Saturday, April 10, 2010

Monument brings me full circle

On the road yesterday, I found something special.

In my current job, about which I can’t go into specific details until it is all over in a few months, I am required to drive up to Kansas’ Indian reservations several times each week. It’s fascinating to explore the differences of the state’s four tribes: the Potawatomi, the Kickapoo, the Sac & Fox and the Iowa Nation. There’s a Kelsey family rumor that we descend from Native Americans on my father’s side of the family, although to date we have found no solid proof. However, my grandmother had the distinct facial features of an Indian, and my dad remembers his grandfather being a full-blooded Cherokee. It may be only a rumor. But all my life I’ve felt the connection to the Native American community, and I hurt for their historically horrendous plight at the hands of white European immigrants, from whom I am also descended.

I have taken on this task of learning more about Kansas’ reservations with a relish. But as of yesterday, I had not come across anything that carried true meaning for me.

On my way back in to the office, I had some time to kill. My plan was to stop in Highland, Kansas, where a sign points to a Native American Heritage Museum just three miles off the highway. I turned off at the exit, drove a mile north to Highland and realized the road to the museum was closed. No detour. Just closed. Back to the highway.

Passing near Troy, Kansas, I saw a sign directing travelers toward a “Peter Toth Indian Monument.” I’d seen the sign many times before in my travels, but I had never taken the trip to search out the monument. I had never heard of Peter Toth, and I couldn’t imagine what the monument would be like. So I ventured into Troy.

The little brown tourist signs guided me down a handful of rural roads until it appeared I was heading back out of town. I saw one last brown sign in the distance and sped toward it. The sign informed me that a local Boy Scout troop cleaned up the trash on that stretch of road.

All of a sudden I was back at the highway, and I had a choice to make. To my right was the road back to Kansas City. A U-turn would give me another chance at the monument. After a few seconds of hesitation I spun the wheel hard left and headed back toward Troy.

Finally I stumbled into downtown Troy, a pleasant but dead town square area surrounding the beautifully-renovated Doniphan County Courthouse. I passed by the monument once and didn’t even notice it.

Then, on the second swing around the square, out of my rolled-down window, I saw this:

That’s the Peter Toth Indian Monument. And this picture does it no justice.

The wooden sculpture, carved from a 250-year-old burr oak, is 27 feet tall. It’s almost as high as the courthouse. I slowly stepped out of the driver’s seat and reverently walked to the base of the monument, staring up in awe. It was beautiful. And in my heart, I felt the thrum of the ancient tribal drums tracing back through the generations.

A plaque directed me inside the courthouse for more information. Postcards of the monument were 25 cents apiece. A friendly employee (could have been the county clerk, for all I know) told me about Peter Toth, who is not, to my surprise, the subject of the monument, but rather the artist.

Toth, a Hungarian-born immigrant, has created a series of sculptures, called the Trail of the Whispering Giants, in each of the 50 states recognizing the Native American tribes across the country. Kansas’ sculpture is in Troy. I bought two dollars’ worth of postcards, took one last look at the Peter Toth Indian Monument, and drove home.

I had been searching for meaning in this assignment. Yesterday, in the land of our forgotten and obliterated hosts, I found it.

--Matt Kelsey

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