Cherokee cyclists to ride through Cassville in June

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Annual ride commemorates memory of the Trail of Tears

Nineteen Cherokee youths will be riding through Cassville June 22-23 as part of the Remember the Removal bike tour.

Each summer, a specially-chosen group of Cherokee cyclists ages 16-24 travel 950 miles over a three-week period to commemorate the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from its homelands during the winter of 1838-39, commonly known as the Trail of Tears.

The experience allows the Cherokee youths to retrace the northern route of the trail their ancestors traveled. Riders participate in activities to help them understand what their ancestors endured, including stops at several Cherokee gravesites and historic landmarks along the trail.

The ride began June 7 in New Echota, Ga., and spans Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, culminating on June 25 in Tahlequah, Okla., the capitol of the Cherokee Nation, with a homecoming event. This year, a dozen Cherokee youths were chosen.

The cyclists undergo an interview process to examine physical health, mental ability, history knowledge, personal goals and accomplishments. Mandatory trainings begin on weekends in early winter to prepare for the journey, and riders must participate in extensive history lessons on the Trail of Tears. Prior to the ride, riders complete genealogy to provide links to their ancestral past. The Cherokee Nation covers all costs of lodging, meals and bike supplies for the riders.

"The riders are actually following the designated Trail of Tears route as close as possible along the northern route and where all the highway markers are and will average about 60-70 miles per day," said Julie Hubbard, media contact for the Cherokee nation. "Another group of cyclists will join them from the eastern band of Cherokee Indians from North Carolina for a total of 19 and a ride coordinator will be riding with them. Every rider is a tribal citizen.

"What many don't know is there were six different routes along the trail. The people weren't moved at one time, some took what was called the water route. The northern route was the one where they had the harshest winter. They left in the summertime, and it is the route where most of the casualities occurred."

The removal of the Cherokee Nation from its homelands took place over the winter months of 1838-1839. Of the estimated 16,000 Cherokees who were forced, at gunpoint, to leave their homes, families and communities, 4,000 died along the route from harsh conditions including exposure, starvation and disease. The Cherokee people spent decades recovering from the forced removal.

The event has one of the largest media impacts of any program in the Cherokee Nation and highlights the reasons why it is in Oklahoma today.

Rider Billy Flint, 25, has been biking for nine days. From Tahlequah, Okla., he is a 2014 graduate of St. Louis University and a graduate student at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.

Flint, who recently finished a 64-mile ride through Kentucky said every day is different

"There's been times when you really want to stop and the heat index is 100 plus every day," he said. "I know the person behind and in front of me never stops, and my ancestors walking the same path not biking didn't stop. They didn't have a choice. If they walked all day I can bike five hours."

Flint said he had traced several ancestors back to the original journey.

"One was named Suzanna," he said. "There was no last name. She would have been 60-70 at the time."

Flint said she died later in Adair County, Okla. And there was his third great-grandmother, who was only 3 at the time of the journey.

"I can't imagine what it would have been like to be that young and to have your first memories be that," Flint said. "I'm sure that stayed with her for the rest of her life. I think about how we came from some extremely amazing people who went through some incredibly difficult experiences."

Flint said his training for the ride to honor his ancestors started months before.

"We'd go to our tribal gym and then had mandatory training on weekends," he said. "We had a lot of people help us. We took a cultural education course. One thing [our instructor] told us is we all have a part of this trauma in our past, and that if this didn't happen, none of us would be in Oklahoma today."

Flint credits his grandfather for keeping the story of the Trail of Tears alive and teaching him about his ancestry.

"If there's one person I can thank for my ancestry and heritage it would be him," Flint said. "I'm hoping to gain a deeper appreciation of what those before us went through.

"People always talk about us in past tense, saying the Cherokees were this or have been that. What I want people to know about Cherokees now is that we're very much a people of the present and of the future, and I want people to know we're very much thriving."

The Cherokee people now thrive in northeastern Oklahoma, where the nation rebuilt itself. Other southeastern tribes suffered a similar fate, such as the Muscogee, the Seminole, the Chahta and the Chickasaw peoples.

Ride organizers of Remember the Removal hope to promote awareness of these events as Cherokee citizens revisit areas where the journey took place. Other goals include educating Cherokee students about their tribe's history, the difficulties associated with the Trail of Tears, and the achievements of the modern Cherokee Nation.

The 19 cyclists are planning to arrive in Cassville the evening of June 22 and leave for Springdale, Ark., the next morning.

For more information on the Remember the Removal Bike Ride, visit www.remembertheremoval.cherokee.org, or their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/removal.ride.

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