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Walk brings hope, healing

ADRIAN Mich. - The First Annual Trail of Tears Walk For All Our Ancestors took place the last weekend in June. The walk started at 8 a.m. from Trestle Park in Adrian, Mich. and ended more than eight miles away, at the second annual Tecumseh Traditional Pow Wow.

Abel Cooper III had two things in mind last April when he began organizing the walk: honoring his own ancestors that have passed to the spirit world, and bringing all nations together to mend the sacred hoop.

The 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek forcibly relocated the entire Choctaw Nation from their homeland in Mississippi to what is now Oklahoma. Cooper's great grandfather, Sam Cooper was 12 years old on Sept. 20 of that year when he and his parents started walking through winter ice storms, rain storms and floods. Both of Sam Cooper's parents died on that 900-mile journey. They were two of the 7,000 Choctaw Indians that perished along the Trail of Tears.

When Sam Cooper arrived in Oklahoma, he was given a deed for 200 acres of land to compensate for the loss of his mother and father. He married a young girl who accompanied him on that long journey. Abel Cooper is now in possession of that deed but will not homestead there. "That land belongs to my ancestors," he says simply.

Abel knew that this nine mile commemorative walk would be difficult. A shattered disc in his spine sometimes causes paralysis in his legs. But he also knew that his discomfort pales in comparison to what some of his ancestors endured.

"It's important for us to remember our past and look to our future," said Cooper in an interview prior to the walk. Cooper is a tribal member of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma and director of schools and communities for La Na Way Native Organization.

He says the mending of the sacred hoop has been foretold since the beginning of time. A creation story about the birth of the people is an integral part of his motivation for organizing the walk.

"When Mother Earth gave birth to man, the Creator spoke to them and sent them to the four directions. He gave them all a small part of his whole teachings and said that one day the tribes would come together and we would know why we're all here. That's why I'm trying to mend the sacred hoop, so we can know.

"Years ago people forgot that they just had a small part of the story and thought their teachings were the only true teachings. People started waging war against each other for who they are. Over the years, they forgot to tell their kids that any way you get to the Creator, any way you find your heart to be one with the Creator; that is right.

"This is how we're going to do our part. This is an intertribal walk. We invited not just Indian tribes but the tribes of the world to come and honor all the ancestors, to come together and do this in a good way. We have to honor the wishes of our ancestors."

Arriving early at the park with his 13-year-old son Daniel Martinez, the pair offered prayers to the Creator, held a pipe ceremony and asked the ancestors to accompany them on the walk.

By 8 a.m., a band of approximately 25 intertribal, intergenerational participants gathered in the arbor under a picture-perfect Michigan summer sky. The traditional drum group, Buffalo Thunder, sang an honor song entitled "The Trail of Tears" to honor all those who've passed to the spirit world.

As they finished and started another song, Cooper picked up his yellow and purple flag emblazoned with the Choctaw nation seal - an unstrung bow and a pipe to symbolize the end of war and the beginning of peace - and led the group down a wooded path.

Cooper's call to bring all nations together was answered by the presence of African-Americans, American Indians from the north and south, people of European descent, Latin Americans and one tall, striking woman who described herself as a "Sri Lankan Jew."

If anyone offered proof that the walk was a multicultural event, it was 40-year-old Shakuntala Tambimuttu. She walked barefoot carrying a brass "Vel" or staff of Murugan, the Hindu deity and God of the Tamil people. The Vel was gifted to her at the end of a three month, 550-mile pilgrimage through her homeland of Sri Lanka in 1995.

Tambimuttu listed her reasons for attending the walk as being purely spiritual, wanting to honor her ancestors and the spirits. "Since I got back from Sri Lanka, the sprits have told me they want me to walk in a sacred way with this Vel, walk across the land and pray for the people."

Some of the people using the trail that day weren't interested in sacred prayers. For instance, Cooper reported that an older man accosted him early on the journey, saying 'could you ask your troops to move over to one side of the trail because we're trying to walk here.'"

Although initially indignant, Cooper quickly realized that he, and others like him who made rude comments along the way, didn't understand the purpose for or the sacredness of the walk. He also knew that a few rude comments could in no way parallel the humiliation and degradation suffered by his ancestors.

About halfway into the walk, an eagle flew above the group and hovered motionless for several minutes. American Indians believe the eagle to be closest to the Creator, a messenger who reports to him. It was a good sign.

Incredibly, not only did Cooper lead the group and carry the flag without stopping, but they traveled the 8.96 miles in just two hours.

"We made it there two hours before we were supposed to," he said the next day to a friend. "The average person walks two hours per mile so that should have been a four hour walk. As soon as we started, it seemed like it was over."

"You didn't walk, Abel," was the friend's response. "The spirits carried you."