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White Robe

A contemporary art exhibition by celebrated Irish artist
Brian Whelan on life and work of the Rev. Dr. John Roberts

of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming

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The painting highlights the. Rev. John Roberts’ birth in Wales, and the influence of Celtic spirituality on his worldview, which led to him encouraging Native Indigenous expressions of spirituality. The painting covers Roberts’ Celtic Welsh roots through the Welsh national flower of daffodils, a Celtic cross, the Welsh red dragon flag (a symbol of “fearlessness”), mid-19th century Welsh hats and clothing, Celtic harp, and sheep in the countryside (i.e. Agnus Dei).


John Roberts was born in Dyserth, Wales in 1853. In the latter half of the 19th century, virtually all teaching in Welsh schools was required to be in English, even in areas where the pupils barely understood English. The Welsh language was forbidden to be spoken in them. Some schools used the Welsh Not, a piece of wood, often bearing the letters "WN", which was hung around the neck of any pupil caught speaking Welsh. The pupil could pass it on to any schoolmate heard speaking Welsh, with the pupil wearing it at the end of the day being punished. The subjugation of his own culture and language in his home country, led to him advocating for the preservation of Native Indigenous
culture and languages.


    This painting covers John Roberts’ calling to the priesthood and to work with Native Americans, by focusing on his ordination to Holy Orders (Diaconate) at Litchfield Cathedral in England in 1878 by the renowned bishop, The Rt. Rev. George Augustus Selwyn, the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand and Melanesia.



Newly ordained, the Rev. John Roberts was sent to The Bahamas to work in a leper colony. He was ordained a priest at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Nassau, where he also served as Chaplain, and met his future wife Laura Alice Brown, who was the organist.


   The Rev. John Roberts’ arrival in Wyoming to serve on the Wind River Reservation coincided with the Great Blizzard of 1883. Arriving in Green River, WY on February 2, 1883 with his dog, he took a harrowing journey to Ft. Washakie on the Reservation with a US postman in minus 60 degrees F. The150 mile trip took eight days instead of the usual 36 hours.



On December 24, 1884, the Rev. John Roberts’ fiancée, Laura Alice Brown, arrived in Rawlins, Wyoming. She had followed him from The Bahamas after being several years apart. They were married the next day, on Christmas, and then set off together for the Wind River Reservation by stage coach. Not long after, they lost their first child, a little boy, who died at birth. They went on to raise five children, four daughters and a son.


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Early in the Rev. John Roberts’ ministry on the Wind River Reservation, he conducted the funeral for Sacagawea, who as a young Eastern Shoshone woman, has been the celebrated guide on the renowned Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 1800s. In this painting, red roses are being offered at her funeral, the symbol of the Eastern Shoshone.

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“Chief Washakie's Gift”

The Rev. John Roberts’ developed close friendships with tribal leaders, especially the renowned Eastern Shoshone Chief Washakie, as well as the Northern Arapaho Chief Black Coal. Chief Washakie gifted him 160 acres of sacred land to be used for a church and a school for girls. Chief Washakie asked to be baptized by Rev. Roberts’ at the end of his life.
In this painting, wild flowers surround the school building, as a coyote, a spiritual symbol to Native Americans, makes an appearance.

“White Robe”

The Rev. John Roberts’ was affectionately referred to “White Robe” by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes because as a priest he wore a white robe. These were the tragic days of untold treaty after treaty with the Native tribes being broken by the US government. Hence during any negotiations with government officials, the tribes would not proceed without the Rev. John Roberts being present. In this painting, Chief Washakie and President Grover Cleveland are pictured, with Rev.
Roberts at the table in order to represent the tribes in treaty negotiations. In the background, US Army officials rip up treaties.

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The Rev. John Roberts began his service on the Wind River Reservation as a schoolmaster for the Federal School, but was deeply disturbed with many of their rules, and the resulting tragic consequences for Native children. Therefore, he founded a school for girls and contrary to the Federal philosophy of irradicating Native culture, he encouraged them to embrace their Indigenous customs, traditions, and languages, and worked to facilitate close family relations, as opposed to the Federal system of
separating children from their families. At the school, he built a permanent wood teepee for the children to celebrate and practice their traditions, strengthen their cultural heritage, learn their handicrafts (i.e. beading), practice their dances, and celebrate their music (i.e. sacred drumming, etc.), all the while encouraging the use of their tribal language.


On the Wind River Reservation, The Rev. John Roberts’ encouraged Indigenous expressions of spirituality within Christian practices (i.e. sacred drumming), and oversaw the translation of parts of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer into the
languages of Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. In addition to his work on the Reservation, he founded all of the Episcopal churches in Fremont County, WY, which served white settlers. He rode thousands of miles on his beloved buckskin horse from church to church. This painting highlights the Bible translation work. At the foot of the table, the effort is being cedared, as sacred drumming is played. Some of those who assisted Rev. Roberts in the translation work are shown around the table, including Michael White Hawk, Fremont Arthur, Charles Lajoe, Herbert Walsh and the Northern Arapaho priest, The Rev. Sherman Coolidge.

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“The Good Red Road”

“Elder Brother” was the name of honor and affection used by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes in referring to Rev. Roberts. He was deeply loved and respected by those he came to serve. He was seen by them as following and teaching “the Good Red Road,” a reference to the Indigenous way of thinking about how Creator
originally intended us to live. In this painting, the Rev. Roberts sets out on a journey under Sister Moon, as an Eastern Shoshone mother and her daughter bless him with their send-off greeting.


The Rev. Dr. John Roberts was honored during his lifetime by the US Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion as a beloved missionary-priest. He was awarded various honorary doctorate degrees, such as from the University of Wyoming and Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. He died on January 22, 1949 at the age of 96, and is buried in a simple grave in Lander, WY with the epitaph “Servant of God.” The Wyoming state flag is flown today in his honor at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He is also commemorated with a Feast Day each year on February 25 in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (A Great Cloud of Witnesses). In this painting, the Wyoming state flag flies high in his honor at Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

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“Servant of God”

This center panel painting highlights different aspects of the remarkable life and ministry of The Rev. John Roberts. Rev. Roberts is shown baptizing in the Wind River that is filled with fish, a symbol of following the way of Christ. The salmon in the river also remind us of the renewal of life that came about to so many, both Indigenous and white, as a result of his work. The horse represents strength, and the coyote’s presence reminds us of the sacredness of his service. The little prairie dog symbolizes cooperation, community, and kinship, which describes his work with his Native brothers and sisters. There are two eagles flying in the air, the strongest and bravest of all birds, which Native Americans have chosen as a symbol of what is highest, bravest, strongest and holiest. In the Native American culture, eagle feathers are given to another in honor, and the feathers are worn with dignity and pride.

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