Reflections on the Potawatomi Trail of Death Pilgrimage

Ric Hudgens is a pastor, professor, and poet who lives in the Great Lakes region of Turtle Island, the ancestral home of the Potawatomi. He serves as co-pastor of North Suburban Mennonite in Libertyville, Illinois.

The great Catholic theologian John S. Dunne began one of his books with the question “What kind of story are we in?” We Christians often pretend to know the answer. Our pretense, however, is at the root of much oppression and suffering in this world. When Europeans arrived in present-day North America, we did not ask what stories already lived here. We did not ask. We did not listen. We did not care. If a new story emerged in this “new” world it would be our story – a story we brought with us, or created, and remained at the center of. It would, however, despite our self-importance, remain a very small story. Our circle of the “we” was not big enough for “them.”

The people who already lived in this land already lived in this land! Their stories were native to this place. Their stories were birthed and grew up here. The difference between living in a land and occupying a land is the difference between conversation and conquest, between communion and conquest. Ignoring the stories already living here, we ignored those who lived by those stories. Ignoring them, we removed them. Removing them, we forgot them. By that measure, one could say that “America” has forever remained an undiscovered country.

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary sponsored a course from June 1-9, 2017 called “The Trail of Death: a Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament, and Transformation.” For me, it was a journey in discovering America, though not in the ways of conquest. It was a pilgrimage learning event asking a very big question: What kind of story are we in?

Over ten days, we followed the footsteps of the 1838 forced removal of Potawatomi Indians by the U.S. military from northern Indiana to eastern Kansas. Reading journals of the removal, walking a few miles every day, reverently stopping at each of the monuments memorializing the journey, engaging with contemporary Potawatomi elders and historians, we broke open the small stories we tell in our classrooms and in our churches. As we listened, prayed, and imagined, we also broke open our small hearts to hear a bigger story than we knew.

We took a journey of over 660 miles, following as closely as possible the route of the original exiles. The Potawatomi Trail of Death Association has done a remarkable job in tracing this removal. Following a nearly 200-year-old trail took us away from the modern interstate highways and along the backroads, close to the rivers, through terrain that has been remarkably changed and has remarkably remained much the same. At each location we stopped to imagine, remember, and lament. Together at each site we repeated the litany of our journey: “We remember you… We lament this Trail of Death… Guide our feet, O Lord, on a Trail of Life.”

We entered into a historical journey following journal entries describing their hardships, the challenges they encountered, their pain and suffering, their deaths. As a Mennonite pastor I was especially moved by the letters and journal of the Catholic priest Father Benjamin Petit (1811-1839) who accompanied the Potawatomi on the removal. Petit conducted mass, ministered to the sick, baptized the newborns, blessed those who died. His compassion for his “savages” was clear and yet tainted (in my mind) by his complicity. I kept hearing the question of Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews of PICO: “Will you be chaplain to the empire or a prophet of resistance?” That question goes to the heart of the stories we tell and the stories we refuse to tell. I do not fault Father Petit. I convict myself.

Besides a journey through space and time we took a journey with people. On pilgrimage, the presence of those in whose footsteps we follow is not as difficult to imagine. Imagination is a crucial part of pilgrimage learning, just as it is a crucial part of pilgrimage discipleship. Through imagination we connect with other stories, with other people, and with the heart of compassion. We escape the limits of experience and memory and learn how to love people and places who are not absent but merely invisible – not voiceless but silenced.

However, the presence of living companions is the most crucial part of this journey. We walked these roads together, read together, listened together, ate together, prayed together, sang together. Connecting as a pilgrimage community with these suppressed stories helped us listen more deeply, process our grief, nurture our determination and hope.

As I come back to my congregation, which is engaged in a summer-long Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery education process (using the Study Guide materials from this website), I am humbled by how much we don’t know. We are a story-telling people. We worship a story-telling God. But we must tell stories worthy of that God and stories large enough to embrace all God’s peoples – and it is important to say God’s “peoples” plural rather than than simply God’s people singular. Perhaps it is the crucial lesson for our time.

Others may share more about the details of our trip (the capable leadership of Katerina Friesen, George Godfrey, and Rich Meyer; the conviviality of our fellow pilgrims; the vibrancy of the elders we met; the graciousness of the hospitality we received). For me it was a profoundly spiritual experience which challenged me to follow more closely a savior who models discovery without conquest – who embodies a shalom that creates space for God’s freedom dreams.

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2017 Trail of Death pilgrimage participants. Photo credit: David Stoeger

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Walking near the route of the 1838 Potawatomi Trail of Death. Photo credit: David Stoeger