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Riding to remember: Cherokee cyclists retrace tribe’s forced removal

fr trailoftearsOn a muddy Friday afternoon they gathered at Kituwah Mound, the Mother Town.  

Preparing for the journey. Offering up prayers for the sendoff. 

With the surrounding hills looking down on the pavilion, Cherokees recalled the past and spoke of the future. They wished the cyclists well. 

“It’s a spiritual event, it’s a historical event,” commented Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Michell Hicks. “It helps us to remember, ‘Hey, it’s not so long ago that this happened.’”

The May 30 gathering at Kituwah Mound kicked off this year’s Remember the Removal bike ride. The annual 950-mile ride commemorates the 1839 Trail of Tears, or forced removal of the Cherokees from their tribal lands in the Southeast.

“There’s a lot of soul searching that occurs,” said Hicks. “It keeps them closer to their roots, it keeps them solid.”

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The bike ride begins in New Echota, Georgia — retracing the historic journey over the course of three weeks — and ends in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. This year, six members of the Eastern Band will join 12 members of the Cherokee Nation for the ride. 

“Watch over all of our people,” Cherokee Nation member Tommy Wildcatt said as part of a prayer for the journey. “Give us food, keep us safe.”

Eastern Band riders were selected in January and range in age from 15 to 54. In addition to physical training leading up to the journey, riders also take classes in leadership, the Cherokee language and tribal history.

“All of it is such a learning experience,” said Kelsey Owl, a 25-year-old Eastern Band cyclist. 

Owl said her husband had gone on the ride previously. This year she was determined to go herself.

“He had such a wonderful experience,” Owl said, “and talked about how many relationships he built and the learning of the history.”

Another local rider, school teacher Richard Snead, is making the trek with his daughter. He feels the 19th-century removal of Native American tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River is a chapter of American history that holds valuable lessons worth remembering.

“It’s really, to me, a cautionary tale for everybody about when a government runs amok,” Snead said, referencing the fact that the removal conflicted with an earlier Supreme Court decision. “The President of the United States basically said ‘I don’t care.’”

Yona Wade, a member of the Eastern Band who rode in last year’s Remember the Removal ride, said he felt the ride also served to remind people about the Cherokee people’s resilience. Further, he pointed to the Eastern Band — the Cherokee faction that remained in the East — as proof that the removal had proven ultimately unsuccessful.

“We’re still here. If it’d worked like it was suppose to, we’d all be out West,” Wade said. “Yes, the Trail of Tears was a pivotal point in our history, but we’re still here.”

Speaking to the cyclists and those gathered to support them, Hicks also touched on the survival theme. 

“We have survived a lot,” the Chief said. “Our history has not always been pretty, but we’re still here. We are blessed.”

Hicks also spoke about the demands that would be made of the bike riders over the course of their journey. He recalled the struggles of their ancestors and implored them to keep the Cherokee who faced removal in their minds as they retraced the Trail of Tears.

“This is going to be a very emotional trip for you. It’s going to be a physically enduring trip. I know you’re prepared,” the Chief told them. “When it starts to get hot and your body feels weak, I want you to remember the endurance our people had.”


Author discusses Cherokee’s forced exodus, American duality

Author Sarah Vowell is from Oklahoma and is part Cherokee. She estimates her Cherokee heritage at about 1/8 on her mother’s side and 1/16 on her father’s side, and notes that “being at least a little Cherokee in northeastern Oklahoma is about as rare and remarkable as being a Michael Jordan fan in Chicago.”

In the 1990s, Vowell and her twin sister retraced the path of the Cherokee’s forced removal from the Southeast to Oklahoma. The journey was chronicled in 1998 on National Public Radio’s “This American Life.”

Since then, Vowell — a New York Times-best selling author — has written six books on American history and culture. On May 30, she ventured to Jackson County to deliver an address to the Cashiers Historical Society’s ninth annual Jan Wyatt Symposium entitled “Unspeakable Journey: The Removal of the Cherokee.”

“The removal was done at gunpoint by the U.S. Army, it was done be force,” Vowell told attendees. “Not everyone was happy about it. There was a lot of protest about it. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote some pretty things about it.”

After her address, Vowell sat down for some book signings, and also spoke a bit more about her journey retracing the Cherokee removal. The author described the trip with her sister as “scatterbrained,” — “I didn’t really think about it too much” — and recalled how the pair took time to look at points along the way where fallen Cherokee were buried, before getting back in the car, stopping for barbecue and then looking at more Cherokee gravesites. 

“What I’ve always been interested in is America, and it turned into such a perfect way to talk about America,” the author said.

Vowell pointed to conflicting dualities common throughout the American landscape. She pointed to a visit she had taken to a museum featuring an exhibit focusing on the 1960s. During the visit, there was a moment when she was confronted with the competing themes of the Great Society — with its goals of eliminating poverty and racial injustice — and images depicting the ravages of the Vietnam War. In the background, the song “Louie, Louie” played over the museum sound system.

“To me, that’s the country,” Vowell said. “You can’t have one of these things without the other if you want to accurately talk about the U.S.”

During her presentation, a member of the audience noted the duality of the Cherokee’s historical trajectory — contrasting the group’s forced removal with the modern concept of casinos on Native American reservations — and wondered if some sense of justice could be derived from such an arc.

“That’s called poetic justice,” Vowell answered dryly. “Which is different than actual justice.”

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