Linda Grover: The Cherokee Trail of Tears
Last fall while at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, I walked over to the edge of a city street and parking lot to better read a sign that contained the word "Cherokee." The sign said that I was standing on one of the routes that the Cherok...
Last fall while at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, I walked over to the edge of a city street and parking lot to better read a sign that contained the word "Cherokee." The sign said that I was standing on one of the routes that the Cherokee people took during the Trail of Tears in 1834.
I had read about the Trail of Tears, studied it, and even taught about it. I had seen paintings depicting the long march. And, standing there on concrete poured over the upheaval and heartbreak of the past, I was brought by a printed sign closer to the reality of history. I won't forget being there.
During the decade after the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress in 1830, more than 14,000 Cherokee Indians journeyed 800 miles from their homeland to what would be called the "New Cherokee Nation" west of the Mississippi River. This forced surrender of their land and the series of marches (some rode in wagons, most walked) from North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee is known as the "Trail of Tears." During that period of time, approximately 4,000 of the Cherokee people who began the journeys perished.
The Cherokee were not the only American Indian tribe to experience the trauma of losing motherland and loved ones; in fact, they were about 10 percent of the number of people who traveled the Trail of Tears. We will never know with certainly the total number of Indians and tribes in America that surrendered land and went on forced relocations before and after the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee Trail of Tears is the most well known and the most thoroughly documented.
One of the most moving novels I have read is Diane Glancy's "Pushing the Bear," the historical fiction story of a young Cherokee mother traveling the Northern Route during fall and winter of 1838-39. Her name was Marisol, and she lived on a farm in North Carolina with her husband and small children. The Marisol of the day before her farm and belongings were confiscated reminds me of my daughters: Like her, they work hard; they take care of their homes and families; they learn and grow in their daily lives.
Marisol's story is also the collective story of her family and community, who, with Marisol, tell their experiences in a series of short accounts during the journey.
Through their voices we become witnesses to the political, cultural and social lives of the Cherokee before the forced march as well as during. Glancy includes such important and interesting historical markers as newspaper stories and treaty details that help us to connect the recounting of history to people's lives as well as the rawness of survival, compromise and loss.
A good companion to "Pushing the Bear" is "The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears," by Theda Purdue and Michael Green. This nonfiction work is beautifully organized and a good read (I found it hard to put down). It takes the reader from the beginnings of Cherokee creation to early interactions with Europeans, then to treaty negotiations, the Removal Act and the Trail of Tears. The book contains descriptions of terrain, abysmal weather and camp conditions, food shortages, sickness and death, and the difficult beginnings of today's great Cherokee Nation.
Both books are not overly long, and they keep the reader's attention all the way through. They contain useful maps and copies of historical documents that help in understanding the time and place of the stories. The Purdue includes some pictures, also. Both can be bought in local bookstores or checked out from libraries (if they don't have copies, ask for inter-library loan). I plan to re-read them this summer: first Marisol's story and then the history.
The combination is an unforgettable lesson in American and Indian history, human relations and the human spirit.
Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor professor of American Indian Studies at UMD and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. E-mail her at email@example.com .