​Dr. Luke Gascho unveils one of the four trail signs that were installed on the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary campus on Sept. 29. Photographer: David Fast.

By Lynda Hollinger-Janzen
Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The first markers acknowledging the existence of a commercial route established by Indigenous Peoples to connect present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Chicago, Illinois, were unveiled on the campus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Sept. 29.

An important commercial route once traversed the land on which the campus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) is located, in what is now Elkhart, Indiana. This route, possibly established 10,000 years ago, was an artery traveled by the Miami, Potawatomi and other Woodland Peoples, according to Dr. Luke Gascho, executive director emeritus of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center at Goshen College

Sept. 29, about 120 people gathered to witness the unveiling of signs that identify the Bodéwadmi-Myaamia Trail (using the Indigenous spellings), which connected the Maumee River watershed (Ft. Wayne) to the area around the southern tip of Lake Michigan (Chicago). The event honored the lives and the cultures of those who were violently forced from their homelands by the U.S. government following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It was also acknowledged that some of the Indigenous Peoples' descendants still live on their ancestral lands, which were later divided into the states of Indiana and Michigan.

After Indigenous removal, Anabaptists moved in

Among those who attended the sign-unveiling ceremony were the descendants of Amish and Mennonite settlers who were among the first to occupy the land after the U.S. government moved large numbers of Indigenous inhabitants westward at gunpoint. The intention of the event was to lament the harm done by White settlers and name the genocide and desecration of Indigenous cultures. Readings and prayers also expressed the desire of those present to be in dialogue with Indigenous Peoples about how to repair nearly two centuries of injustice.

Though the majority of those present for the occasion were descendants of immigrants, at least one participant was of Potawatomi lineage. Kaitlin Curtice's ancestors survived the Trail of Death, a 660-mile journey during which 859 Potawatomi people were forced from their homelands in 1838. Forty-one people died during the arduous walk, mostly children and elders. More than 60 escaped. Government officials abandoned the remaining 756 people to an inhospitable wilderness in what is now the state of Kansas. The rigors of the land around present day, Osawatomie, Kansas, were such that hundreds more died in the following years. Many of the Potawatomi people then moved on to Oklahoma, where Curtice was born. Though she has never lived in her ancestral home, Curtice said, "It is always special to return to these lands."

Signs in response to earth care and Christian discipleship

The sign unveiling ceremony was part of AMBS's biennial Rooted and Grounded Conference on Land and Christian Discipleship, held Sept. 28-30. Curtice was a keynote speaker for the conference.

Kaitlin Curtice, one of the keynote speakers of the Rooted and Ground conference at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and an enrolled citizen of the Potawatomi nation, talks about an Indigenous vision for seeking wholeness. Photographer: David Fast. 

Dr. Gascho led the sign-unveiling ceremony and closed with this blessing:

"Great Creator, we are filled with gratitude

that You placed us on this earth,

for all the interconnections — people, plants, water, rocks and air

for placing within us the deep kinship with the earth and this land.

"We bless these signs today.

May they always remind us of the history and presence of Miami and Potawatomi Peoples.

May they remind us to walk gently on this earth — as the feet of many people did

through the millennia, while walking on this trail.

May these signs remind us to love all that you love and to seek reparative justice.

"May it be so."

Background on signage project

The Potawatomi and Miami Trail Marker Group, which is made up of nine volunteers, is led by Dr. Gascho, who became interested in the extensive trail systems of the Indigenous Peoples of the region as he was researching the history of the land he lives on in Goshen, Indiana. As he shared his findings, others became interested in pursuing ways to make Dr. Gascho's research more accessible to the public. The idea of marking the trail grew from the collaboration of those who shared in Dr. Gascho's passion. 


Cynthia Friesen Coyle, a graphic designer at Mennonite Mission Network and member of the trail-marker group, designed the sign, with input and edits from historic preservation officers and other members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. The logo's center depicts a trail with sandhill cranes flying overhead. The cranes are a symbol for the Miami Tribe. Encircling the center are the colors of the Potawatomi medicine wheel. Medicine wheels are specific to each culture and represent the interconnections of all of life and foundational teachings. A turtle, important in many Indigenous creation stories, frames the inner circles and reminds the viewer that the North American continent was often referred to as Turtle Island before it became the nations of Canada, Mexico and the United States. The strawberries, significant symbols for the Potawatomi people, on either side of the turtle were drawn by the Potawatomi artist, Aaron Martin. The outer ring displays the colors of the Miami medicine wheel, and the black and red ribbon work is a traditional artform of the tribe.

Sept. 28, the day before the unveiling of the signs, Dr. Gascho led a four-hour immersion workshop, describing the way he learned the history of the trail through surveyors' maps, reading settlers' journals and talking with Indigenous historians.

"Relating to people across multiple cultures was the real purpose," said Dr. Gascho, when describing the nearly three-year process of creating the signs. "Marking the trail is a [conversation starter]."

Though it is not possible to walk the entire 145 miles of the Bodéwadmi-Myaamia Trail, a mowed path through the native prairie grasses and wildflowers on the AMBS campus, allowed participants to walk a small portion of it. Parts of the trail are paved over and used as roads, including U.S. 33 and Sixth Street in Elkhart. The route split on the AMBS campus, with the main trail heading west toward the Chicago area and a spur leading to the St. Joseph River, where canoes were launched at what is now the Sherman Street Bridge Boat Ramp. In Goshen, southeast of the AMBS campus, the trail runs through the land on which the Goshen Court House is built and through the Greencroft retirement community campus.

The trail-marker group hopes to put up additional signs, as funds and land become available. Interested people may contact info@potawatomi-miamitrail.org to help place markers along the path. 

Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes and Mennonite Mission Network collaborated with AMBS on the sign-unveiling ceremony.

 

 

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​Lynda Hollinger-Janzen is a writer for Mennonite Mission Network.

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