Tribe members cycled 950 miles to remember their ancestors’ ordeal

Among the many chapters in Native American History, the Trail of Tears is one of the darkest. After passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, 16,000 Cherokees were forcibly evicted by the U.S. Army from their ancestral homes. During the winter of 1838, they were forced to travel, mostly by foot, all the way from Georgia to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Approximately 4,000 succumbed to disease and exposure. Their makeshift graves lined the trails and roads they traveled. Decades later, the Trail of Tears is being traveled again, this time by the descendants of those who walked it.

Members of the riding team that traveled the Trail of Tears from New Echota, Ga., to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. (Donald L. Barnhart Jr.)

Since 1984, the annual “Remember the Removal” bike ride included bicyclists from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.  This year, the 35th anniversary ride included members of the Cherokee Eastern Band from North Carolina.  The twenty-one member Cherokee Bike Riders were selected after being tested for their physical endurance and knowledge of Cherokee language and customs. Their training began last December and lasted for about six months.

Starting on June 2, 2019, the riders rode 950 miles from New Echota, Ga., to Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Along the way, they visited historical sites important to the Cherokee people. One of their scheduled visits was the Pea Ridge National Military Park, a place where lives were cut short by a Civil War battle and the Trail of Tears. The Arkansas portion of the trail included the historic Telegraph Road that extended through the park, passing in front of the park’s iconic Elkhorn Tavern.

The riders continued their ride to Tahlequah, where an enthusiastic public reception greeted them on June 20. To mark the 180th anniversary of the Trail of Tears, the governors of Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma declared a “Trail of Tears Remembrance Week.” The principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Bill John Baker, stated that the riders “gained a deeper understanding of what their ancestors endured, and faced their own personal adversities—only to defeat them, because that’s what Cherokees do.”