I now live in North Carolina, once Cherokee land, and I recently learned more of their story. I attended the Crane Festival at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge last weekend, and visited the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park a few miles down the road at Blythe Ferry TN. In 1838 it had been one of the emigrating depots where 9000 of the Cherokees began their forced winter march west to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, the march that came to be called Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hilu-I, Trail Where They Cried.
Four months earlier that year, more than 16,000 Cherokee had been forcibly removed from their homes in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina and marched to eleven temporary forts awaiting the start of that massive deportation. Their Trail of Tears stretched across nine states, each route averaging more than 1000 miles on foot. The Removal had the result of exterminating almost everyone in the Cherokee Nation under one year or over sixty years of age. At least a quarter of those forced on the Trail of Tears perished.
What Congress called The Indian Removal Act was a calculated act of governmental bullying, theft, and extermination. Thomas Jefferson was the first though not the last president to publicly support forcing native peoples west. The US Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee nation had sovereign rights, but President Andrew Jackson openly dismissed Chief Justice Marshall’s ruling. Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren sent in troops to round up Cherokee families and transfer them to holding pen forts, and then to the emigrating depots. By 1837, 46,000 Native Americans of different nations had been forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in the Southeast. Farms that had belonged to Cherokee families for generations were distributed to white settlers through land lotteries.
The story of the Removal is surely one of injustice and suffering. It is also a story of survival. In 1839, Cherokee tribal delegates signed a Constitution, and Tahlequah OK became the Cherokee capital. A Cherokee Supreme Court building opened its doors and a bilingual newspaper, The Cherokee Advocate, began publication. They have rebuilt both their nation and the pride of a people who persevered through overwhelming adversity. Their resilience is an example we can be inspired by today, as old ways disintegrate and we all must recreate ourselves or die.
Marveling at the huge flocks of cranes that stop here at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge for rest and food, I imagine the migrating flocks being watched by generations of Cherokee. I return to the refuge at sunset, and next day at dawn to hear their music, to garner their hope. I listen to the trilling voices and bugle-like calls of these great birds. Human are changing, they seem to be saying. They are learning from mistakes, learning to leave their cruel ways behind— learning to spread their spirits wide like wings!