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The Trail of Tears: A Hard Road - And No End in Sight

Imagine this: one day you are just sitting there and you hear a knock on your door. It's some angry soldier who grabs you and tells you, you have to leave and walk to a new home over 800 miles away.

"Walk? 800 miles? Are you crazy?" you say.

You look around and see that soldiers are rounding up everyone that you know and making them start walking as well. After packing your clothes and a few of your favorite possessions you start walking. There are so many people that you can't count them all. You give up when you reach four hundred. While counting you forget to keep up with your parents. Now you have lost them. It's really cold and snowy outside and you realize you don't even have any shoes on. The soldiers never even gave you a chance to find them. So you are all alone tired, hungry, and frostbitten and you have no idea where your parents are or how to find them. You stop walking and go off into the woods to go the bathroom. On your way back you stumble over something in the road. You look down and see your mom frozen in the falling snow.

All you can do is cry, but you don't have time to mourn because the soldiers are telling you to keep moving. You are very sad and broken but you realize you have to be strong in order to survive this horrible nightmare. This nightmare is called the "Trail Of Tears" and it really happened. The story I just told you is a very common story in the history of many American Indian families whose ancestors were torn from their homes because of the Trail of Tears. Why? Why did they walk? Why did the soldiers make them walk? Why all of this suffering? Why? Why?

There are many ways to answer these questions. But, ultimately it has a very simple explanation: Europeans wanted more land to farm, hunt and build houses on. This explanation leads all the way back to when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. He destroyed all three million of the Arawak Indians by enslaving them, stealing their land, taking their gold and everything that they needed to survive. If you look back at the history of the United States, it would have been easy to predict the Trail of Tears. It has been a tragic custom in our country for outsiders to come in and destroy the indigenous people's culture. It had to happen at some point the way our great old country was being formed.


We didn't have tickets but we got to sit on stage and...

The Trail of Tears had many issues around it. The Cherokee were a huge tribe that occupied lands in eight southern states. They called themselves "Ani Yunwiya" meaning "The Principal People". They had developed a system of social order and participatory democracy based on sacred law -- all long before the white man ever arrived. The Cherokee were organized through seven clans. It was through their mother that children gained their clan identity, which gave them citizenship. The Cherokee were very sophisticated and had very good hunting habits. They were a very powerful tribe who had numbers close to 20,000.

Quickly, though, their lives began to change. White settlers came on huge ships. These settlers brought slaves, clothes, guns, ammunition and many other things that they could trade with the neighboring Cherokee. The Cherokee came to them in peace. They traded all kind of things: deerskin, cloth, corn, even slaves. That's correct: the Cherokee had slaves. There was even one Cherokee, Joseph Van, who had 800 acres of land and 100 slaves. The Cherokee soon were building log cabins, and farming and hunting with the white man. They even had their own written language invented by Sequoya. They soon had their own newspaper called the "Cherokee Phoenix". The Cherokee adopted the European lifestyle very quickly but that still wasn't enough. They even had their own Capital in New Echota, Georgia. However, the U.S government didn't want a union within a union, but the Cherokee had accomplished just that. The Cherokee were very good businessmen, writers, politicians, farmers, and hunters. But no matter what they did, it still wasn't enough to make the European settlers show them equal respect.

This one of the many businesses the Cherokee owned.
After all of this, after the Seminole Wars, Creek Wars, and all this resistance, the newly elected seventh president Andrew Jackson (who gained his fame by defeating the Creeks and forming the Tennessee militia) signed the Indian Removal Act. This act allowed the President to move eastern Indian tribes west of the Mississippi. That meant that every Indian, every Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw had to move. Few of them moved voluntarily. Many didn't think that they were actually were going to be removed. But in May of 1838, federal troops began rounding up the Cherokee and all other Eastern tribes and putting them into concentration camps. In spite of warnings to troops to treat the Cherokee kindly, the round-up proved harrowing. Families were separated -- the elderly and ill forced along at gunpoint -- and people were given only moments to collect their cherished possessions. White looters followed, burning or occupying homesteads as the Indians were led away. In November 1838, groups by the thousands began moving westward to present day Oklahoma.

This long grueling journey was done by boat, wagon, and train, but mostly the Indians traveled on foot. Death was an everyday occurrence on this journey. Cold weather, starvation, lack of water, and diseases like measles and small pox were all causes of death. It is estimated that 4,000 Cherokee died, killing over one fifth of the Cherokee population. Some Cherokee hid in the woods and came out when they could claim ownership of land. They escaped the Trail of Tears and remained in the East Coast. Those Cherokee who dodged the Trail of Tears now live in Cherokee, NC and are a federally recognized tribe (the Eastern Cherokee Band). The Trail of Tears ended in Oklahoma where the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole Indians had to start new lives in an area that they weren't familiar with. The Trail of Tears is a very sad time in history. Many people died and we must mourn those who have passed. We can't change history, but we can and should learn from it.

Wagon used on the Trail of Tears.
The Trail of Tears will always be a part of American history. In the broad picture of how our country was formed, the feelings which brought about the Trail of Tears have been present ever since Columbus first landed in the Caribbean. And this feeling is still around today. Indians all over the country are still recovering from the genocide that they have been through. They still fight many diseases such as alcoholism and diabetes in order to stay alive. These diseases are the top killers of Indian people today; one out of seven Indians in our country has diabetes. Meanwhile, the American government has not addressed those issues which have tainted government-Indian relations for over 500 years. The struggle continues for the Indians -- it didn't end with the Trail of Tears. Everyday, American Indians struggle to hold on to their culture and their health. But the government is still working against them. Over 2/3 of the country's nuclear waste is stored on Indian land, and somehow I don't think that's a coincidence.

As I sat on the Indigenous stage listening to the rhythmic sounds of Mato Nanji's guitar, I thought about the long distance that I had traveled by car. My journey was nothing compared to what the Cherokee people had endured on their long horrid walk. Mato Nanji's music went through my body like a doctor and cured any hard feelings or anger that was still inside me from discussing the Trail of Tears. I realized that the old saying was still true: we can't change history, we can only learn from it.

I mourn for all the people who have died in our country at the hand of our government, people of every race, religion or gender. But I am just like the little boy on the Trail of Tears who had to keep moving on. There's too many problems in our country to linger on the past when we could be busy improving the present. We have to learn about the past, about both the positive and the negative, in order to strive in the future. We don't want the aftermath of the Trail of Tears to continue, so now is the time to put an end to that sad chapter in American history. Please help fight diabetes, the continued theft of Indian lands, nuclear storage on Indian Lands, and the destruction of our natural environment. You can make a difference.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Three wars, thousands of troops and 100 utterly unconquerable Seminoles
Nick - A warrior, a prophet and a general unravel the Creek nation
Stephanie - Sequoyah's talking leaves, or how the Cherokees took back their voices
Nick - Let's lose Chief Win 'Em All
Team - Beware: Surprise Indian attacks ahead!