Retracing our Trail in Tears


I’m missing my Potawatomi siblings’ advice and companionship and insights tonight as I read the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and learn from the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Article 48 applies especially to those in non-profit and faith-based organizations.

As a settler-of-color, I’m the descendant of both willing and unwilling (enslaved) settlers who now lives on land that was historically tended by Potawatomi people. “The Potawatomi called the St. Joseph Valley home from the mid-1600s. After the War of 1812, settlers flooded into Indiana from the south, traveling up from the Ohio River via the newly established Michigan Road, whose route is followed closely today by US-31. The pressure from settlers forced the U.S. government to pursue treaties with the Miami, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, and others by any means necessary.” -Josh Kinder

Excerpts from Josh Kinder’s blog posts about retracing the steps of their brutal removal from the land I call home brings their spirits closer. He joined others in following “the route that more than 800 Potawatomi were forced to walk in 1838 from their homeland in northern Indiana to lands given them in eastern Kansas. This removal route has become known as the Trail of Death: along the way, more than 40 Potawatomi died from disease and fatigue, most of them children.”

During the retracing, Josh shares about how his “spirit was greatly exercised, and…powerfully moved.” Read the rest of Part I here.

The re-tracers in 2015 walked and drove for 16 days to the “end” of the trail of death; much shorter than the 60 days the Potawatomi were forced to walk (their overseers often riding horses) all the way to Kansas.  Many died on the way to the Kansas mission because of the harsh end of summer and early winter. Josh writes,

“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.” Read the rest of Part II here.

Josh is honest about the painful space of grief and heart-opening that this retracing led to. He notes that the rituals of deep listening, re-tracing, and the resources of his religious tradition can be crucial parts of reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous peoples. His writing will move you beyond your fix it mentality to sit with all the broken pieces (inside and outside yourself) and observe them. “But there has to be more,” he says, and he humbly admits that he doesn’t know the way to justice in this place that many call the Midwest USA.  Not one of us knows the way entirely. He continues:

“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.” Read the rest of Part III here.

Josh’s writing is part of a broader effort of the Anabaptist angle to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. Please consider supporting them! Christian Peacemaker Teams also participates in Indigenous Peoples Solidarity toward building partnerships that transform violence and oppression. While paying attention to our own experiences and story, we seek to be led by those who are most impacted by settler colonialism in the directions of resistance and reconciliation that they want to go. Find out how to join us in this work.

About SEN

Born on United Nations Day, I am actively involved in the process of figuring out how we can live together well on this planet, given our similar and different truth claims. Thanks for joining me on the journey!

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