It was 175 years ago when the last of more than 20,000 Cherokees were forced from our ancestral lands in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama to begin a 1,000-mile journey to Oklahoma in what is known “The Trail of Tears.” It was called that not just because of the suffering endured by our people, but because those witnesses to The Removal cried at the sight where as many as one in four died.
Those of us who remained in North Carolina in the aftermath of The Removal, as few as 1,000, became known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Now about 15,000 strong, we still make our home in North Carolina’s mountains, land our people have occupied for more than 10,000 years.
There are many ways we commemorate this journey. Of course, we could do so with sadness or with solemn ceremony. Instead, some years ago, we took a different path: A bike ride. Now after many years, the “Remember the Removal” ride each spring relives a watershed event in our tribe’s history.
On May 30, six of our tribal members, along with 12 riders from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, set out on this three-week ride. Following a commemoration at the Kituwah Mound near Cherokee, the ride itself commenced in New Echota, Georgia, the historic capital of the Cherokee Nation east. Following the northern route of The Removal, the ride will end in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, capital of the Cherokee Nation on June 19.
Eastern Band riders prepared for months for this journey, studying tribal history and language, as well as undergoing strenuous physical training. Our team, comprised of three men and three women, was a cross section of Eastern Band members. It included a father and daughter, an award-winning school teacher, a middle school guidance counselor, a tribal staff member, and a small business owner. They range in age from 15 to 54.
Along the way, following in the footsteps of their ancestors, our riders visited historical sites and also kept a video diary of their ride to share.
The “Remember the Removal” ride was a journey filled with remembrance. But more than that, it was filled with hope. While our riders commemorated, in a positive way, a watershed event in our history, they also reconnected with our past and tribal heritage. Our bikers also served as ambassadors for the Eastern Band in the communities they visited during their trip across middle America.
Because of the physical demands of training and the ride itself, over the years many riders have also overcome health challenges, such as diabetes which is a serious problem among the Cherokee people. Many report their experience has been a life-changing event.
We believe there are important lessons in this annual event not just for the Cherokee, but for all of us. Too often today, we seem to concern ourselves in sometimes negative ways with events of the past leading us to look back with anger and sadness. We have chosen instead, using history as a backdrop, to also look ahead and to seize an opportunity to continue to help build leaders for our future.
Our past has taught us that we can survive the unimaginable. But we also know our traditions and beliefs provide a continuum that has sustained our Cherokee people across generations.
The Remember the Removal bike ride is a means by which all of us can all learn something about using the past as a foundation for better things to come.
Michell Hicks is Principal Chief, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.