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Native American pastor Reverend Wilbert Robertson dies at 86

This obituary is part of a series on people who died in the coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about the others here.

Reverend Wilbert Robertson, pastor and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Sioux tribe who founded churches on Indian reservations in South and North Dakota, died Nov. 25 at a privacy center in Roslyn , SD He was 86 years old.

The cause was Covid-19, her daughter Ruth Hopkins said.

Mr. Robertson became a born again Christian in the Air Force while stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War. He returned to South Dakota in 1972, to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where McLaughlin’s Standing Rock Bible Church needed a pastor; they took Mr. Robertson despite his inexperience.

Having found his calling, he went on to attend Mokahum Indian Bible School in Cass Lake, Minnesota, and the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. A Baptist missionary seeking a Native American pastor to start a church in the Lake Traverse Reserve in Sisseton, SD, had heard of a Sioux pastor with a gift for preaching – Mr. Robertson – and had recruited him.

With his wife, Judith, whom he married in 1961, he opened a church in Sisseton in a mobile home in 1979. He helped build a permanent building with his own hands, and the church, now called the first Sisseton Baptist Church, still going strong.

Mr. Robertson established two more Baptist churches on reserve over the next decade – Dakota Baptist on the Spirit Lake Nation reserve and Bethany Baptist, also in Lake Traverse.

After leading the two churches for nearly 30 years, he retired from the ministry in 2018. He has also served as a tribal judge and district president for the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe.

Wilbert David Robertson was born March 21, 1934 in Fort Totten, ND, the son of Jeremiah and Mabel (Keeble) Robertson. Her father, a World War I veteran, found odd jobs during the Great Depression and her mother raised seven children.

At the age of 4, Wilbert, like his siblings, was forced to go to a boarding school in Fort Totten. Many Native American children were forcibly taken to such schools in an attempt to assimilate them into white culture. The children had their hair cut and had to speak English. Those who spoke in their mother tongue were punished.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the federal government operated about 100 of these schools; the last one closed in 1973.

When Wilbert’s long hair was cut, he developed a cow lick. Cow licking has earned him the nickname Jiggs, after a character, whose hair stood on end, in the popular comics and movies “Jiggs and Maggie.”

“He was very intelligent, an avid reader,” his daughter said in a telephone interview. “It had to be to survive boarding school.

Graduating a year earlier, in 1952, he hitchhiked in Grand Forks, ND, and enlisted in the Air Force, where he became a jet fighter mechanic.

He eventually became a team leader and served in East Asia towards the end of the Korean War; he served in a similar capacity during the Vietnam War. After leaving the service, he worked in a leper colony in Cambodia for some time before returning to the United States.

With his daughter Mrs. Hopkins, he is survived by his wife; another daughter, Linda Miller; two half-sisters, Brenda Azure and Barbara Robertson; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

“My life is filled with memories of him sacrificing himself for others,” Ms. Hopkins said. “Children from our extended family were taken in and he and my mother helped raise them. I remember people coming to the house to ask for advice. If they were in trouble, they would go see him.

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