 1929, when he transferred back to St. Francis on the Rosebud, where he remained until his death in 1954.
His scholarly work began with the elaboration of a dictionary, the core of which was an earlier Dakota dictionary begun by the Pond brothers and worked on by Stephen Return Riggs. He also made use of the linguistic work of Dakota linguist Ella Deloria, who worked closely with Franz Boas. He collected artifacts for a museum, which he originally housed in the Jesuit residence. Later, his collection was moved to a separate building constructed in 1950 to honor his 50 years as a Jesuit.
Fr. Buechel believed that the Lakota needed to change and “progress,” but at the same time, he held that Lakota language and culture would endure and believed his own work would contribute to its preservation. He states this explicitly in the introduction to his Lakota grammar. He was frustrated by the generation of Jesuit missionaries who followed him, now American instead of European, who were far more assimilationist-minded, believing the Lakota had best leave their ways behind and enter the mainstream of American life. Buechel’s study of the Lakota culture convinced him that for Jesuit ministry to be successful, Jesuits must have a profound understanding of Lakota culture and language. He also valued both the sheer pleasure of learning Lakota ways and the strong solidarity and friendship it brought him with Lakota people. In 1926, Father John Cooper, founder of the Catholic Anthropological Conference, encouraged Buechel to record cultural data for the sake of science. Buechel had begun doing this much earlier, as evidenced by his Lakota language narratives begun in 1904 and his ethnographic notes dating to 1915.
Fr. Buechel took a keen interest in the natural world of the Lakota. He recorded temperature and barometric readings and with a number of Lakota teachers, notably Cleve Bull Ring and Big Turkey, he collected local plants and recorded their Lakota, Latin, and English names and traditional uses in the 1920s. Always careful in his work to note the names and specific contributions of his Lakota teachers, he collaborated with Ivan Star Comes Out and Peter Iron Shell, whom he taught to write Lakota, as well as others, to assemble a collection of Lakota language narratives. Buechel also worked with the Lakota Catholic Catechists, including Nicholas Black Elk.
Although he had wide research interests, Fr. Buechel in fact published very little. Most of his work was intended for the Catholic Lakota and larger Catholic mission audiences. He authored a Lakota Bible history (1924) and a Lakota grammar (1939) and was the primary author of a Lakota prayer and hymnbook (1927). He also wrote short pieces for mission magazines in English and German, such as the Mittheilungen aus der Deutschen Provinz (Communications from the German Province of Jesuits), The Calumet, and The Indian Sentinel. His spiritual diary, ethnographic notes, sermons, letters, and other materials reside in the Marquette University Archives dispersed among the records of Holy Rosary-Red Cloud, St. Francis, and the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.
Works based on Fr. Buechel’s research, published posthumously, include his Lakota dictionary, which was organized, edited, and published by Fr. Paul Manhart S.J. in 1970 and revised and republished by him in 2002; a catalogue of plants; a book of narratives in Lakota; and two collections of his photographs, 41 of which were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art (1975-1976). Fr. Manhart subsequently translated Buechel’s Lakota narrative collection into English (1998). Buechel’s material culture collection and associated notes were digitized and placed online in 2003. His photographic collection, material culture collection records, and photography logbook remain at St. Francis mission. Markus Kreis in Germany, is the most active researcher on Fr. Buechel and the early German missionary Jesuits and Franciscan Sisters. Ross Enochs has written the history of the Jesuit missions from a theological standpoint, and Harvey Markowitz’s anthropological dissertation deals specifically with the Jesuits and Franciscans at St. Francis Mission.
- Buechel, E. S. J. (1974). Rosebud and Pine Ridge photographs, 1922-1942. El Cajon, CA: Grossmont College Development Foundation.
- Enochs, R. A. (1996). The Jesuit Mission to the Lakota Sioux: Pastoral theology and ministry, 1886-1945. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward.
- Kreis, K. M. (in press). Lakotas, blackrobes, and holy women. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Markowitz, H. (1987). Catholic mission and the Sioux: A crisis in the early paradigm. In R. DeMallie & D. Parks (Eds.), Sioux Indian religion: Tradition and innovation. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.