I love places where the past and present merge. Prophetstown State Park is such a place. As I meander on the prairie trails, the past seems strangely palpable, as if I could reach out and touch it in leaves of Bluestem and Indian Grass.
Because I want my Next Indiana Campfire group to see some flicker of the past within the present, I start our hike by reading “After the Rain,” a poem by Jared Carter of Indianapolis. On one level, it’s about looking in a field for arrowheads, but on another, it’s about searching for what a “place will yield—/ lost things still rising here.” It advises searchers to not be sure of what they know and to not look straight ahead. The poem suggests taking a new perspective by wandering across the rows. Something might then reveal itself, something “glittering and strange.” I ask group members to use Carter’s instructions and their own five senses as they look for what the prairie might yield.
We soon reach the reconstructed lodges of Prophetstown, the village where Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) established their Confederacy. This alliance of fourteen tribes stood united in its determination to stop white encroachment. In the shadow of the long council house, I read the eloquent words Tecumseh spoke to Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison in 1810, in Vincennes, Indiana: “Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?” Tecumseh’s impassioned words ring out against the rattle of cicadas. They shimmer in waves of deep-rooted grass.
The Battle of Tippecanoe was fought in the early hours of November 11, 1811, when Confederacy warriors launched a surprise attack on American forces. The day before, Harrison had arrived from Vincennes with his troops. He sought to take advantage of the fact that Tecumseh was in the South, recruiting more tribes. Following his victory, Harrison burned the abandoned village and destroyed its winter supplies. We can see the distant monument that marks the battlefield, a faint white obelisk against the northwest sky.
In an effort to understand Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, I share my poem, “The Prophet Speaks.” In this poem, the spiritual leader of the Confederacy presents a rebuttal to a biographer’s statement that he “was not the stuff of legend”:
I was more than the shadow
behind Tecumseh’s shooting star.
I was the hero’s spirit
in the looking glass,
who moved as he moved
but in the opposite direction.
Tenskwatawa is a complicated figure, an evangelist laden with contradictions. He promised that during battle the white man’s bullets would soften into sand, dissipating as he danced, secluded from the fighting. Though he preached a return to the old ways, at the end of his life, despair made him what he despised—an abuser of alcohol and supporter of land cessions. He was a trickster, buffoon, creator, and messenger; in these ways akin to the coyote figure in Native American mythology.
Before we leave the village, Angie Manuel, the park naturalist, shares some things she’s learned through speaking with visiting members of the tribes that once populated this village. For instance, Tenskwatawa is often blamed for the attack on Harrison’s forces, but tribal people assert The Prophet didn’t have that much power over the Confederacy. The fourteen tribes decided upon the surprise attack. This perspective asks us, as in Carter’s poem, to question what we think we know.
Back on the trail, we taste the leaves of Mountain Mint, a plant the Potawatomi used as a tonic. We admire ten-foot stalks of Prairie Dock, abloom with clusters of yellow flowers. We ask about the bright red Royal Catchfly, named for the way its sticky petals trap insects. Purple Coneflowers abound as do Black-eyed Susans, Wild Bergamot, Ox-Eye Sunflowers, and Compass Plants.
Deep inside the prairie, where our trail intersects with another, I read “Eagle Poem,” a powerful invocation written by Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation. I appreciate the simplicity and wisdom of the lines: “We see you, see ourselves and know / That we must take the utmost care / And kindness in all things.” In this poem, the speaker opens herself to many circles—small and large, inner and outer, visible and invisible—all in motion and as carefully balanced as the intake and outtake of breath. When the poem is finished, Angie adds another circle of blessing—two eagles are nesting this year in the park!
Further on, we pause at a place where prairie touches ancient oak. Here I read Simon Pokagon’s 1895 description of passenger pigeons, birds that once numbered in the billions, whose wings sounded like torrents of a waterfall or “as though a whirlwind was abroad.” Pokagon, a Potawatomi chief and writer, worried, with good reason, that soon passenger pigeons would be entirely gone from the forests, like the buffalo and elk. A train rumbles by as we talk about the importance of protecting endangered animals. Trains hastened the extinction of passenger pigeons since they enabled hunters to pack off huge quantities to sell for food in the cities. Angie says it won’t be long till we hear coyotes howl. They always howl after a train passes.
Much human suffering has occurred on or near the prairie where we are walking. There’s been the bloodshed of battle and the pain of crushed hopes. The “Potawatomi Trail of Death” passed right through this area. In the autumn of 1838, more than 850 Potawatomi were pushed at gun and bayonet point toward Kansas. Along the way, forty people, mostly children, died of typhoid fever and the stress of a forced march through thick dust and unseasonable heat.
Greed is a root cause for the suffering that haunts this prairie, but fear is another. That’s why before we return to the village, we read Jessica D. Thompson’s poem, “Ironweed,” pausing near tall, stiff stalks with masses of intense purple blooms. The speaker in the poem describes her fear as strangers approach on a trail—“two young men, dressed in black, both with / pierced earlobes, noses, probably tongues.” An alarm goes off in her “primordial brain” and she panics. She looks for an escape route till she realizes that they are just lovers holding hands. That night in a dream she has a vision:
. . . I dream the river has cut a new
channel. Rifles turn into sedge grass, bombs
into fireflies, soldiers into mere boys.
As I finish the last lines about “the language of fear” being extinguished and “the sound sounds like intolerance / slowly melting down to stone,” a coyote joins in, giving his “amen.”
After our campfire meal, I ask former poet laureate Norbert Krapf, a participant in our hike, to help me read a poem. It’s a litany by N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa poet and novelist. During “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee,” our voices weave back and forth, celebrating the speaker’s many identities:
I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows. . . .
As a last offering of the evening, we look at excerpts from Momaday’s essay, “Sacred Places.” Momaday claims that “to encounter the sacred is to be alive at the deepest center of human existence. Sacred places are the truest definitions of the earth; they stand for the earth immediately and forever; they are its flags and shields. If you would know the earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places.” He goes on to give examples of such places: Devil’s Tower, Canyon de Chelly, and Cahokia Mounds. These are places where “you touch the pulse of the living planet; you feel its breath upon you.”
Although the entire earth is sacred, Momaday asserts that in a profound and mysterious way certain places become meaningful to us through the “investment of belief.” They are consecrated through gifts of “song and ceremony, joy and sorrow, the dedication of the mind and heart, offerings of life and death.” According to that definition, what are our sacred places in Indiana?
I feel assuredly that Prophetstown is a sacred place. The joy and sorrow of the past and present merge in moments connecting us to what’s eternal and ephemeral.
Before we leave, I ask a question. “What has this place yielded? What has appeared to you as glittering and strange?”
“Look behind you,” someone says. Fireflies are rising from the prairie grass.
Next Indiana Campfires is a unique way to connect nature, literature and Indiana’s Bicentennial. The program is supported by the Efroymson Family Fund, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires. Indiana Humanities is supported in part by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the National Endowment of the Humanities.
This post is part of the weekly blog series devoted to the initiative. The post was written by Next Indiana Campfire scholar and Indiana Poet Laureate, Shari Wager. Check back every Tuesday to learn more about Indiana’s great environmental literature, find out interesting facts about Hoosier stewardship, get all the latest program details and more.