In June 2017, I learned history by traveling in another person's shoes when I participated in the Trail of Death pilgrimage sponsored by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. We retraced the route the Potawatomi people took when they were violently forced off their lands in 1838.
George Godfrey of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation is an author, teacher, and president of Trail of Death Association. He co-led our group of nine pilgrims with Katerina Friesen, AMBS professor, and Rich Meyer.
Commissioned with prayer and smudging
At the foot of a statue of Chief Menominee in Twin Lakes, Indiana, we were commissioned for our journey by George, who led us in prayer facing the four directions. He then blessed us by smudging us with smoke from sage leaves burning on a clam shell.
Chief Menominee was part of a resistance movement that refused to sign a treaty in 1836 to sell the tribe's land to the state of Indiana and move his group across the Mississippi. He, along with many Potawatomi, wanted to stay in the area and live peacefully with the new settlers. He even traveled to Washington, D.C., to make his case, thinking if the government knew the Potawatomis' intentions, they would understand.
From Chief Menominee's statue, we went on a silent walk a couple miles up the road. We reached the marker where a chapel had once stood. (The Pokagon Band Potawatomi Nation had chosen to take on some of the "White man's ways" – buying and selling land, learning English, and becoming Catholic – in an attempt to live in peace with new arrivals in their region.) At the first marker, we read a litany that was to become our prayer at each of the more than 40 markers along the trail.
Litany of remembrance
Standing where you walked,
We remember you.
Exiled under gunpoint,
loss of sacred land,
We remember you.
Bruised feet and weary bodies,
choked by dust and heat,
sickness stalking young and old,
We remember you.
We lament this Trail of Death.
Trail of broken promises,
theft of homelands for White man's profit.
We lament this Trail of Death.
We lament that our ancestors
did not dwell in peace.
Creator of all, we long for new vision today.
Open our eyes and give us sight
to seek the things that make for peace,
to see the image of God in all peoples,
especially those persecuted and oppressed.
Make a new way for us together.
Guide our feet, O Lord, on a Trail of Life.
Betrayal and drumbeat of deaths
On Sept. 4, 1838, General Tipton called a meeting at the church. When Chief Menominee, two other chiefs, and many of their people arrived, they were surrounded by militia. The chiefs were placed in a jail wagon, and 850 men, women and children were forced at gunpoint out of their homeland. As they looked back, they saw their homes burning in the distance.
As we followed the Trail of Death from marker to marker in a caravan of three vehicles, we read aloud from a journal kept by one of the soldiers who had been on the march. We learned that the forced march averaged 17 miles each day. Food and water were scarce because the summer of 1838 was particularly hot and dry. Many streams had dried up. Almost every entry included in its description of the day, "nothing of significance happened." But each entry ended with the number of people who had died, as if it were an insignificant fact! The drumbeat of deaths reported each day of the journey felt like nails piercing my heart.
Fear or embrace of God's diversity
First Mennonite Church in Champaign-Urbana (Illinois) hosted us on Pentecost Sunday. Michael Crosby preached about America's fear of difference. "Diversity is not the problem," he said. "Banding together behind walls of mono-cultural security is considered the real madness in God's economy."
God's expression of God's self is beautifully varied and complex. It is not a hierarchical, controllable world that must be protected from chaos at all costs, said Pastor Crosby. "God invites us to reject the fear of unpredictability and uniformity, and instead to hang on to the good news that God makes everything different in this wild, wonderful world and it is all so very good."
Often instead of seeing this diversity of people groups as something to embrace and rejoice in, we fear "the other" and seek to destroy them. Our nation was founded out of a massive genocide of the Native people groups who inhabited this land. I had to wonder, what might this land have been like if our ancestors had chosen to live together in peace with the Native inhabitants and learn from one another?
Anabaptists benefit from Potawatomi removal
As we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Missouri, we listened to letters written by President Andrew Jackson outlining how the governor of Indiana was to take the land in such a way that the Potawatomi people would not realize what was happening to them before it was too late. And, if they didn't move, President Jackson described the kind of force they would use to push them out. This removal of the Potawatomi people was so cold and calculating, I think all of us felt unfairness and anger boil within us.
My relatives were some of the Mennonites and Amish farmers who were invited to come make the land productive. Our group noted that Mennonites have been slow to pick up arms to defend a country, and yet they willingly pick up a plow for the empire.
I am a Mennonite and have always valued what I thought was long history of caring for others, of loving enemies, of following Jesus' example of treating others as we want to be treated. Now I have questions like: What were my ancestors really like? Did they realize the destruction and devastation that preceded the building of their homesteads? Did they treat the Indians with respect or with fear? Did they also kill Indians as many settlers did? I asked one of my great aunts if she had any stories that had been handed down, but she had none.
End of the trail
The Potawatomi exiles finally reached their destination at Sugar Creek Mission, Kansas, in November. Contrary to reassurances, there was no food and no houses for them. The 800 survivors may have created shelter by hanging hides over a ravine. It was a terrible winter for them. In the 10 years the Potawatomi stayed at Sugar Creek, more than 600 died. We gathered around six crosses with the names of those who died. As we read aloud each name and the age of the person, we said, "Shodah" (which means "here or present" in Potawatomi). We also poured water on the ground for each name as a symbol of healing.
We sang and prayed. George and Katerina led us in communion. Eddie Joe, a Prairie Band Potawatomi spiritual leader, shared his version of the history of Turtle Island (his people's name for the United States), prayed, and smudged each one of us.
I felt like I had walked on holy ground.