The Story of the Sacred Journey of
the Rev. John Roberts among Native Americans
“It is my earnest desire to remain with the Indians permanently and to do what little I can for them spiritually and temporally."
The Rev. Dr. John Roberts
May 2, 1886
A touring contemporary art exhibition by celebrated Irish artist Brian Whelan on the life and work of the Rev. Dr. John Roberts on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, USA
The acclaimed Irish artist Brian Whelan was commissioned by ArtSpirit, the arts initiative of the Episcopal Church in Wyoming, and CARAVAN, an international arts non-profit, to produce 13 paintings about the life and work of the Rev. John Roberts, the renowned Welsh-born Episcopal priest who served among Native Americans on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, USA for 66 years (1883-1949).
The US Federal Indian boarding schools were established to enculturate and assimilate Native Americans into white American culture, resulting in the suppression of Indigenous culture and languages. As the tragedies of these schools are coming to light, the life and work of the Rev. John Roberts stands out as an exemplary model of doing the opposite, as he embraced Native American customs, languages, and expressions of spirituality.
The Rev. John Roberts and Andrew Basil (grandson of Sacajawea) at the grave of Sacajawea, the Eastern Shoshone guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition – Ft. Washakie, Wind River Reservation, WY
WHITE ROBE premiered at the John Roberts Festival in Ft. Washakie, Wyoming on June 3, 2023, the 140th anniversary of the Rev. John Roberts’ arrival on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, in 1883, where he served among the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Beyond commemorating the extraordinary life, work and example of the Rev. John Roberts, the exhibition also draws attention to the importance of learning from the spirituality, culture and traditions of our Native American sisters and brothers.
Following WHITE ROBE’s premiere in Ft. Washakie, Wyoming, the exhibition embarked on an multi-year international exhibition tour, beginning at the Pioneer Museum in Lander, Wyoming, which includes venues in the US, Wales and England. At the completion of the tour, the paintings will be on permanent display in Wyoming.
The exhibition is curated by The Rt. Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Wyoming and Founder of CARAVAN.
"Such pioneering as John Roberts has exemplified can never be duplicated in Wyoming. The volumes that can be written of such a life!"
Words spoken by The Rt. Rev. Ethelbert Talbot, the 15th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
About the Rev. Dr. John Roberts
The Rev. Dr. John Roberts was born in Wales in 1853, and while training for Anglican ordination felt called to serve among his Native American sisters and brothers in North America. Following several years of service in the Bahamas and Colorado, he began his ministry on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, USA in 1883.
Not long after his arrival, he conducted the funeral for Sacajawea, who as a young Eastern Shoshone woman, was the remarkable guide on the renowned Lewis and Clark expedition. The Rev. Roberts was well ahead of his time, as he embraced Native American customs, languages, and expressions of spirituality.
The Rev. John Roberts cultivated close friendships with tribal leaders, including the renowned Eastern Shoshone Chief Washakie and Northern Arapaho Chief Black Coal, and was referred to with deep affection as “White Robe” and “Elder Brother.”
If there were negotiations with U.S. government officials, the tribes would not proceed without the Rev. Roberts being present. His work led him, with the assistance of tribal leadership, to establish two alternative schools on sacred land gifted by the tribes that focused on honoring and preserving Indigenous culture. One of the schools is on the National Register of Historic Places today.
In addition to the Rev. Robert’s ministry on the Wind River Reservation, he founded all the Episcopal churches among white settlers within a 150-mile radius, in Fremont County, Wyoming - including the present-day Episcopal churches in the cities and towns of Lander, Riverton, Thermopolis, Atlantic City, Morton, Crowheart and Dubois, as well as churches that no longer exist in Milford, Hudson and Shoshoni.
The Rev. John Roberts lived a remarkable life and left a legacy that continues to have great influence today. He was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Wyoming and Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He died in 1949 at the age of 96, and the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho peoples honor his legacy to this day. Wyoming’s state flag is flown at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. in his honor.
Brian Whelan grew up in London, of Irish parents. After his training at the Royal Academy of Arts, he lived and worked in the East Anglia area of England near the North Sea. His home and studio are now based in Connecticut, USA.
Known to combine the profundity of play with the intent of icons, his paintings have been exhibited in noted art spaces, cathedrals and religious institutions around the world - such as Washington National Cathedral and Villanova University of Pennsylvania in the USA, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, St. Edmundsbury Cathedral and Norwich Cathedral in the UK, and Parador Dos Reis Catolicos, Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Whelan’s work follows in the tradition of East Anglian medieval narrative painting. For more information see: brianwhelanart.com
ArtSpirit is the arts initiative of the Episcopal Church in Wyoming. ArtSpirit explores and nurtures the relationship between spirituality and the arts, by developing, curating, coordinating and hosting artistic initiatives to stimulate discussion, dialogue and education, as well as spiritual exploration, toward enhancing our experience and understanding of both the Transcendent and of each other. For more information, see: www.episcopalwy.org/artspirit