By Caitlyn Daniels
I didn’t pack socks. It never gets this cold in the summer. I don’t care if we’re in the mountains. Two hundred miles ago it was hot. I was sweating. Waking up in a tent in a joke of a sleeping bag and being able to see my breath removed all memory of warmth from my mind. Even in this ungodly cold all I could think about was how I had no grounds to complain. Sure, I had a cold, and, sure, I had nothing heavier than a running sweatshirt, but I wasn’t walking the whole way to Oklahoma. This was a few weeks in the summer; we were driving most of the way; we had food. They didn’t.
One year ago I began to travel the Northern Pass of the Trail of Tears, going as far north as Illinois and camping in several spots along the way.
While preparing for the trip I made sure to tell everyone where I would be, and not to panic if they couldn’t reach me. Because, while there is impressive cell signal in the less-populated regions of the U.S., the mountains are a veritable dead zone. However, when they asked why I was spending the first weeks of summer slowly trekking out to the Midwest my response confused them. They had no idea what I was talking about. So I did some research. Of the southern states in which these five tribes originally lived, (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas) six out of eight do not teach either the Indian Removal Act or the Trail of Tears past the eighth grade (no information could be gathered on Louisiana). I, for one, couldn’t even tell you who taught me history in eighth grade, let alone what I learned. And while the special education curriculum in Alabama, for example, requires a rather extensive teaching of Native American culture (comparatively), the nationwide Advanced Placement course in U.S. History does not require the subject to be taught at all.
or those of you who may need a refresher on what I’m talking about, here’s a quick overview: As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the end of the losing battle Native Americans had been fighting against the government, what remained of the Five Civilized Tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — were forced to travel what would come to be known as the Trail of Tears. This thousand mile journey began in the winter of 1838 in Red Clay, Tennessee and ended in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, now the home of the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee could bring only what they could carry. This, plus the freezing cold, lack of food and quick spread of disease resulted in the deaths of around 4,000 Cherokee.
This has become a rather turbulent subject recently. Drew Adams, a former AP U.S. History teacher in Cobb County, Georgia has been witness to the whole thing: “I have seen some private school curriculum that suggests that God used the Trail of Tears to convert the Indians to Christianity. While I’m sure many did take solace in their faith that kind of suggests that it was all intended by God, perhaps as some sort of punishment.” Though private schools are welcome to teach what they like this perspective can be dangerous. In Adams’ opinion, there is a trend emerging among conservative politicians and parents alike. They fear we are “rewriting” history by bringing more negative aspects to the forefront. Instead, they want to focus on how we have progressed, the more patriotic aspects of U.S. history.
“My take is that we focus on it all, good and bad. How can we learn from our mistakes as a nation if we don't know them?” says Adams. “I know some states, including Georgia, have threatened to stop the teaching of APUSH because of the reasons listed above.” Washington and Montana are the only states in the country that require Native American history to be taught in schools.
Though they are broken into three groups — the United Keetoowah Band, the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band — and though these groups don’t all get along, the Cherokee are nothing if not resilient. They are currently working their hardest to regrow their culture through programs like the Cherokee Language Program and the resulting Immersion Schools. I visited an Eastern Band immersion school in Cherokee, N.C. where we got a full run-down of the program. These children, aside from having a gorgeous school with a river running through the middle of it, have envious dedication. The moment they step foot in the front doors they switch from English to Cherokee, learning each lesson a regular American school kid learns only in a different language with an entirely different alphabet, or, in this case, syllabary. Across the country, out in Tahlequah, all tribe-placed signs are in both English and syllabary.
Their casinos, perhaps what they are most widely-known for, are what makes this all possible. The casinos have become one of their saving graces, allowing them to provide futures for Cherokee students who graduate high school. Each graduating student belonging to the Eastern Band receives a sort of scholarship, a very open-ended one.
They aren’t required to spend their money on anything. They can save it; they can go to college; they can leave the reservation; they can stay. It’s all up to them. However, the tourist industry has picked up on many reservations in the past few years, bringing in a decent amount of revenue. The Cherokee Nation has spent years cultivating a visitors’ center, museum, art show, countless historical sites and performances to encourage the growth of their culture not only within the tribe, but outside of it.
I spent a long time wondering how such a strong people could be missing from the South’s collective memory, but the Trail did an impressive job of wiping away all traces of the Cherokee. (Hell, I had taped ThermaCare to my feet just to survive the first few nights sans socks.) Their legacy, though subtle, lives on in the stories we hear at camp, the way we plant our gardens and the presence they are building through the reclaiming and sharing of their culture.