Cherokee - Remember the Removal - bike ride covers 950 miles

Photos and Story By Albert Bender
News From Indian Country
Earlier this summer, youth from both the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) biked through Middle Tennessee commemorating the 1838 Trail of Tears that passed through the state with thousands of Cherokees being driven to Indian Territory, now present-day Oklahoma. There were twelve from the Cherokee Nation and  eight from the Eastern Band. The Bike Riders retraced the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears.       

An impromptu dinner was held for the young riders in Woodbury, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Nashville. The dinner was  organized by Melba Checote- Eads, a citizen of the Muskogee Creek  Nation of Oklahoma who resides in that town.

“It was an honor for me to honor them “said Checote- Eads. “Many of us have moved back to the homeland and it was so inspiring to see these young people commemorating the Removal so that it is never forgotten” continued Checote-Eads.                                                                                                                       

She also took note of the fact many Creeks marched with the Cherokees on the Northern Route. The Creeks were joined with the Cherokees at Blythe Ferry in Tennessee. Checote-Eads said Creeks and Cherokees reportedly camped for about 2-3 weeks in the vicinity of Woodbury on their way to Oklahoma. A Trail Of Tears Walk is organized every September by Checote-Eads in Woodbury. It has been held annually for the past several years.

The Bike Ride memorializes the Trail of Tears, the result of the fraudulent, illegal Treaty of New Echota signed by a dissident faction  of  Cherokees with no authority to negotiate on behalf of the Nation.

Though politically prominent, they held no positions in the Cherokee government. They violated tribal law by acting without the consent of the National Council. The main leaders of this  faction were Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot. They were executed after the Nation reached Oklahoma as provided by Cherokee law at that time.

The U.S. government approved the infamous, illegal treaty and used it as the “legal” basis for the Removal.

In the months prior to the Removal, federal officials and neighboring whites indicated in written correspondence that they expected armed resistance from the Cherokee people to any attempt at forcible removal, similar to the Seminoles in Florida. This was not surprising in light of the fact that the Cherokee Nation under the great war chief Dragging Canoe was the center of Native resistance in the Southeast in the latter part of the 18th Century. In fact, what was surprising to southern whites was that Cherokees did not engage in armed resistance.

However, Principal Chief John Ross continually admonished Cherokees to engage only in non-violent resistance.  Once, this became apparent, the soldiers and the white rabble who followed on their heels set upon the hapless Cherokees with a vengeance often mockingly shouting “Remember the Chickamaugas” in remembrance of the time when Cherokee warriors (referred to as Chickamaugas by many settlers) had been the scourge of the white frontier little more than a generation earlier.    

Over 16, 000 Cherokees - men, women, children, the elderly - were rounded up by 7,000 soldiers – 4,000 federal troops and 3,000 volunteers, and imprisoned in stockades and concentration camps. The soldiers began driving the people from their homes to the camps in May of 1838.

As a  result of inadequate provision of food and government enforcement of unsanitary conditions (Andrew Jackson objected to Cherokees being supplied with soap), disease swept through the camps. It is estimated that over 2,500 Cherokees died in what were fetid holding pens. Another 1,500 died on the way west (some authorities set the figure of deaths as near 8,000 counting those who deceased, because of starvation and disease, after reaching Oklahoma). It is said that no one under six or over sixty survived. Most Cherokees arrived in Oklahoma in March of 1839.  

The Trail of Tears covered mostly land routes although the signers of the treaty traveled mostly by water to avoid  contact  with the Cherokee majority who used the land roads.

The Bike Riders covered the Northern Removal Route which coursed through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas before the final destination of northeastern Oklahoma. According to some historians Tennessee had more Trail of Tears concentration camps than any other state.

This year’s “Remember the Removal Bike Ride” began with twelve cyclists from the Cherokee Nation Bike Riders and eight cyclists from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) starting from New Echota, Georgia, the last Cherokee capital before the Removal.

During early June, the group gathered in North Carolina at the Kituwah Mound, the Mother Town of all Cherokees, for an official send-off.

The Bike Ride encompassed three weeks and 950-miles. It covered seven states before arriving in the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The Cherokee young people making the Ride ranged in age from 16-24 years of age and typically covered 60-70 miles a day.

The original Remember the Removal Bike Ride began in 1984 and resumed on a yearly basis in 2009.

The EBCI joined the Bike Ride in 2011. The young riders learn about Cherokee history, language and culture and get an idea of the hardships the ancestors endured making the journey on foot under the most adverse circumstances including the hostility of many white inhabitants along the Trail.

There are many horror stories including when townspeople threw dynamite  into frozen rivers being crossed by wagons containing the old and infirm so that the occupants would sink beneath the ice and drown. Some parties were preyed upon by armed whites who would sneak into the Trail encampments at night and  kidnap Cherokee women and children to sell them into slavery.

This writer was told an account by a Cherokee elder who related that his grandmother was in a group that was kidnapped and  required U.S. soldiers to rescue the captives. However, the grandmother related to him, that at least half of the captives were never found by the military.

Among the goals of the Bike Ride is to develop the leadership skills of the young people to benefit the Cherokee people. The Remember the Removal Bike Ride is sponsored by the Cherokee Nation each year and the commemorative tour this year was celebrated, as always, with a homecoming event, a return ceremony.

The Bike Riders arrived in Tahlequah  on June 22. The return ceremony was held at the Cherokee Nation courthouse square.

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