By David Markham
More than 100 people gathered in Heritage Park in late September to commemorate a tragic event which happened 185 years ago.
Every five years, members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation make a pilgrimage to commemorate The Trail of Death in which 859 members of the nation were forced to march from Indiana to an area near present-day Osawatomie, Kan. During that journey of approximately 660 miles over 61 days, more than 40 people died, most of them children or elders.
One stop on this pilgrimage is a monument near Heritage Park’s marina which marks the location of a local encampment along the trail. That monument was first dedicated by JCPRD in 2013 on the 175th anniversary of the forced march and is believed to be the only marker on government property anywhere commemorating the event. In 2021, the JCPRD Public Art Master Plan identified the Heritage Park site as a great opportunity to utilize art to help connect citizens of Johnson County to this story.
“JCPRD was proud to host members of the Potawatomi Nation for a breakfast on Saturday, Sept. 23, as part of this very important pilgrimage journey from Indiana to Kansas to remember and commemorate the events of the Trail of Death that occurred in 1838,” said JCPRD Superintendent of Culture Susan Mong. ““This tragic removal ran right through Heritage Park, making this part of that pilgrimage event and part of the history of this land. As an organization, JCPRD is committed to helping connect the community to this story and others like it within our parks through interpretive panels, programs, and public art.”
In attendance at the Sept. 23 event were more than 100 people, including members of the Citizen Potawatomie Nation from Arizona, California, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Washington, and many other states. Other attendees included JCPRD staff, board members, county leadership, and other elected officials.
Many of the members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who undertook this pilgrimage journey are direct descendants of some of the men, women, and children who were forced to make the relocation.
Among these was Angela Montgomery, whose two grandfathers and their families were part of the 1838 Trail of Death removal.
“I participated in the (2023) memorial caravan because I wanted to see my ancestors' original homeland and then follow as closely as possible the path of their footsteps and see the likely encampment sites along the way,” Montgomery said. “The Potawatomi's journey is imprinted on the earth they walked, and this is one way I can join with and honor my ancestors who have my back every day.”
Asked what she wants people to know about the Trail of Death, Montgomery said she would like to see greater awareness of this event and others like it.
She said she wants people “to understand that the Potawatomis forced to leave Indiana were families, friends, neighbors, and tribal leaders - an entire community. They had to leave the place they called home, a place where they knew how to make an existence for a place that was alien.”
She also sees the pilgrimage commemoration as testimony to the resilience and endurance of her people.
“Our places in Kansas - before it was Kansas - are mostly ghost towns now - but we were here; here as pioneers,” she said. “Our families were able to innovate and thrive in a place that did not support our original ways of living. I am proud that despite the removal (one of many) from our homelands and way of life, we endured and thrive today. We are still here. For my part, I am proud to be able to reach backwards. Backwards to reclaim some of the lost knowledge and culture and am currently attempting to learn some of the Potawatomi language.”
JCPRD’s primary goal for the Sept. 23 breakfast event was to listen and learn, Mong said.
“JCPRD wants to build relationships with members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and to help shape the goals and outcome of the public art planned for early 2024,” she said. “It will be important to engage tribal members in the selection of the art and help provide input into the process.”
JCPRD began building this relationship in 2021 through the help of Jon Boursaw, Legislator of District 4 for Citizen Potawatomi Nation, to explore the idea of public art to further commemorate the Trail of Death historic event.
Mong said she began meeting with Boursaw to learn more about this history, the tribal structure today, and how the Trail of Death event is commemorated every five years. The public art project idea was shared, and Boursaw helped share this story more broadly to help seek input and engagement. The breakfast was a means to further build this relationship, to listen, and learn from members of the tribe travelling in from all over the country.
“I heard nothing but positive comments about the event,” said Boursaw, who was in attendance. “I think everyone enjoyed themselves and were very pleased that county officials took the time to recognize us.”
Boursaw also commented on what having this piece of history highlighted through art in Heritage Park means to him and other Potawatomis.
“It is important because it (the specific site on the Trail of Death) symbolizes the initial entry into Indian Territory, later Johnson County and Kansas, by the Potawatomi people who were forced to relocate from Indiana,” he said. “It will be something that we can take pride in, but also something that will educate the other residents and visitors to the area that we were here, and that we are still here – and in greater numbers.”
Potawatomi Nation member Montgomery also shared her thoughts about the future art project.
“The art should connect to the earth in some manner,” she said. “We are deeply connected to, and care for our mother (earth). In return, she shows us beauty and gives us everything we need to care for ourselves. I hope the historical events to be remembered in a way which teaches kindness can replace intolerance of those that are different. Everything is circular, no one is above or below another. We ALL belong.”
Mong said a call for artists for this $100,000 project, which will have a theme of water, will go out nationally later this year.
“Because we will require the artist to have an indigenous background, the search will be national in order to create a larger pool of perspective artists,” she said. “As with other projects, we will identify three finalists, who will be paid stipends to create a proposed design, and we will have a community engagement period to invite public feedback.”
She added that plans call for the project’s art selection committee to include several members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation is the federally-recognized government of the Potawatomi people and represents over 38,000 tribal members. It acts under a ratified constitution and includes executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center, located in Shawnee, Okla., has several exhibits expressing a narrative, beginning with Citizen Potawatomi oral traditions, continuing through early ways of life, conflict, and forced removals before examining more recent history, including their time in Kansas and Indian Territory, and ending with the Citizen Potawatomi Nation today. For more information, visit CPN Cultural Heritage Center.