As faculty, staff, and students walked into the Church-Chapel sanctuary for the Indigenous People’s Day convocation, Deb Detwiler, director of the Women’s World Choir, stood at the center of a chanting group of women, guiding them in traditional music gathered from Alaskan Inuit peoples.
The convocation was led by four members of the Goshen College community: Jonathon Schramm, associate professor of sustainability and environmental education; Emily Hayne and Terri Habig, both graduate students in environmental education at Merry Lea; and Erica Ewing, a junior interdisciplinary major.
After the opening by the Women’s World Choir, Schramm took the audience on a journey through the what he called the history of “human loss and pain, creativity and hope” in Elkhart County. He encouraged everyone to think about their homelands and ask: Who was here first? Where are they now? What happened?
Schramm traced the history of the Potawatomi tribe, which was indigenous to Elkhart County, from before European invasion to an era of treaties starting in 1821. These treaties were developed shortly before the Indian Removal Act was signed.
Following the treaties of 1821 and 1828, the government forcibly removed 850 Potawatomi people from the land, pushing them into Kansas in 1838 in the Trail of Death. 40 people died on this journey.
Following Schramm’s narrative of “force and loss,” Hayne and Habig both took turns at the podium to reflect on the meaning of the United State’s genocide of indigenous people both for humanity and for the natural world.
Habig quoted the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, ecologist and member of the Potawatomi Nation.
She said, “Our land…was sacred ground. It belonged to itself… Our people were canoe people until they made us walk.” This quote echoed the theme of forceful removal and the loss of traditional ways of life.
Hayne discussed ways in which the Ojibwe people are striving to reverse this loss. In some states, schools are being developed where young people can learn the Ojibwe language and ways of life. These schools are reestablishing a “living, oral tradition,” said Hayne.
In Indiana, the Pokagan band of Potawatomi people is doing a similar thing through classes and summer camps. In 2016, this band was given legal possession of 166 acres of land in South Bend, which is currently in the process of being communally developed and managed by the Potawatomi Nation.
In the final moments of the 45-minute convocation, Ewing came to the podium and also quoted Kimmerer, saying, “How do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?”
This question led seamlessly into Schramm’s closing remarks, where he encouraged the deepening of relationships within our community.
That the Indigenous People’s Day convocation occurred on what is traditionally Columbus Day is no coincidence. Ewing said that the convocation was, “one beginning step for us is to recognize and lament our past that doesn’t sanitize or erase the legacy of settler colonialism and the oppression of indigenous peoples.”
This recognition has been building over the past several years at GC, with student activists leading both passive and non-violent direct action in protest of various infringements on the rights of indigenous people.
Chelsea Risser, a 2018 alum, wrote her senior thesis on the indigenization of Goshen College, a presentation that President Rebecca Stoltzfus heard at the 2018 Spring Senior Symposium. After hearing Risser’s thesis, Stoltzfus invited her to present her findings to a group of GC faculty and staff members. It was out of this meeting, and several following that involved students, that the college’s recent land acknowledgment statement was born.
A generic, campus-wide version of this statement developed by the Goshen College Communications and Marketing Office reads:
“We acknowledge that we gather as Goshen College on the traditional land of the Potawatomi and Miami Peoples past and present, and honor with gratitude the land itself and the people who have stewarded it throughout the generations. This calls us to commit to continuing to learn how to be better stewards of the land we inhabit as well.”
Of this statement, Stoltzfus said, “The motivation is to remind our community frequently of the history of our sacred and beloved land, including the injustices.”
Instituting Indigenous People’s Day as an official part of the GC calendar was one more step towards this goal. Stoltzfus said, “I thought that today’s convocation was a very good beginning for Goshen College.”
Schramm reflected this thought, saying, “Forty minutes felt like way too short a time to really get into this issue, but overall I was thankful for the morning and for the strong turnout.”
Looking to the future, Schramm said, “For future convos like this, I would love to see representation from the Potawatomi and perhaps Miami tribes, since both have a large stake in what happens in this region. ”
Ewing said, “I think this convo was a great stepping stone for our community to begin the hard work of reflection, action, conversations, deep listening, and building relationships. I hope it sparks more questions in our minds of what our responsibility is to this place, each other, and the Potawatomi peoples.”