Good news for the Canaanites? Reflections on Traveling the Potawatomi Trail of Death

(From a talk delivered at Lansing Church of the Brethren, Nov. 12, 2017)

Deuteronomy 20:16-18 But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

Rescued from bondage in Egypt the Israelites wandered in the desert in hope, and in despair. After 40 years of wandering Moses finally led them to camp on the east side of the Jordan River. On the other side was the promised land. The land promised to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. The land flowing with milk and honey. For the Israelites this land symbolized a promised, settled home and divinely given liberty. This land of promise to the Israelites, however, was already the home to many other peoples. 

So, what about the Canaanites? What about the Hittites? What about the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites? The promise of liberation and land for the Israelites looked like genocide and the destruction of cultures and homes to these other peoples.

As people who claim this Exodus story of the good news God’s liberation as our own. we must ask ourselves, where is the good news for the Canaanites?

November is Native American Heritage Month. I thought this would be a good time to share with you about my participation in the Potawatomi Trail of Death Pilgrimage this past summer. And with that I want us to reflect on where this story in our nation’s past and our own faith story might intersect, and reflect on where the good news of God’s liberating love can break through and embrace us all.
 

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From Israel arriving at the River Jordan we move forward a couple thousand years to 1493 and Pope Alexander VI who issued a Papal Bull, or decree, that read in part “Any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This is the foundation for what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery.

This ideology shaped the “conquest” of the America’s as divinely ordained. 

The “new” land was often depicted in the Exodus story terms as the promised land, gifted by God to the European settlers.

This doctrine would empower the European settlers to be a violent, colonizing force and would provide the foundation for the ideology of White Supremacy which continues with us today.

This would shape U.S. government policies, leading to such laws as Indian Removal Act of 1830
 

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One example of implementing the Indian Removal Act is that in pursuit of possessing the good farmland of Northern Indiana, the government desired to remove the local population who, among other things, were not exploiting the natural resources in an acceptable manner. In September of 1838 the head men of the Potawatomi of northern Indiana were called to a meeting at the catholic chapel. Once inside the doors were barred shut and locked. Militia then rounded up families offering little time to collect possessions and began the forced removal of the Potawatomi from northern Indiana to Kansas – or The Trail of Death. 

850 Potawatomi began the arduous trip of 660 miles. Pushed ahead at the ends of militia rifles, it was a trip of great hardship and illness, of broken promises and death.
 

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The Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary is located in Elkhart, Indiana, on what was once Potawatomi land. This past summer I participated in their course: “Trail of Death: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament, and Transformation” It was a 2-week immersive learning experience of readings, discussions, meeting with Potawatomi of different bands, and following the trail. And we went as descendants of settlers

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We had the great gift of having George Godfrey as one of our guides. He is a Citizen Nation Potawatomi whose ancestors traveled the Trail of Death and is the president of the Trail of Death Association

We are at the statue of Chief Menominee which is near the site of the church where the people were assembled. He initiated our time with a smudging ceremony.
 

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Trail is remarkably well marked with both road signs, and plaques on rocks marking the trail. This was the first plaque, done by a boy scout troop marking the spot where the first child died. The death of children becomes a common occurrence along the trail. The left in early Sept in very hot and dry conditions, and by the time they reached Kansas they were dealing with snow.

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There are markers at most of the places where they camped along the way or as close as they can get. Stone plays an important role in marking the trail and holding the story..

As we traveled we read accounts of the original trip from a military diary of each day. 

Monday, 24th Sept.
    At 9 this morning we left Pyatt’s Point (the encampment of yesterday) and proceeded down the Sangamon river fifteen miles to the place of our present Encampment, Sangamon Crossing. Physician reports “there have been two deaths since my last, and the situation of several of the sick is much worse. I would recommend that twenty-nine be left until tomorrow.” At the suggestion of Dr. Jerolaman twenty-nine persons were accordingly left behind with efficient nurses. They will join us tomorrow. We find a good deal of difficulty in procuring wagons for transportation – so many of the emigrants are ill that the teams now employed are constantly complaining of the great burdens imposed upon them in the transportation of so many sick. Subsistence and forage the same as yesterday. A child died during the evening.

 

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This plaque was in the parking lot of a gas station. 

Here we are reading a litany which we read several times each day at the places where we stopped. It was written by Katerina Friesen, who was the instructor for the class.

Litany of Remembrance
Standing where you walked,
We remember you.
Exile under gunpoint,
Loss of scared land,
We remember you.
Bruised feet and weary bodies,
Choked by dust and heat,
Sickness stalking young and old,
We remember you.

We lament this Trail of Death.
Trail of Broken Promises,
Theft of homelands for white man’s profit.
We lament this Trail of Death.
We lament that our ancestors
Did not dwell in peace.

Creator of all, we long for new vision today.
Open our eyes and give us sight
To seek the things that make for peace,
To see the Image of God in all peoples,

Especially those persecuted and oppressed.
Make a new way for us together,
Guide our fee, O Lord, on a Trail of Life.
 

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At one site we gathered at this old oak, which would have been there when the Potawatomi were making their journey.

Along the way we also read from others who helped shape the U.S approach to the Indigenous population. From a letter from President Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory, 1803

“When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families. To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading uses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.” 
 

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Each day we walked a portion of the journey. The journals of the time spoke of the hardships of lack of water and wood while crossing the prairies.

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Along the way we met and were hosted by many wonderful people who help keep the story of the Trail of Death alive and shared their own ancestral stories.

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Every night we gathered together to reflect on our experiences and thoughts for the day. Each day we responded to two questions: What disturbed you? and What surprised you?

This was a wonderful time of hearing how others are experiencing the pilgrimage and the different perspectives and experiences they brought to this experience.
 

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We reached the end of the trail in Kansas at Sugar Creek Mission. The people on the trail were promised housing and provisions when they arrived in Kansas, and they got none of that. From hardship to hardship. The mission was there for 10 years and in that time 600 Powatatomi died. Their names are inscribed on these crosses. One of our final pilgrimage activities was publicly reading the names of all who had died with responding with "Shodeh" – or "here" – after each name.

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On our final evening we were joined by Eddie Joe of the Prairie Band. Eddie Joe is deeply concerned about keeping alive traditional ways and ceremonies. He talked about his story, and his practices, and the ancestors.

We had three themes during our time on the journey: 

  • Origin stories – we considered how our various origin stories and how they shape who we are today, biblical, national, cultural, personal. 
  • Exile and Deliverance – The biblical story of Israelites being delivered into promised land is also the story of the conquest of the Canaanites.
  • Resisting, Repenting, and Repairing – Okay, so now what are we settler white folk to do. How do we move beyond lament.

 [Author’s note - I was deeply conflicted and challenged in creating a conclusion for this. I can honestly say I don’t really know what the right conclusion is - but I had to come to some kind of conclusion for my talk. I will keep reflecting and maybe new insights will be revealed.]

Just as the trauma of African American slavery is still with us, so too is the trauma of colonization of indigenous held lands, the destruction of culture, and taking of lives. These traumas have lingering damaging effects on all of us.

We as the Lansing Church of the Brethren believe God’s liberty and justice does not benefit some at the expense of others. As many of us are descendants of settlers, we need to honestly accept that some of what we see as God’s generosity has been provided at the cost of another’s culture and freedom. We need to lament the wrongs of the past, and the wrongs that are continuing today. But we also need to bear witness to, and sometimes get out of the way of God’s resurrecting and redeeming power which works in and through all.

Some of our way forward; some of our good news is found in the Psalm 25 reading.

8 Good and upright is the Lord;
   therefore God instructs sinners in the way.
9 God leads the humble in what is right,
   and teaches the humble God’s way. 
10 All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
   for those who keep God’s covenant and decrees.

In Jesus’ encounters with lepers and women and foreigners we see examples of good news for the Canaanites, and for all. Jesus listens to them. Jesus honors their humanity. Jesus restores right relationships. 

Good news for the Canaanites, good news for the Native Americans happens when we as settler descendants with honesty and humility listen and remember the stories of those who have been hurt by the policies that have benefited us. 

Good news is found in when we join together to resist efforts to harm the land and the water which has nurtured us for thousands of years. Good news is found when honor treaties and recognize the right of tribes to self-rule.

God’s good new for the Canaanites; God’s good news for the Native Americans, is God’s good news for all. It is God’s overflowing, unconditional, and liberating love which seeks justice for all – on earth, as it is in heaven.

(Thanks to David Stoeger for all the pictures.)