Love is a Verb: Seminary alumna passes Trail of Death learnings on to next generation

Note: This story initially appeared on the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary website.

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Char Mast recalls the moment she realized she had a deep historical connection to the story of the Trail of Death — a connection she had not been aware of before.

Shirley Willard Char Mast
Shirley Willard and Char Mast speak along the “Trail of Death.”

It was a cool summer morning in late June 2015, and Mast was standing at the base of the Chief Menominee Statue south of Plymouth, Indiana — the first stop on a seven-day pilgrimage following the trail on which armed militia forcibly marched 859 Potawatomi Indians from their ancestral home in northern Indiana to eastern Kansas over eight weeks in the fall of 1838.

Retired Fulton County historian Shirley Willard had just finished sharing an overview of the story with the 16 participants in the pilgrimage — a summer course of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart — when she mentioned Chief Shipshewana, who had been forcibly removed from the LaGrange County area.

Suddenly Mast, who grew up in Miami County, Indiana, and now lives in Goshen, Indiana, remembered that her ancestors had bought land in LaGrange County. She texted her mother to ask about the date, and the response came quickly: “1844.” Her heart sank.

“I realized I had a thread in this story that I never knew about — a family connection. All of a sudden it became much bigger than a story about the Potawatomi and their removal, and I had a sense of conviction about not having known that story,” she reflected.

Love is a VerbMast said that hearing the Trail of Death story emerge as the group traveled from the first campsite to the end of the journey in present-day Osawatomie, Kansas — reading journals from the removal, prayerfully walking a few miles of the route each day and listening to descendants of those who were deported from Indiana — helped shape her desire to learn more about the Potawatomi and her own family roots.

“That’s been my journey over the last couple of years: How do I carry this piece, and what does it mean for me?” she continued. “What do I do with a story that I thought was simple and now it’s complex? I need to keep paying attention to the ways in which I can be changed by this story.”

Educating the next generation

Mast also felt a growing sense of call to be part of sharing the story of the Potawatomi, adding the perspective of her own personal history. As part of her coursework toward a Master of Arts in Christian Formation degree, she wrote a 10-day curriculum about the Potawatomi people and culture that culminates in visits to the first three campsites on the Trail of Death. She chose to write for fourth grade, since fourth-graders in Indiana are required to study their state’s history.

Trail of Death
A group of students visits the site of the first death along the “Trail of Death,” near Rochester, Indiana.

Among other sources, Mast drew from the website of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi of what is now southwestern Michigan, with whom she’s begun to connect. (This band was not part of the forced removal.) She also included how her own story ties in with the larger story, noting that the Potawatomi expulsion cleared the land for white settlers to establish cities such as Elkhart and Goshen and for Mennonite and Amish people to start new communities on the rich farmland.

“I hope that through the curriculum, kids will learn the story from more than just one perspective and realize that there are complexities in it,” she said. “They might not look at it in the same way.”

Following the pilgrimage, Mast approached Adam Friesen Miller, a fourth-grade teacher at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, with the idea of piloting her curriculum. Friesen Miller, who wasn’t familiar with the Trail of Death, jumped at the opportunity to supplement his existing curriculum and implemented Mast’s materials that September.

“Social Studies isn’t stressed as much as Language Arts and Math, and there are not a lot of good resources out there,” he said. “I was looking for something to give my curriculum direction and purpose, and Char’s piece provided that.”

Friesen Miller invited Mast to be a guest presenter when the class studied the curriculum, and she and Friesen Miller co-led the students on the Trail of Death field trip — a trip Mast’s mother, Edna Mast, also participated in.

Friesen Miller said he observed his class engaging the material in “a healthy and hopeful way” during the field trip. He recalled a meaningful experience involving a litany from the curriculum that the class read aloud together at each historical landmark they visited.

At the landmark at Mud Creek — the final stop of the field trip and the location of the first death on the trail — the group remembered together that they had talked about Shirley Willard and her son having raised money to place that historical marker.

“Up to that point the adults had been leading the reading of the litany, but when we got to the last site, two or three girls asked whether the students could lead the litany that time,” he shared. “That was really powerful.”

“It makes me think about my hope for the direction that our state goes with this story — that we would tell the story and be honest about our history,” he continued. “For these kids, that is now part of their story, as Indiana residents, that they’ll be teaching their families and children one day.”

A public apology

In preparation for the current school year, Friesen Miller did some supplemental reading over the summer to create additional learning materials on the history of the Potawatomi and other local Indigenous groups that would lead up to Mast’s curriculum.

Group singing
George Schricker leads group singing at one of the stops along the “Trail of Death.”

This year, the commitment of Friesen Miller and his current fourth-graders has gone deeper, as Willard engaged them to help the Trail of Death Association and the Fulton County Historical Society plan a public gathering to remember, lament and apologize for the forced removal. According to Friesen Miller, Willard had invited former Indiana Governor Mike Pence to issue a formal apology for the Trail of Death when he was in office, but he declined; she has since appealed to Eric Holcomb, the current governor.

The one-time event — titled Indiana Indian Day — will take place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 22, at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 1310 Main Street, Rochester, Indiana. Mennonite Church USA leaders have accepted an invitation to send a representative to speak on behalf of their constituency. Guests will include descendants of Potawatomi who were on the Trail of Death; the group later became the Citizen Band of the Potawatomi and is now based on Oklahoma.

In preparation for the event, Friesen Miller’s fourth-graders created skits using Potawatomi voices to help others learn about the Trail of Death. They held a public presentation on April 13 in Goshen.

Friesen Miller’s longer-term goals include working to share the Potawatomi story and the experience more widely.

“I’ve become pretty passionate about needing to do something to make this experience accessible to other schools in northern Indiana — not just Bethany,” he said, noting that he’d like to see the local historical society offer a Trail of Death field trip to school groups so that the responsibility of planning the day would not fall on the teachers.

Mast, who graduated from AMBS in 2016 and attends Walnut Hill Mennonite Church in Goshen, continues to remain engaged with the stories “of people who had been my neighbors and the Pokagon Band who continue to be my neighbors” and how they connect to her Mennonite faith and family history.

“I hope to keep offering this story,” she said. “I don’t know where it’s going to go, but as it continues to come up, I feel I need to keep honoring the requests to share it.”

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Note: AMBS will offer The Trail of Death: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament and Transformation for a second time this summer. The journey will take place June 1–9 and will be led by Katerina Friesen, sessional instructor; George Godfrey (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), president of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association; and Rich Meyer, historian and educator. Participants can take the course for three credit hours of graduate study ($2,035), as auditors ($955), or for no credit ($550). Meal costs are included in the pilgrimage fee. Registration for the pilgrimage is open until May 1; it is limited to 15 participants. To learn more or register online, see www.ambs.edu/trailofdeath.