For some clergy, a sabbatical is a time of rest, perhaps focusing on an academic project or a retreat. Not so for Northern Indiana Bishop Douglas Sparks, who is spending his sabbatical walking the 660-mile Potawatomi Trail of Death from Indiana to Kansas.
The trail follows the route that a group of Potawatomi – a Native American tribe from the Upper Midwest – were forced to march from their homeland in north-central Indiana to reservation lands in eastern Kansas in 1838. Historical accounts compiled by the Potawatomi describe a grueling 61-day journey through heat and drought in which at least 40 of the 859 Potawatomi died.
Bishop Sparks decided to walk the trail – which is now marked in many places by roadside signs – as a “pilgrimage of lament and remembrance” after praying and consulting with Native leaders. It has been traveled before by caravans in cars and walked in 2006 by religion professor Keith Drury. Bishop Sparks started walking on March 20 and is currently in central Illinois, about halfway through the walk.
Bishop Bruce has offered the use of her apartment to Bishop Sparks when he passes through Kansas City. At that time she is scheduled to be working remotely from her home in Irvine, California. Bishop Bruce is working with Bishop Sparks to see how we can support his pilgrimage as he crosses West Missouri.
Bishop Sparks had been scheduled to take a three-month sabbatical in mid-2020, but postponed it to keep leading the diocese through the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In November 2020, he saw one of the signs while driving near Plymouth, Indiana; having never heard of the Potawatomi Trail of Death, he later looked it up. The sign marked the site of the village from which the 859 Potawatomi and their chief, Menominee, were expelled.
Their expulsion was one of many forced marches that occurred in the 1830s under President Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act, which was passed to remove Native Americans from lands east of the Mississippi that white settlers wanted to develop in exchange for lands west of the Mississippi. Some tribes moved west under pressured negotiations with the federal government, but others refused – most famously the Cherokee and other Southeastern tribes who were forced to walk the 1,000-mile Trail of Tears, on which 4,000 died.
Required by a series of treaties to leave his village and move west, Menominee – who combined Indigenous spiritual practices with Roman Catholicism – refused. State militiamen rounded up Menominee and his people – putting him in a jail cart – and forced them to march to eastern Kansas. A Catholic priest who accompanied the Potawatomi documented atrocious conditions of cruelty, disease and death, dying himself shortly after the group reached Kansas.
Though his circumstances are obviously very different, Bishop Sparks’ walk has already been exhausting. He spoke to Episcopal News Service by phone while walking along a highway between Decatur and Springfield, Illinois, with noise in the background from trucks and the blistering wind that has burned his face. Between the wind, rain, sleet and snow, weather has been the biggest challenge, he said.
This isn’t Bishop Sparks’ first long walk, though. In 2019, he walked part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and he has been a runner for most of his life, running about two and a half miles most days during the pandemic.
Having already been physically prepared, “being spiritually prepared was more challenging,” the bishop told ENS. “I spend most of my day by myself in prayer and singing and thinking about the issues that lie before us.”
Averaging about 20 miles per day, Bishop Sparks had planned to camp for much of the journey, but with such fierce weather, he has been staying at Episcopal churches and hosts’ homes.
“It’s such a wonderful experience to be welcomed, really, as a stranger and a pilgrim by so many people,” he said.
He expects to reach Osawatomie, Kansas, in the first week of May, though the stretch of trail still to go is so overwhelming that he has to focus exclusively on the current day’s walk, he said. He has planned to meet with the president of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association in Springfield and has connected with cultural leaders in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma to learn more about the tribe and share that with his diocese.