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Conquering the Trail of Hope

Fishtown resident Peter Prusinowski shows off the original pair of shoes that he wore on his Trail of Hope walk across the country at the Penn Treaty Museum on Wednesday, Aug 17. Prusinowski recenlty completed a walk that traced the Lenape Indian migration from the Delaware Valley to Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

His name is Peter Prusinowski.

But, you can call him “Ohelemuxwet.”

At least, that’s the name he’s been given by the Delaware Indians of Oklahoma after he recently completed a 2,000 mile, four-and-a-half-month journey, from Fishtown to Bartlesville, Okla.

It means — what else? — “One who walks a long way.”

Prusinowski’s journey began on March 23 and it was a difficult, long-distance trudge through thunderstorms, 116-degree heat and even a snow storm.

“Sometimes, the temperature was over 116 degrees and that was in the shade,” the Fishtown-based photographer said during an interview on Aug. 17, just his second day back in Philly after his trip.

For more than a decade, Prusinowski has studied the culture of Native Americans and, with the walking trip he called the “Trail of Hope,” Prusinowski followed the migration of the Lenni Lenape Indians from Penn Treaty Park where they made peace with William Penn to their current tribal grounds in Oklahoma.

He said he was excited to photograph the country as he walked, and he even planned to videotape his entire trip, but soon after he began, the weight of all the equipment bogged him down and, he saw little of interest to photograph.

“Photography-wise, it’s really boring,” he said.

Walking about 25 miles each day along local roads, Prusinowski carried a 30-pound backpack — of which, about 60 percent of the weight was water he needed because of the relentless heat.

During the trip, he shipped his camcorder and a tripod back home in order to cut down on some of the weight.

“I just kept the basics. I had no room for a tent,” he said. “It was so hot out there, you don’t just sweat. You go swimming. It was like people were dumping water all over you.”

To get through the scorching heat he encountered in areas of Missouri and Kansas, Prusinowski would walk at night and sleep in the day, trying to find what shade he could, sometimes renting a cheap hotel room to catch up on rest.

“I stayed in some places where a lot of people would have said ‘I’m not staying here,’” he said with a laugh, talking about the dirty and cheap motels he found.

In May, after a devastating tornado hit Joplin, Miss., Prusinowski walked to the town — three days out of his way — to volunteer with the cleanup effort. He stayed for eight days and met many residents who had lost everything in the natural disaster.

“Of all the houses that were damaged, none could be saved,” he said. “It was extremely hard to talk to some of them. Saying you were sorry, what does that mean? It means nothing. They were so hurt. But, there were so many volunteers and they were grateful for that.”

Along the way, Prusinowski said, he expected to run into historic markers or memorial sites where the Lenni Lenape had stayed during the 180 years the tribe moved across the country.

“But, I found nothing,” he said, noting that he had studied where the tribe had traveled, but, when he got there, he found nothing marking the sites to recall the history.

“I would stop and ask people what they knew about the Indians in these towns but, there was nothing,” he said. “If I said something about William Penn, they would know, but just very little.”

It was a surprise he said, that the locals seemed to know so little about the past of the area, but what surprised him more was the abject poverty he found in towns that had once had thriving Main Streets and business corridors.

Prusinowski said that, by walking local roads, he found towns that people miss when they drive on interstate highways.

These small places, he said, seemed to have little more than corn fields and ruined, vacant buildings.

“I came across at least ten small towns that I couldn’t imagine that people lived there,” he said. “It was kind of a scary thing to see these towns that prospered at one point that were now disappearing. Along the way, I don’t think I saw five towns that you would call towns with stores and homes … People just don’t know about this country. We say we are so great in the United States, but at these towns, I didn’t see any of that … That’s what we don’t hear about on TV news.”

Even with the difficulties of the trip, Prusinowski said it was an incredible experience and much of the hardship, he felt, was washed away when he was welcomed by tribal leaders in Oklahoma.

During the last day of his trip, Prusinowski presented the tribe with an Elm sapling derived from the historic “Treaty Tree” that once stood at Penn Treaty Park and, for his friend John Connors, who runs the Penn Treaty Museum, Prusinowski carried a small piece of the park’s famous tree along on his entire trip.

He’s planning to donate that piece of bark, and the shoes he wore during his walk, to the Penn Treaty Museum.

“It was a good experience,” he said. “It’s hard to say right now, my mind keeps going back to those memories. This wasn’t a two-week vacation where you go and come back right away … My mind is still not clear on a few things. I’m still kind of in shock.”

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com

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