Trail of Death

A candle is lit on my table today…

. . .

It’s fourth grade, and we’re learning about “American Indians” in social studies. I have never taken notes before in my life, but this time as the lights are off and the slide show is running, cataloging so many tribes, their housings, their ways of life, my pencil is scribbling across lined paper, and I am enchanted.

What they didn’t tell me – because how do you impress upon a nine year old the truth of it all, without horrifying her – is why they were no longer on the land.

Hundreds of years, treaties, American government, blah blah blah. They probably said something about this, but in my mind, they were ancient ancestors. Ancient.

It’s strange how as a child, a hundred or so years ago seems so very long ago, and as an adult, it feels like practically yesterday.

. . .

My parents’ place is a mile or so as the crow flies from the St. Joseph River in southwest Michigan. It is so much a part of my remembered landscape. I know what it looks like in all seasons, how the water smells, the feel of the current under a canoe. I have ridden the winding dirt road that follows its edge on a thousand bus-rides to school and back home.

As a child, I learned of the birch canoes of the Potawatomi and that the river was a main thoroughfare for trade and transport. I learned about the French Catholic mission the next town over.

When we walked through the newly plowed fields in the spring, I always kept my eye to the ground, looking for arrowheads and axe heads.

I know where the burial grounds are outside of town.

Two of my elementary schools were named indigenous names.

I learned about Princess Mishawaka and Chief Elkhart of the Miami tribe, south of us.

Potawatomi, Ottawa, Miami, Ojibwe. The people of my land, before it was my land.

In my church were two families with indigenous ancestry. As a child, one of them set up a Tipi in the yard of a church member, and we went inside of it. I remember looking up through the fire hole at the top, seeing the sun come through, and the smell of the canvas. A friend of mine spent weekends at the Pow-wow nearby, a mystery to me that I didn’t understand really, a different world.

I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t know to really. So much was taken for granted as just the way things are, history unexamined beyond what the textbooks told.

. . .

A candle is lit on my table today…

Today is September 4, the 181st anniversary of forced removal of the Potawatomi Tribe from northern Indiana, just outside of Plymouth, to Kansas in 1838 – the “Potawatomi Trail of Death.”.

859 Potawatomi were forced out by a volunteer militia of 100, a journey lasting 61 days. More than 40 died along the way, most of them were children. Others escaped along the way.

They were accompanied by the Catholic priest Benjamin Marie Petit, a mission priest to the tribe, whose letters and journals we still have. As they died along the trail, he conducted funerals and burials. Infants would be born, he would baptize them, and then often bury them shortly after. He himself died after their arrival in Kansas at the age of 27 as he journeyed back to Indiana, and is now buried at Notre Dame.

The history of the church and indigenous peoples, it should be noted, is also not unproblematic. Too often, the missioners have been agents of colonialism, and the supposed civilizing of the uncivilized. Too often, the church has conspired with governments to the demise of whole people groups.

But still, there’s something about Petit’s presence, his response to their invitation to go with them on their forced removal, that moves and challenges me as someone theologically minded and preparing for priesthood.

. . .

In school, fourth grade and later in Canadian-Michigan History in high school, I learned about the great explorers of the Great Lakes, the fur traders, the white history mostly. These were the protagonists.

In those tellings, the First Nations people were often antagonists, or just secondary players, bystanders in the white European drama, details and obstacles to be dealt with on the way to American greatness.

Maybe it should have, but it never occurred to me that what made my life possible on the particular beloved land I grew up on was perhaps something closer to forced removal. I was too young and naive to know that such brutality was possible. Someone forcing my family off the farm and to Kansas on horseback and on foot seems absurd, and would be devastating indeed.

And to be honest, I don’t yet know what to do with this history really. Grieve it, certainly. It’s a grief I can feel in my body, perhaps because of how enchanted I was from a young age by the stories of First Nations people and how they lived with the earth, and my own deep respect for place and how attention to it makes up a spiritual geography.

Going forward, I don’t know what reparations could look like, or how to address a history like this one (because how can it be fixed?) – or any of the other histories that feel wretched and haunting.

. . .

Wherever you live, who lived there before you, I wonder? What histories haven’t you been told? Where have white European and America-centric narratives taken precedence over the voices of others? What voices do you need?

I am indebted to Kaitlin Curtice for helping me to learn the history of the land I grew up on. I began following more indigenous voices on social media shortly after Standing Rock in 2016, and a friend recommended her to me. She’s Potawatomi and Christian, and has recently published a book. She’s a voice I need, one that is challenging and sometimes painful, but who is ushering me along toward integrity in how I live and how I reckon with our history.

Yesterday on Instagram, she pointed out that today would be a worthy day of remembrance, asking her followers to remember with her, to light a candle, to pray, to not allow her to be alone with the weight of this. It was an invitation I didn’t feel like I could refuse.

So the candle is lit on my table, where it’ll stay today. I stumbled through clumsy words about this in our morning prayers as a household. And I’ve read a half dozen Wikipedia articles this morn, and have written this post. It’s not much, but it feels like something, a small start.

Learn with me. Dig back into the histories, and listen to the voices muted by the party line of American prosperity. Follow those who can tell us our story from their view. Maybe you could light a candle too.





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