Young Cherokees Ride the Trail of Tears to Honor Ancestors
In 1838 and 1839, as part of then-President Andrew Jackson’s “Indian removal policy,” the Cherokee Nation, along with many other Native American tribes, was forced to give up lands east of the Mississippi River and relocate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. While the law as written required the government to negotiate this process fairly, voluntarily and peacefully, President Jackson and his government rarely did so. Instead, tens of thousands of Native Americans were forcibly driven off their valuable land in the southeastern states and made to walk thousands of miles to a designated Indian Territory. Over 16,000 Cherokees made this difficult journey; 4000 died along the way from exposure, starvation and disease. This month,12 young members of the Cherokee Nation will bike 950 miles along this “Trail of Tears,” passing through seven states in three weeks’ time, as a way of remembering and honoring their ancestors.
Although the bikers won’t begin their ride until the first week of June, their journey started months ago when they applied to participate in the Remember the Removal Project. The process was rigorous; not only did it require intense physical preparation – they’ll be riding 60-70 miles a day – but the riders also attended six months of weekend classes in tribal history, language and culture.
Applicants for the ride wrote an essay, which was reviewed by a committee, and participated in an interview. “It’s very competitive to get into the program,” Joseph Erb, the Project’s coordinator, acknowledged. “It takes a little over a month to go through the application process. We’re very pleased with our group this year.”
The training is demanding. “We average close to 70 miles a day out there for weeks, and so we try to really get them trained, not only physically, but emotionally and education-wise, as well, so that when we actually cross these areas and see these sights, they’ll know them when we get there,” Erb explained.
While the physical demands of a journey like this are readily apparent, the trip is emotionally challenging, too. For many participants, it is a life-changing event. “There’s always a breaking point along the trip because it’s such a long distance,” Erb said. “Many people who know our people understand that family is big for us and being a part of your community is big. When you’re out there, you miss your family and you miss your home. We’re gone quite a while for these kids, and traveling each day, getting up really early…When they get back, they have changed; they look different…They become more of an adult, more of a complete person after this experience.”
The first ride took place in 1984, and then it was continued in 2009 as an annual event. According to Erb, many of the past riders have remained connected and involved with the Cherokee community. “Many of the people, especially in the 84 group, came back and worked for the tribe and worked in the community…We see a lot of that beginning to happen with these generations that have ridden since 2009.”
The Oklahoma riders will meet up in the old Cherokee Nation Capital in New Echota, Ga. with six additional riders representing the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians before beginning a trip that will take them through parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas before returning to Tahlequah. “It’s a very long trip,” Erb admits. “It allows the youth to actually see the great distance that our ancestors traveled to get here to Indian Territory. Although we’re not walking it, and we don’t believe this is a re-creation, it is memorializing what our people went through to get here…We’ll travel this route and do our best to commemorate the ones we’ve lost and to celebrate the ones who actually survived and allowed us to continue today.”
Along the Trail the riders stop at many Cherokee-related historical locations such as gravesites, museums and commemorative markers. While the riders learn about their own history during their travels, they also share information about the Cherokee people with folks they encounter en route. The riders wear beautifully designed bike jerseys that are as symbolic as they are practical, which helps to start these conversations. The jersey colors – red, black, yellow and white – are traditional Cherokee colors found in mound artifacts. The copper color on the side panels represents the metal used in many Cherokee objects. One panel has seven, seven-pointed stars for the seven clans, while a single star on the other side represents those who were lost along the Trail. Faded signatures in Cherokee syllabary on the background of the jersey are recreations of the signatures on an 1838 petition to Congress protesting the removal treaty that forced the Cherokees from their lands. “We have meaning behind everything that’s on there,” Erb said.
Even with all of the physical and emotional challenges the bikers face during their three-week trek, Erb notes that the young riders rarely complain. “We do our best to prepare them before we go, but it’s hard to really prepare somebody for what we do out there, riding every day, day after day, in the sun and the heat, in the rain…It’s very difficult to complain no matter how stressed out or worn out they are during this very grueling phase because we all know our ancestors went through worse and traveled through worse…We come from these people that survived this with a much more devastating cost.”
Erb is impressed with the young Cherokees who undertake this ride. “Cherokees are very proud of who they are, and they’re proud of who they came from, and you’ll see that in this group…Cherokees are very proud of their people, their language and their culture, and this is one of those programs that commemorates some of that.”