A couple of years ago Stan, an elder of the Menominee People in Wisconsin asked his friend Richie Plass if he knew the origin of his Menominee name, Powekonnay.
“Yes”, Richie replied, “ it means one who changes his feathers.”
“Did you know that it was the name of the chief that led our people during their removal from our ancestral home to their present location on the reservation? Though 2,400 started out tragically only 1,600 arrived safely. ”
Richie hadn’t heard that story. After researching it, he decided to recreate the trek of 76 miles that the Menominee were forced to walk in the winter of 1852. Yet, another elder named the Walk – Ateqnohkew Pemohneaw –a walk that tells a sacred story. Richie gave it a purpose, “to educate others about the hidden history of our people and to fulfill a sacred responsibility to the ancestor whose name I bear.”
On June 2nd , ninety Menominee, members of other Native American peoples and their friends gathered at Lake Polygan. Richie was gifted a pipe by some of the spiritual leaders, a sacred trust and high honor. Ceremony was conducted to summon the ancestral spirits and stories were told in remembrance. The next day a dozen or so set out on the walk which would take five days, covering about 18 miles a day. The walkers followed the Wolf River as closely as possible, the route of the original group. They camped out at night.
At times it was difficult. Several of the walkers were over sixty years old. But, as Charlotte Kinepoway said, “We need to walk in their shoes to experience what our ancestors did. We need to honor them. Without them we would not be here.”
There were several signs that the ancestors were truly with them. Each morning, after the group prayed, large flocks of geese flew over heading north, the direction the group was marching. After the group arrived at the reservation a large golden eagle, the symbol of the Menominee landed high in the trees and observed the ceremony.
Others joined the Walk along the way. Lives were transformed by the Ateqnohkew Pemohneaw. One young man, a vet from the Iraq war, suffering from PTSD and in trouble with the law, took it upon himself to carry the sacred staff and lead the group for two days. At the end, everyone agreed, he was a totally changed man.
The Walk ended at Wayka Falls, with prayer, celebration and feasting. Young singers praised the 50 or so people who were gathered there. Richie tearfully thanked each of the walkers. All ate a traditional meal of wild rice, deer meat, corn, squash soup, bread, and smoked sturgeon, a fish sacred to the people. Because of dams and other modern technology the sturgeon have all but disappeared from the Wolf. Perhaps, now as the Menominee commemorate their old stories and celebrate their ancestral beginning the sturgeon like our spirits will return.