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Son of early TV’s Tonto finds Christian faith

By Amanda Greene
Wilminton, North Carolina (AP) 11-09

Chief Steve Silverheels has Seneca/Mohawk Iroquois heritage from his father, Jay Silverheels who played Tonto in the TV series “The Lone Ranger.” He has Jewish heritage from his mother.

He attended a synagogue in New York as a young boy and later went to a Catholic school. Then he spent his young adulthood mostly rejecting religion.

Some who find themselves in such diverse spiritual company might struggle with what to believe.

But the Star-News of Wilmington reported that the 69-year-old Wilmington resident and itinerant Christian minister believes God or The Great Creator made his choice for him in 1974.

“I was an alcoholic and a drug addict after I got out of the Army,” he said. That year, after returning to his Florida apartment from a night of hard drinking, Silverheels had what he calls “a visitation from the Lord. And I knew it was my last warning.”

“I saw him descending on a cloud. No feet, and I couldn’t see his face. I asked him to save me, and all I know was I woke up kneeling at my window and crying. I came to the knowledge that there truly was a God.”

After that experience, Silverheels said he began attending Bible classes and began his ministry, meshing his Native American culture with his Christian faith. Today, Silverheels is a popular guest speaker at revivals, prayer meetings, pow wows and church services in the Southeast. He also presides at funerals and weddings in the local Native American community. Silverheels has his own Web site for Silverheels House of Nations, a videographer and a YouTube channel of his speaking engagements. By day, he works as a mail courier for the city of Wilmington.

Though Silverheels admires his father’s film accomplishments and leadership as the first Native American in cinema, he didn’t live with him growing up. His parents separated when he was small, but he saw his father several times each year.

Silverheels spent part of his boyhood growing up on the Tonawanda Band of Senecas Reservation near Buffalo, N.Y., and the rest living in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., where he later entered the Army.

He married his wife, Katherine, in 1975 and together they spent about 20 years ministering to tribes on reservations in Arizona. They would drive 10 hours from their home in California to bring clothes and food to the reservations.

“Our first trip to a reservation, when we saw how they were living, it was February and all the children had to put on their feet were socks. Both our hearts went out to them, and we started collecting things to take out to them,” Katherine Silverheels said. “We wanted to help them. We didn’t go out there with preaching and tracts.”

The Silverheelses moved to Wilmington in 1994 to be closer to his wife’s family.

Sitting in his Kings Grant home surrounded by Native American ceremonial artifacts including drums, an intricately carved eagle flute and a leather sack labeled “Sage Do not eat!” Silverheels chuckled.

“Some people say this is a museum,” he said, gesturing to his full floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with “Lone Ranger” memorabilia and his wife’s collection of lighthouse paintings.

“I’m called a healer by the Indians,” he said, “but I don’t claim to be a healer but a person anointed by God to pray for healing.” Silverheels believes God heals in three ways but always in his time: “instantly, gradually or as you go.”

Silverheels is expecting a healing in his own family. Katherine Silverheels is battling bone cancer. Although she was in the hospital recently, she encouraged him to attend a ministry event.

“God’s going to heal me, and I’m going to go again,” she said. “I’m not bragging on him because he’s my husband, I’m bragging on him because God chose him.”

Tears welling in his eyes, Silverheels said, “she’s a very vital part of not only my life but in the ministry.”

Silverheels believes Christian ministry is in his blood. He said his father’s family descended from Handsome Lake, a Seneca prophet who formed a religion that merged Iroquois customs with Christian morality and alcoholic temperance.

The Iroquois were some of the first Native Americans to be introduced to Christianity. Though their native faith was mainly animist (belief in the spirituality of animals and inanimate objects), they believed in a supreme being they called The Great Creator. After Christianity, they called Jesus, The Great Mystery and the Holy Spirit, The Great Spirit.

Silverheels uses those terms when he prays, though his cadence is more akin to a fiery Baptist preacher. When he speaks at events, Silverheels wears his turkey feather headdress, sandy-hued leather fringe pants and beaded leather shirt and uses native folklore to illustrate his spiritual points.

His videographer, Stan Atamanchuk, said he appeals to people in similar ways as his father did in “The Lone Ranger.”

“Tonto finds the near dead Ranger and with “Good Samaritan” care nursed him back to health. This is one of the gifts God has bestowed on Chief Silverheels, to reach, to touch, to bless. His audiences are attracted to his healing prayers and touch,” he wrote in an e-mail.

More men attended the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Women’s meeting in August than ever before to hear Silverheels speak.

“What touched me most was his passion for the words of the Bible,” said Pat Smith, membership chairwoman for Wesley’s UMW. “He said that as people we underestimate the impact that we have on others by the things that we do just by conversing with one another.”

Silverheels spoke about forgiveness on recently at Fulfillment Fest, the large tent revival in Scotts Hill.

He told the crowd a story about visiting a drunk man and leaving before he’d said goodbye to the man. Silverheels said the man was angry with him the next time he saw him. He prayed to God about his anger and God told him to apologize for offending the man.

“Forgiveness. Sometimes you don’t want to,” he said, “but when God tells you to do it, you better do it. I learned a valuable lesson from God that day. Forgiveness. It can be a blessing to you and it can be a blessing to someone else or they can turn it away.