By Katerina Gea, Shared with Benton Mennonite Church, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022
The Trail of Death was the 1838 forced removal of over 800 Potawatomi people from Northern Indiana to Kansas. It was only one of hundreds of forced removals by federal, state and local settler militias in the 1800s to take Indigenous lands for white settlement in the U.S.
Over the last 7 years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel on the Trail of Death four times, through a transformative pilgrimage co-led by George Godfrey (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), Rich Meyer and me. This journey of lament has brought me into a deeper journey and vocation of resisting ongoing colonization with Indigenous peoples, who are still alive today.
On one of these pilgrimages, I began a prayerful practice of paying attention to the wildflowers and plants that grew along the paths and roads we walked. I wondered if Potawatomi people in exile had also noticed these plants as they moved through landscapes from the woodlands of Indiana to the flat, hot prairies of Kansas. I began to press the small flowers, leaves, and even wings of cicadas or butterflies I found as small tokens of remembrance. When I returned home, I created art pieces that combined these pressed flowers with quotes from the military journals and missionary priests’ writings. This was a way of expressing my lament over the death that settler colonialism brought.
For me, pressing flowers is a way of remembering beauty and life, but in the act of creating these art pieces after the pilgrimage, I wept. The pressed flowers represent beauty, of course, – the beauty of the life of the Potawatomi people and the land they left behind – but they also represent death and loss. The loss of food sources, cornfields burned by militias as they walked away so they would have nothing to return to; the loss of past and future generations left behind with no one to tend to their graves or mourn them there on the land; familiar plants and cultural connections with the animals and forest, an identity of what it meant to be a people connected to woodlands – all severed.
Practices of lament like this pressed flower art have taught me that lament is a confrontation with death. Lament brings death to life, not necessarily in an optimistic way that gives death a purpose, but in a literal sense, as in lament gives the dead a voice through us. Our bodies must express and grieve the death and injustice we experience and witness, or else it will swallow us up. If we are willing to enter into lament, death will transform our lives so that the violence we encounter may not be forgotten and so that we may continue to resist it in its ongoing forms.