Trail of Death, Part II

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Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) offered a course called “Trail of Death: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament, and Transformation” from June 22nd–June 29th, 2015. Participants journeyed the route that over 800 Potawatomi people traveled in 1838 under military gunpoint, after being forcibly removed from their homeland in northern Indiana. This three-part blog series was originally a sermon Josh Kinder delivered at Prairie Street Mennonite Church about his experience as a pilgrim on the Trail of Death.

The trip for the Potawatomi people in 1838 was not good. A dry summer had led to a hot and dry autumn. Water for people and horses was hard to come by, dust choked the rear of the train. The region was suffering an epidemic of fever, and many of the refugees were ill. In the first week of the trip, seven people died, six of them children. After eight days of travel, they walked through the site of the Battle of Tippecanoe, which was the beginning of the War of 1812. This battle was momentous, as it resulted in the defeat of a vast Indigenous coalition assembled at Prophetstown, led by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa. Many young Potawatomi warriors joined the coalition and fought against U.S. forces that day in November 1811. They had believed that they would eliminate Europeans and their influence from their land; they had believed in a new world, and their vision was blotted out by our American bullets. And now, just 26 years later, the refugees were forced to march through the same ground. Undoubtedly there were some in the group who had vivid memories of the battle and its aftermath. We read that as they set up camp near the battle ground, a very old woman, the mother of chief Wewissa, died. I believe she died of sorrow.

The route marker at Battle Ground is on a boulder, resting in the shadow of a great obelisk erected in memory of American military effort in the battle. A statue of William Henry Harrison greeted us, and the names of U.S. officers. No such honor is paid to the Native coalition. I sat on the steps of the monument for some minutes and wept over all that had been lost. Also on the site are many ancient oak trees, some of which must have been standing in 1811. I tried to hear what they had to say, and I saw how their foliage managed to block almost every view of the white obelisk. I gave thanks for how these oaks have maintained their witness against military strength, against colonizing powers. Perhaps their steady presence was also an inspiration to the refugees who passed by. We gathered to speak our litany, then sang a setting of Psalm 137. “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, for thee Zion. We remember thee, Zion.” As we sang, a breeze blew up through the trees, and their leaves added their voice to our song. More spirits joining the pilgrimage. Ghosts beginning to dance.

As the Potawatomi removal neared the end of their journey, the autumn heat gave way to an early winter. The road was frozen mud, and a good number of the refugees were without any shoes. Anticipating homes and already-broken prairie sod upon their arrival, the Potawatomi instead found a desolate Kansas wilderness. The regional Indian agent in charge of the promised accommodations was conspicuously absent. Instead of staying there, the refugees moved some 15 miles south to St. Mary’s Mission at Sugar Creek. There they found a priest, nuns, and other Potawatomi, a group that had been forced to move there from Council Bluffs, Iowa. There was company, but there were not any shelters for the refugees. They spent the first winter huddled in indentations in the cliffs above the creek. Through the first year at St Mary’s, more than 30 Potawatomi died, most of them younger than two years old. After 10 years at Sugar Creek, the Potawatomi were forced to move once again, to another reservation in Kansas, near Topeka. Later, in the 1860s, further treaties and negotiations caused by increased settler pressure in Kansas led to the division of the Potawatomi. Many moved to Oklahoma and are known today as the Citizen Band of Potawatomi. The fraction who persist in Kansas are the Prairie Band.

Our pilgrimage reached St. Mary’s on the hottest day of our trip. As was our practice, we got out of the van and walked for a couple miles.This day, it was the final two miles into the mission that we walked. The flat, dry, treeless landscape of eastern Kansas was a far cry from the lush forests of northern Indiana. The road was dusty, the plants were unfamiliar, I didn’t recognize any landmarks, I didn’t know the names of any places around…“How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

Entering the gates of the mission, I sensed a definite change in the atmosphere. This, I could tell, was what Celtic Christian tradition would call a “thin place,” a place where any gap between material and spiritual, earthly and heavenly, is almost eliminated. With each step further into the mission, I could feel again that burden of sorrow weighing down my body. Though the landscape was flat and open, I felt myself surrounded by the spirits of the dead. This was the very spot the Potawatomi walked, this was where they remembered their home, this was where they sat and wept. God is especially present in those places where God’s people have cried out for an end to their oppression. Our faith is that God hears the cries of the oppressed. I was haunted by the spirits at the mission, and I was haunted by the Holy Spirit, the presence of God. Here was where hundreds of Potawatomi refugees died and were buried. We had just walked into a valley of bones.

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