Seminary’s Trail of Death pilgrimage delves into Potawatomi/settler history

Markers along the Potawatomi Trail of Death tell the story of each day’s journey during the forced removal, including how many miles the people traveled, the conditions they faced and the number of people who died. Throughout the AMBS pilgrimage, particip

Markers along the Potawatomi Trail of Death tell the story of each day’s journey during the forced removal, including how many miles the people traveled, the conditions they faced and the number of people who died. Throughout the AMBS pilgrimage, participants recite a litany of remembrance at various stops. (Credit: Janeen Bertsche Johnson)

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — A nine-day seminary course that traces the route of the U.S. military’s 1838 forced removal of about 850 Potawatomi people from their ancestral homeland in north central Indiana to eastern Kansas offers students an opportunity to learn about an often overlooked part of history.

Participants in The Trail of Death: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament and Transformation — to be offered June 3-13, 2019, by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, and co-sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes — will remember the expulsion by prayerfully walking several miles of the route each day, camping each night and reading journals and letters from the time of the removal. Potawatomi descendants of those who survived the Trail of Death will join the group to share their stories during meal times and ceremony.

“This course takes students and community members out of the classroom and into the liminal, sacred space of pilgrimage where we remember that the past has never truly passed, especially for those who have been historically oppressed,” said Katerina Friesen, M.Div., sessional instructor for the course, noting that the expulsion of the Potawatomi residents cleared the way for white settlers to purchase the land in the early 1840s.

“Unfortunately, the Potawatomi were mistrusted and viewed to be an impediment to the settlement of the area by incoming settlers,” said George Godfrey, Ph.D. (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), a co-leader of the course and president of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association. Students in the course can begin to experience the injustice done to a large group of people, he added.

The pilgrimage begins with two days of orientation on the AMBS campus, including an introduction to the Doctrine of Discovery, which has been used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring aboriginal possession of land in favor of colonial or post-colonial governments, according to the website doctrineofdiscovery.org. Participants will explore the theologies and priorities that contributed to white settler colonialism and will seek what new paths God opens for repair today.

Friesen, who coordinated the first AMBS Trail of Death pilgrimage in 2015 as a student assistant and co-led the second pilgrimage in 2017, said that the Potawatomi descendants who have met with the groups have often urged them, “Don’t forget!”

“Their charge reminds us that one of the weapons of colonialism is the intentional erasure of memory,” she said. “We confront the forces of forgetting through walking and stopping in places where they walked, praying at each stone marker that commemorates where they camped, and opening our hearts and imaginations to the pain of being torn away from familiar homes and landscapes.”

Godfrey also views the course as a way for students to deepen their own spirituality and open their eyes to how to reach out to all people.

“Travel along the path of the Trail of Death is but a small way of learning how not to judge other people,” he said.

Amy Kratzer, associate pastor at Sunnyside Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, and a participant in the 2015 course, reflected, “At the beginning of the pilgrimage, I was compelled to feel sympathy for the Potawatomi people. But the more reading we did, the more we heard from Native peoples, the more I realized that they are survivors, a strong and courageous community. Rather than seeing them as victims, I saw them as my teachers.”

Course leaders:

  • Katerina Friesen, M.Div., sessional instructor, lives on Yokut land in Fresno, California. Her work centers around healing from the violence of structural sin. While a student at AMBS, she created a curriculum for Anabaptist congregations about the Doctrine of Discovery, which accompanies a documentary film available at dofdmenno.org.

  • George Godfrey, Ph.D. (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), is a retired university professor and president of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association (www.potawatomi-tda.org) who has dedicated the last 25 years of his life to researching the history of the Potawatomi people.

  • Rich Meyer, trip navigator, is a northern Indiana historian who has participated in numerous Trail of Death Caravans led by descendants of the Trail of Death through the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, which inspired this pilgrimage class.

Participants can take the course for three credit hours of graduate study ($2,160), as auditors ($1,020), or for no credit ($600). Meal costs are included in the fee. Registration is open until May 1; however, space is limited to 15 participants. Learn more or register online at ambs.edu/trailofdeath.


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