Every year, Cherokee youth take to their bikes to explore the tragic history of the Trail of Tears on a 950-mile ride.
When 20-year-old Kaylee Smith of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, stepped into the sacred water of the Blue Hole Spring at Red Clay State Historic Park in Tennessee, she felt the emotional tug of her ancestors like never before. As part of a tribal cycling team made up of Cherokee youth from Oklahoma and North Carolina, Smith was taking part in a bike journey from her tribe’s original homelands in Georgia and Tennessee through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas to the capital of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah to experience sites that are part of her history. The Blue Hole was a sacred place for the Cherokee before the U.S. government brutally relocated them from their homelands to a land they didn’t know.
“That was a place where the Cherokee went to the water for traditional and spiritual purposes,” Smith says. “My team and I were allowed to enter the water. That was probably my favorite part of the ride because I never really learned about the traditional experiences that a lot of my people went through.”
While the dip into the sacred water was enlightening for Smith and her touring team, other experiences along the cyclists’ Trail of Tears route were shocking and emotional for the history they evoked. More than 180 years ago, tens of thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands in the Southeast (and other parts of the country) and made to march on foot to Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. The Removal tribulation began in 1830; the Cherokee Trail of Tears mainly spanned a period from August 1838 to March 1839, including a particularly horrific winter that final year.
A quarter of the Cherokee population died in the Removal.
Four cyclists ages 18 to 22 and two mentor riders from the Cherokee Nation pedaled their way through that history on the 2021 Remember the Removal Bike Ride this past summer. For several weeks, they retraced the Northern Route of the 1,000-mile journey of their ancestors, cycling 950 miles along the Trail of Tears from Georgia to Oklahoma.
For the riders — and the Cherokee Nation as a whole — the annual bike ride may be painful and difficult, but it is also a triumphant journey that underscores endurance and the will to survive.
The Cherokee Nation started The Remember the Removal Bike Ride retracing the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears in 1984. For the 2021 ride, Oklahoma youths were joined by three riders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.
They cycled together to celebrate their ancestors and learn physical strength, mental endurance, and Cherokee culture.
For nearly three weeks, the ride, which became an annual event in 2009, winds through Georgia to Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The coronavirus pandemic caused the ride originally scheduled for the summer of 2020 to be canceled, but the group was able to tackle the journey in 2021 thanks to a number of added safety precautions. All the cyclists, ride coordinators, and the volunteers received the COVID-19 vaccine in preparation for the 2021 ride. This year, with continuing precautions and protocols in place, the ride is scheduled for late May.
The annual bike ride stretches from Georgia through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas.
Rigorous training begins months in advance and entails spending weekends cycling along various routes throughout the Cherokee Nation Reservation. The route of the actual ride is determined based on history; the journal of the Rev. Daniel S. Butrick, a Cherokee missionary; and National Park Service Trail of Tears mapping.
The young riders usually begin their journey in May at New Echota, Georgia, the official origin point of the Trail of Tears and the former Cherokee capital, now a state historic site. Along the way, they encounter supporters, volunteers, and others who feel compelled to witness their journey. The Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses sponsor the ride, supplying kits, bikes, meals, and lodging. The National Park Service, numerous churches, and museums along the route offer snacks, open their restrooms, and provide a meal for the riders when they cycle through.
“It’s a very powerful experience, not only for the young people riding, but for all Cherokee citizens who are cheering them on,” says Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “It takes a dark and painful chapter in American history — but also certainly a dark chapter in Cherokee history in terms of the impact of forced removal on our people — and honors remembrance.”
The ride does more than commemorate a dark chapter. For Chief Hoskin, it’s a way for young tribal members to remind themselves that despite tragedy, the Cherokee people survived and went on to do “extraordinary things.”
It’s a survival story that almost wasn’t.
On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson — who long waged a brutal and insidious campaign against Native populations — signed the Indian Removal Act. The act gave the president authority to exchange unsettled land west of the Mississippi River for Indian land in existing states; it also gave the federal government the power to remove Native Americans from their traditional homelands to “Indian Territory,” now present-day Oklahoma.
It takes a dark and painful chapter in American history — but also certainly a dark chapter in Cherokee history in terms of the impact of forced removal on our people — and honors remembrance.
Although the law forbade the forced coercion of Native peoples off their land, Jackson and the government ignored the rule of law and used military force in some cases to remove Native peoples (some “bound in chains and marched double file,” one historian writes). In many instances, they were made to march without needed supplies, adequate food, or care from the federal government.
“In 1835, an unauthorized group of Cherokee leaders entered into the Treaty of New Echota in Georgia with the Federal government, giving all Cherokee territory in the South to the Federal government in exchange for land in the west,” according to North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Chief John Ross, with more than 15,000 Cherokee signatures, petitioned the Senate not to ratify the treaty. The effort was to no avail; the treaty was ratified in 1836.”
In 1838, with the Cherokee still in their homeland, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, by order of President Martin Van Buren and backed by more than 5,000 troops, delivered a proclamation ordering their evacuation from their homeland. The ultimatum read in part: “Cherokees! The President of the United States has sent me, with a powerful army, to cause you, in obedience to the Treaty of 1835, to join that part of your people who are already established in prosperity, on the other side of the Mississippi. ... The full moon of May is already on the wane, and before another shall have passed away, every Cherokee man, woman and child ... must be in motion to join their brethren in the far West.”
The Cherokee Nation helps sponsor the ride.
Beginning on May 26, 1838, under Scott’s command, soldiers forced an estimated 16,000 Cherokees, along with 1,500 slaves and free Blacks, to leave most of their possessions behind and make the journey. Initially, they were put in internment camps; many died there even before their terrible journey. Eventually, roughly 4,000 would die due to imprisonment in stockades and internment camps, starvation, disease, and exposure to the elements. By 1840, those who had survived the ordeal found themselves in Indian Territory, which the federal government had promised would be theirs forever.
But when white settlement pushed west, that promise would be broken. In 1907, Oklahoma became the country’s 46th state and “Indian Territory” was no more. Generations later, in a long-overdue reckoning in July 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that about half of Oklahoma was indeed Native American reservation land. “Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
Remember the Removal riders are selected each year through a process that involves a written essay, interview, in-depth application, and a physical examination. When she was chosen to be on the 2021 ride, 23-year-old former Miss Cherokee Whitney Roach from Tahlequah says she felt a sense of pride grow within her. “I not only get to represent myself and my family, but I get to represent my ancestors who were forced on the Removal. My ancestors are why I am here today, and I have the opportunity to retrace their steps in remembrance of their strength and resilience.”
Once they’re selected, the riders go through a rigorous training process to make sure they’re able to complete the difficult journey. Participants also train and pass a 70-mile riding test to ensure they’re up to the average mileage of around 60 miles a day that they’ll clock along the routes used by their Cherokee ancestors. “While we’re just amazed by their physical abilities, it can also be very emotionally taxing,” Chief Hoskin says. “It’s hard to gauge from an application if they can withstand the sometimes-emotional assault given the sites that they see and what they’re learning about the people who were forcibly removed. They stand on spots where they know their ancestors looked back at a homeland they would never see again. That is always emotionally jarring for these young people.”
And it’s personal: The cyclists have their family trees mapped out by a professional genealogist, providing them insight into their ancestral past as well as connecting any family links they might share with one another.
Starting the Remember the Removal journey at New Echota in Georgia is significant and symbolic. “It’s a reminder that prior to our forced removal, we had a national capital, we had a system of government based on the rule of law, and we had a democracy that is in the best provisions of democracy,” Chief Hoskin says. “And then along the way, there are spots where we know there are unmarked graves of our ancestors, which is a reminder that the brutality of removal means we lost children, grandmas and grandpas, and people who were living their lives in a homeland they would never see again.”
Among the sites along the Remember the Removal Ride — many of them now historic destinations on the official Trail of Tears — are Blythe Ferry in Tennessee on the westernmost edge of the old Cherokee Nation, where in 1838 about 9,000 Cherokee had to wait more than a month for their forced crossing, delayed by a horrible drought that had dropped water levels, and Mantle Rock in Kentucky, where 1,766 Cherokee spent about two weeks during the frigid winter of 1838 – 39 waiting for the Ohio River to thaw and become passable. The cyclists also visited several Cherokee gravesites and other historic landmarks.
Stops along the way give the riders insights into their tribal history.
“There’s something emotionally powerful about that,” Chief Hoskin says. “It’s one of the reasons that when the riders come back, there are invariably a lot of tears. There are tears of joy that they accomplished this great feat, but also I think they’re carrying with them some measure of sadness over what they’ve learned.”
Melanie Giang, 22, of Claremore, Oklahoma, said that being chosen for the 2021 ride was an emotional experience. “To me it means that I have been given such an honorable position in that we not only have the chance to learn about our ancestors, but that we also get the chance to retrace the Trail and reflect on the hardships that our people endured so we can be better ambassadors for our people.”
Kaylee Smith decided to apply for the 2021 ride because of the physical challenge of the quest. She also wanted to learn more about her heritage. “My grandmother always taught me that it was important to learn to embrace my culture and my heritage, and I’ve always been passionate about that,” she said. “We visited a few encampment sites where our Cherokee ancestors stayed during the Removal. We actually visited a few preserved parts of the Trail where our ancestors’ feet touched. I really can’t put into words how emotional it was.”
“I didn’t know much about the Trail of Tears, only that it was something that was really bad,” says Tracie Asbill, 40, who was chosen to be the mentor cyclist on the trek. “My family and my grandparents never talked about it. They would just say it was really bad. I want to share this story with my kids because I didn’t learn a lot about it in history class. There was only a page or a paragraph that talked about it. It’s so important to remember where we came from.”
Taking part helps illustrate to cyclists the sacrifices and hardships faced by their ancestors.
Last year’s riders returned to Tahlequah on June 18 to a hero’s welcome, surrounded by friends and family from the Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. For Chief Hoskin, completing the journey is powerful beyond the finish line. “Our people were not wanted; our people were considered to be a problem that needed to be solved by federal policy,” he says. “Today, as Americans get to know about our history, our people are celebrated more. I think it’s a particularly wonderful way to celebrate young Cherokees retracing that difficult journey. And part of the joy that the riders find is in the warm reception that they get.”
For the riders, the reception at the finish is memorable beyond the local recognition they receive. “This ride was really challenging in all aspects, and I think the biggest thing that pushed me was that my ancestors had to walk it,” cyclist Raylen Bark, 19, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina said in a news release. “Our ancestors did not have the best circumstances, and that’s what kept me going. Because we’re descendants of strong people, I knew we could get through it, too. What I want others to know is that we’re still here. Even though you don’t hear about this ride nationally, the strength of our ancestors is alive and well in each and every rider.”
The 2022 Remember the Removal Bike Ride kicks off again this year in May. The public can follow along on Facebook at facebook.com/removal.ride, where you can view photos, videos, and other content shared daily or several times a day along the journey. Read more about the Indian Removal Act here.
From our May/June 2022 issue
Featured image: Riders gather at the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park in Meigs County, Tennessee
Photography: (All images) courtesy Cherokee Nation Communications