Trail of Death, Part III

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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.

Our journey had been full of sorrow, lamentation, remorse, and yearning for repentance and reconciliation. Despite these intentions, I was troubled by the cloud of witnesses at the mission, troubled by the spirit of resurrection that might just cause those bones to live. We had sung Psalm 137 often on our way, but I kept thinking of how it ends: “Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’ O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Reconciliation in the face of devastation is not easy; it is a troubling mystery. Were the Israelites ever reconciled with their Babylonian captors? Was this Israelite hostility, the desire for vengeance, ever let go?

And on this continent, I know that there are many Natives who carry much hostility toward settler peoples. Waziyatewin, a Dakota scholar and activist, writes, “But of course I am angry! …Chew on the overwhelming colonial narrative — not just the minor exceptions…Now consider the lived realities of Indigenous peoples today. We have been radically dispossessed of land, life, and well-being–hence the high suicide, addiction, and violent-crime rates, the loss of language, the loss of our children, the loss of sacred traditions and ceremonies, and so much more. If you and your people had experienced such massive waves of violence…, how would you feel?…Would you be happy if such a people told you to get over it?” And I remember the anger of Tecumseh and his brother, of Menominee, of Pierre Moran, of Black Hawk, of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. And I wonder, standing at St. Mary’s, how much hostility did these refugees have towards their enemies? How much hostility do they have towards me right now? The ghosts were coming back to life.

To mark the end of our pilgrimage, we participated in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. We began at the cluster of seven crosses at the corner of the yard, on which were posted plaques listing the names of those Potawatomi who had died during the 10 years they were at Sugar Creek. The professor who initiated the trip, David Miller, was presiding, and we began as the sun was low in the western sky. David read from Luke, the words of Jesus to his disciples, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you…” We then stood at the crosses and read out loud the list of names to each other. With each name, I shared Jesus’ earnest desire for communion. The naming was our invitation to the dead to come and share this meal with us… ghosts who settlers like us had forced to be refugees. And yet, despite the painful, troubling history between us, the Holy Spirit had given me a fervent desire to be at peace with these. As we read the names, the yellow ball of the sun transformed into a circle as red as blood. The place itself was participating in our ritual of reconciliation.

We walked from the crosses across the yard towards the altar where the bread and wine waited for us. I felt again as if surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, now a cloud of names. We gathered at the foot of the cross on the altar. All around us were trees, flowers, birds, open sky, and it felt like the whole setting was gathering close around the table. After we had shared bread and wine, David read from Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

As I heard those words, I stood and wept. I understood that if the Trail of Death ends anywhere, it certainly ends at the cross. And friends, I know this is true, but I don’t know what it means. I can see that these rituals — pilgrimage, sharing the Lord’s Supper, songs of lament — these are all necessary parts of reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous. But there has to be more, and I don’t know the way. The ghosts I experienced along the trail, the spirits of the trees and plants, none of these know the way, either. But we need them. We cannot reconcile with our Indigenous neighbors today if we do not reconcile with the histories of terror perpetrated upon their ancestors by our ancestors, and the ways we have terrorized the land. The way forward is dark, mysterious, and full of trouble. Reconciliation is hard. It will cause us to weep; it will require us to make reparations, to give up what is not ours to keep. We will be haunted by spirits. We will need the help of the Holy Ghost on the way toward peace. This is clear: if the Trail of Death ends at the cross, that is where we must begin to seek reconciliation. We must live every day in the shadow of the cross, waiting for help, crying out for direction. This is where I am today, sisters and brothers. I, a descendant of settlers, earnestly desire to be reconciled with the Indigenous of this place and their descendants today. But I don’t know how, and I need your help. Let us together seek the things that make for peace in the troubled waters of this place. Amen.

Suggested Resources for Further Study:

Official Trail of Death website and maps: http://www.potawatomi-tda.org/

James Clifton, The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Indian Culture, 1665-1965. University of Iowa Press: 1998.

R. David Edmunds. The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire. University of Oklahoma Press: 1987.

Shirley Willard & Susan Campbell, Potawatomi Trail of Death, Fulton County Historical Society: 2003.

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