Participants announced for annual “Remember the Removal” bike ride
For the past two months the participants have been meeting in Tahlequah on Saturdays and Sundays to take history and Cherokee language classes as well as to exercise and train together in preparation for the three-week journey from Georgia to Oklahoma in June.
This years participants are Daulton Cochran of Bell; Lily Drywater, Dale Eagle, Parker Weavel and Emilee Chavez all of Tahlequah; Courtney Cowan of Kansas, Oklahoma; Autumn Lawless of Porum; Sky Wildcat of Muskogee; Amari McCoy of Sallisaw; and mentor rider Jennifer Barger Johnson of Sallisaw.
“I feel really lucky to be a part of this year’s bike ride,” said Cowan. “I’ve been given an opportunity to learn about my culture and honor my ancestors. I know this experience will be emotional, and it will be physically tough, but overall I hope to come out of this as a stronger Cherokee.”
Cowan said she wasn’t raised immersed in the Cherokee culture, but through the bike ride she hopes to finding a piece of her that she feels is missing.
“I’ve struggled to find my identity after graduating and finishing college basketball, but from what I’ve heard this ride brings you back with a very different perspective.” she said. “Since I didn’t grow up traditionally the participants on this ride, to me, are considered my Cherokee family. Each and every one of them are so special and unique in their own way, and I’m learning something new every single day with them.”
The participants were selected based on essays, interviews and a physical to ensure they can endure the physical challenge.
The approximately 950-mile journey travels through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The cyclists will average 60 miles a day, mirroring in part the hardships of their Cherokee ancestors who made the same trek on foot, by horse and by wagon 180 years ago. Of the estimated 12,000 Cherokee who were rounded up and forced on the journey, 4,000 died due to exposure, starvation and disease.
Johnson said she wanted to participate as a mentor rider to not only experience and learn about the Trail of Tears first hand but to also be support to the “youthful” riders.
“My primary role is to help the youthful riders realize their leadership potential and help them recongnize what they are capable of and not really through leading them but showing them how they can lead,” she said. “Often those of us that are older who are involved with young people we kind of take the reigns and do what we know to do and lead by example that way. Well, that’s not what we’re here to do. We are here help these youthful riders see when and how they can be better leaders, and I am excited because they are phenomenal group of kids. I am excited for the future of our tribe because I can see each of them doing some really incredible things.”
Johnson added although the training has been rigorous, she said one of the most challenging aspect for her has been studying the Cherokee language.
“I was around the language and had exposure to the language as a kid, but I’m 47 years old so as an adult I have grown away from using the language as I should and that has been really challenging for me,” she said. “I think the combination trifecta of the history, language and culture along with the physical and mental aspect is pretty remarkable.”
Each of the cyclists will also have their family tree mapped out by a professional genealogist prior to the trip, providing them insight into their ancestral past. During the ride, they will visit several Cherokee gravesites and historical landmarks. Among the sites are Blythe’s Ferry in Tennessee, the westernmost edge of the old CN, and Mantle Rock in Kentucky, where Cherokees huddled together for warmth under a hanging rock as the only source of shelter during the winter.
A send-off ceremony is set for May 29 in Tahlequah for the group. The 10 cyclists will then travel to Cherokee, North Carolina, where they will join seven cyclists from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The combined group will begin their journey on June 3 from New Echota, Georgia, the capital of the old Cherokee Nation. They are expected to arrive back in Tahlequah on June 21.