God Speaks Potawatomi

Trail of Death pilgrimage traces path of forced removal from Indiana to Kansas in 1838

Aug 12, 2019 by and

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On Pentecost Sunday, God’s words in the Potawatomi language, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy,” anointed the day’s journey for 19 Trail of Death pilgrimage participants as they broke camp at Mark Twain State Park in Monroe County, Mo.

Trail of Death participants gather for a time of lament in the shade of a white oak tree in Illinois that may have sheltered the Potawatomi people during their forced removal. — Peter Anderson/MMN

Trail of Death participants gather for a time of lament in the shade of a white oak tree in Illinois that may have sheltered the Potawatomi people during their forced removal. — Peter Anderson/MMN

George Godfrey, a Potawatomi elder and co-leader of an 11-day pilgrimage that retraced the 1838 forced removal of more than 850 Potawatomi people, read from Acts 2 as part of the morning worship.

“It is appropriate that the Trail of Death pilgrimage occurs during Pentecost,” said Katerina Friesen, a sessional faculty member and co-leader of the June 3-13 Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary course with Godfrey and Rich Meyer.

“The Trail of Death was an anti-Pentecost event that suppressed God-given languages, culture and life. Yet Potawatomi people survived. Our hope is that through this pilgrimage of lament and remembrance we will be witnesses to God’s grace and power flowing in healing ways.”

Two days of orientation focused on learning about the Doctrine of Discovery, a nearly 600-year-old legal framework in which church leaders and politicians have used theology to justify the theft of land belonging to indigenous people.

Participants came from states as wide ranging as Arizona and Georgia; six were AMBS students. Ages spanned 50 years.

By the end of the pilgrimage, they had become a caring community dreaming of a future where God’s justice and love help people live in unity and peace.

Deception and death

The U.S. government signed more than 40 treaties with Potawatomi nations in the 1830s and either broke or changed each of them.

According to the Potawatomi Trail of Death website, events that led to the agonizing journey began in 1836 when Menominee, a leader of a group of Potawatomi people living near present-day Plymouth, Ind., refused to sign a treaty that would trade the land on which his people lived for territory west of the Mississippi River.

Indiana Gov. David Wallace authorized Gen. John Tipton to forcibly remove Menominee’s people. Tipton disguised the human round-up as a friendly invitation to a church meeting on Aug. 30, 1838. A militia composed of white settlers surrounded the church and put Menominee and two other leaders in jail cells atop wagons, knowing the people would not abandon their leaders.

Five days later, the westward trek started, moving at a 17-mile-a-day pace despite the presence of elderly people, pregnant women and small children. Food was inadequate, and sometimes there was only a trickle of cholera-infested water to drink.

This year’s Trail of Death pilgrimage participants read relevant portions of the government reporter’s journal as they traveled from one stone marker to the next, indicating where the Potawatomi captives had camped each night. Entries frequently ended with variations on the refrain: “a child died today.”

According to the Potawatomi Trail of Death website, by the time the Potawatomi captives reached their destination near present-day Osawatomie, Kan., on Nov. 10, 1838, 41 people had died.

But the deaths didn’t end with the arrival. About 150 Potawatomi died from starvation and exposure during their first winter in Kansas.

Adaptive resilience

This year’s Trail of Death pilgrims, most of whom have white settler ancestors and through these ancestors have benefited from atrocities enacted by the U.S. government, were moved to lament and confess the sins of the past that continue to influence their lives.

Following in the footsteps of those removed from their land in 1838 sparked conversations about reparations and further  relationship-building with Potawatomi communities today.

Participants were awed by what Friesen identified as the “adaptive resilience” of the Potawatomi nations. A visit to the government offices of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi near Dowagiac, Mich., demonstrated how one of the nine Potawatomi nations is flourishing despite living with the devastating consequences of violence and injustice.

There is a renaissance of Potawatomi language, including cellphone apps with dictionaries and grammar; celebrations of dance, music groups and regalia; and a state-of-the-art cultural center in Shawnee, Okla.

Eddie Joe Mitchell and his wife, Mary, welcomed the Trail of Death pilgrimage participants to St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park in Linn County, Kan., where crosses bear testimony to the deaths of hundreds of their ancestors. Mary cooked a meal of Potawatomi food, all grown and gathered by her family, including dried corn with buffalo meat and milkweed with bacon.

“The Trail of Death: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament and Transformation” is a biennial course of AMBS. Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes was a co-sponsor. Mennonite Mission Network sent a representative as part of its commitment to undoing racism.


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