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Native Americans' Trail of Tears
[Finding Blue America 15] The Trail of Tears and the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma
Hong Euntaek (ehpk3)     Print Article 
Published 2005-09-15 13:32 (KST)   
©2005 OMN
Driving from Arkansas through Oklahoma on Interstate 40, I encountered the signboard of the "Trail of Tears," a scar cut into the heart of the continent. I suddenly became aware that I had been following the Trail unawares. A signboard saying "Cherokee Nation Information Center" then came into view, triggering a curiosity as to whether there was a nation within the nation. Another signboard that read "Cherokee Nation Capital Tahlequah" confirmed the existence of a nation, since every nation must have a capital. While I was lost in thought, I missed the exit ramps for the Cherokee Nation.

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The "Trail of Tears" was not just one road. There were the Northern Route, the Water Route, Bell's Route, Benge's Route, etc. Not just the Cherokee but also the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes made their own trails that stretched from several hundred to about 1,400 miles. As the termini of the Trail were different, so was Tahlequah just one of the final destinations.

I made up my mind to see Tahlequah. If an American Indian tribe can retain its nationhood, its capital must be something unique and culturally rich. Its downtown might be crowded with people half-naked, with feathers on their heads. Though my imagination did not go beyond the stereotype of Native Americans, I was so curious that I sought more information on the web when I stayed in Abilene, Texas.

A sign at the Cherokee Nation Information Center
©2005 Hong E.T.
As soon as I got to know that a play named "Trail of Tears: Rebuilding a Nation" was being performed at the amphitheater of the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, I found myself behind the wheel headed for it. It took seven hours of driving through a mix of storms and blue skies to arrive at the theater, which was as beautiful as it had been promoted one of the most beautiful outdoor theater venues in the United States. With seating for 1800 spectators, it was designed to be as natural as possible, featuring rocks and trees. In summer, when the heat rises, the recently installed air-conditioning system gently sprays a cool mist over the outdoor theater.

But there was nobody else, since it was raining, which is the Achilles' heel for outdoor theaters. Theater people said it was the first time the production had to be canceled due to the weather no consolation at all. I was one of the first victims of the rain. Next day, it kept raining, so I gave up trying to watch the play and, instead, wandered about the heavily-wooded 44-acre Cherokee Heritage Center.

Cherokee Nation Information Center's outdoor theater
©2005 Hong E.T.
The Cherokee is the largest American Indian tribe, with 729,000 members, according to the 2000 Census. The Cherokee tribes are scattered mainly throughout Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. Of these, 250,000 are Cherokee Nation citizens proper. The capital, Tahlequah, belied my expectations. It was full of franchisees, such as McDonald's, Wal-Mart, KFC, and big shopping malls. Not only was it not different from other American cities, but even more blatantly consumerist.

The only evidence for the existence of the Cherokee Nation was several buildings bearing government signs. Moreover, apart from no feathers on anyone's head, American Indians themselves were barely to be found. Joseph Blackburn, who worked in a pizza restaurant, was the only Indian I met that evening. He was not Cherokee, however, but Sioux. He said he moved to Tahlequah 15 years ago from Riverton, Wyoming. His parents, who had worried about the rampant crime, gambling and alcohol on the reservation, wanted to educate him in a safer environment. He said the reason Native Americans were invisible in the Cherokee capital was because they didn't live together.

Tahlequah, which is not the location of an Indian reservation, has 14,000 residents, among whom only 4,000 are American Indians, still a minority in their own capital, compared to 60 percent whites. Anthropologically, ancestors of Native Americans are believed to have come from Asia through the Bering Strait. Contemporary American Indians, accordingly, still resemble Asians.

Joseph Blackburn
©2005 Hong E.T.
During the Korea War, Native American soldiers sent to Korea came back with the surprising news that they found similar faces and even customs in a peninsula thousands miles away from home. In my childhood, however, when we saw the film Seventh Cavalry, we were angered when the Cheyenne killed General Custer and excited to see American cavalrymen retaliating against Native Americans. In our fascination with Westerns we did not know that we were ethnically closer to Native Americans.

One of the recent theories goes that Caucasians migrated to America in ancient times and mingled with Native Americans. This is suspect in that it appears to justify the modern invasion of Caucasians. Ironically, the Cherokee Nation reminded me of the theory, for I could not detect the typical image of Native Americans. Debora, who was working in the Ancient Village, did not look like an Indian, either.

"I am sorry, but I have to say that you don't look like a Native American."

"I am a German Indian. My father was an Indian. Tribal elders told me that the important thing was not the bloodline but the choice, so I should take pride in my choice to be a Cherokee."


Debora, one of the Information Center's guides
©2005 Hong E.T.
Actually, the bloodline was a more serious matter than Debora had indicated. To be recognized as an American Indian, a person should qualify in the following categories that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs stipulates.

First, he or she must belong to one of the 562 tribes the Federal Government recognizes. Second, he or she must have more than half tribal blood, in special cases, at least one-fourth. For example, Desa is, who was cutting an arrowhead with a stone at the Ancient Village, said his blood was mixed with Irish, German, and Cherokee. For no special reason, he is not entitled to be classed as American Indian.

The Cherokees were not the natives we saw in movies riding on horseback, hunting bison with spears, and living in Teepees. Not nomadic, they built earthen houses, farmed, and lived in settlements. They belonged to the "Civilized Five Tribes," which accepted western culture, and, especially, devised a written language called Sequoyah. They printed the Cherokee Phoenix, the tribal newspaper, in both Sequoyah and English, beginning in 1828.

The language was named after Sequoyah, who himself was also illiterate, but, with his six-year-old daughter Ahyokah's help, invented a new, written, language and escaped from illiteracy by himself. He borrowed letters from the English alphabet to record the spoken Cherokee language, but used only shapes of letters. For example, S in Sequoyah is pronounced as "de;" R as "sn." It was partly related to his inability to read English. He was despised by his neighbors for being stupidly ambitious and criticized for inventing letters that would make them bad like the palefaces, who used letters. His wife opposed the idea most of all, often trashing the letters when he was out.

Lecturing on techniques for making arrowheads
©2005 Hong E.T.
Due to Sequoyah's strong will to endure hostility and defiance inside his tribe, the Cherokees possessed a written language and spread literacy throughout the whole tribe, outdoing whites living nearby in this regard. This blurred the distinction as to who were savage and who civilized. The Cherokee were quite different from my expectations in some other respects. They accepted Christianity early on, translating the Bible and hymns into Sequoyah. The fact that they owned slaves should be interpreted in terms of the customs in the South at the time, but in the eyes of blacks the Cherokees joined the racists.

Even so, the pain inflicted by the whites on Native Americans must not be underestimated. The Native American Museum, which opened in Washington, D.C., in September 2004, provides a brief example:

"Contagions claimed as many as nine lives out of 10 between 1492 and 1650."

It talks about the diseases Europeans brought to the continent: small pox, measles, influenza, mumps, and other diseases. It was a massive, sometimes deliberate, sometimes unintentional form of biological warfare, culminating before the Mayflower Pilgrims blundered into Cape Cod. The museum said, "By the time the ship landed, the plagues had emptied entire Indian villages. Cold and hungry, Pilgrims dug up graves and ransacked abandoned houses in search of buried corn." What a horror movie it would make.

The Catholic church built on Cherokee land
©2005 Hong E.T.
In the year 1828, a little Indian boy living on Ward creek in Georgia sold a gold nugget to a white trader, thereby sealing the fate of the Cherokees, according to Thomas B. Underwood, author of Cherokee Legends and the Trail of Tears. The white men who saw the promise of gold mines hurried to expel the Cherokee, owners of the land. Georgia's state legislature passed the law confiscating their lands, and President Andrew Jackson, who used to be a settler himself, set a policy to relocate Indians from the Southeast. The U.S. Congress obliged by passing the Indian Removal Act in 1830.

Cherokees as a civilized tribe sought legal protection, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was the arrest of a missionary, Samuel Worcester, who helped them. In 1832 the Supreme Court ruled that the Georgia law was unconstitutional and that the Cherokees were entitled to federal protection from the actions of state government. It was John Marshall, Chief Justice, who wrote this majority opinion, proving his reputation in establishing the rule of law in the newly-founded nation during his term of 35 years.

President Jackson's response should be noted. He reportedly said, "John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can." Jackson totally ignored the decision, and the minister Worcester was not released until one year after the ruling. In May, 1838, General Winfield Scott commanded 7,000 soldiers to herd the 16,000 Cherokees living in New Echota into the stockades, one of the blackest pages of American history.

The Cherokees were forced to move to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, 1,000 miles away from their home, on foot or in wagons. On the way, they met winter storms, which took 4,000 Indians lives because of exposure. It was a massacre without a gunshot being fired. John G. Burnett, a private soldier at the time, who "witnessed the execution of the most brutal order in the History of American Warfare," wrote his account on his 80th birthday:

The main gate of the Cherokee Nation Information Center
©2005 Hong E.T.
"In the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west. One can never forget the sadness and solemnity of that morning. Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many of the children rose to their feet and waved their little hands good-by to their mountain homes, knowing they were leaving them forever."

Burnett wrote that it was a "trail of death," not a "trail of tears," for until when they arrived in Tahlequah in March 26, 1839, they left behind a long line of graves. The Christian wife of Chief John Ross was one of victims, Burnett recalled, "This noble-hearted woman died a martyr to childhood, giving her only blanket for the protection of a sick child." The Cherokee Heritage Center displayed some testimonies written by the Cherokees.

"Three weeks later, everyday, five siblings died, one-by-one. We buried them and moved on."

I was touched by this passage in particular:

"Old men and children, one after another, died. Everyday was a mix of tears and sorrows. I swore I wouldn't smile. But when we arrived on a new land under the sky, I got myself back and burst into laughter with joy."

The blessing the new land offered healed their sufferings, and they were sensible enough to accept it. They built a new nation on such a barren soil, where bitter cold alternated with stifling heat and tornadoes. In August, 1839, Chief Ross was elected the Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation, which two years later started a free coeducational school. Their literacy rate was again higher than their Caucasian neighbors in Arkansas and Texas, 90 percent being able to read and write. Three columns standing in front of the Heritage Center gate were a legacy of the Cherokee Female Seminary, the first women's institution of high learning west of the Mississippi, and became Northeastern State University.

Cherokee schoolhouse
©2005 Hong E.T.
Chief Ross would not be classed as an Indian today if the current criteria of the Bureau of Indian Affairs were applied. Only one-eighth Cherokee, he nevertheless commanded the ardent support of the pureblooded Cherokee. He was compared to the pureblooded leaders who signed the Treaty of New Echota handing the Cherokee land over to the federal government. Chief Ross who was a Moses to the Cherokee uniting the tribe who were about to be divided in troubled times and initiating the "Golden Age of the Cherokee Nation" in a place of exile.

Spatially, the Trail of Tears ended in Tahlequah, but, historically, has not ended yet. The Cherokee who overcame confiscation, expulsion and massacre were about to be surrounded by whites again. They did not own land, which was regarded as just belonging to the community. The U.S. government asked them to assign land to individuals, because, if they had done so, land could become tradable as a commodity.

When U.S. Senator Henry Dawes came to the Cherokee Nation in the 1880s to look into the land question, he witnessed the absence of poverty with everyone living in his or her own house, and the tribe being debt-free. Nevertheless, he proselytized that the selfishness was the foundation of civilization and stimulus for improvement. When he returned to Washington, D.C. in 1887, he initiated legislation (later called the Dawes Act,) authorizing the President to survey Indian tribal land and divide the arable area into allotments for individual Indians.

Americans are habitually passing laws and filing suits, which sustains the livelihood of almost one million lawyers. Since all the different kinds of customs, conventions and traditions that had flowed in from the rest of the world threatened to cause a traffic jam, there needed to be a traffic light evident to all. But the light always appeared red to some people.

The Curtis Act in 1898 prohibited tribal jurisdiction over all of Indian Territory. As Oklahoma became the 46th state, the Indian Territory was abolished, and the Cherokee Nation virtually dissolved. Since then their lives couldn't have been harder. During the Great Depression, they left Tahlequah for jobs elsewhere, on another trail of tears. There were not many people left to speak Sequoyah, the pride of the Cherokee, which has become almost extinct.

"We have been invisible people in American spirit of law," Debora, of the Heritage Center, continued to speak.

"I know we have to live with them. Coexistence is inevitable, but we don't forget what they did to us and will keep asking why they did it."

The Cherokees persisted again in fighting against "bureaucratic imperialism." When President Richard Nixon signed legislation into law recognizing the Cherokees' right to elect a leader, they laid a foundation stone to reconstruct their nation. Then their government had only three employees on the payroll with an annual budget of $10,000.

"Trail of Tears" statues on display at the Cherokee Nation Information Center
©2005 Hong E.T.
Now it employs more than 4,000 people with an annual budget of $270 million. Cherokee Nation is a strange country, like an exiled regime, that has citizens but no land. The Cherokee pay taxes both to the federal and Cherokee governments, though the Nation's main source of income is the federal government and casinos. The head of the government is still called the "Principal Chief," who is now Dr. Chadwick Corntassel Smith, expert on Indian laws.

As a nation, Cherokee Nation holds a State of Union Address once a year. On September 3, 2004, Corntassel announced that the goal of Cherokee Nation was to go back to 100 years ago.

"We have as our benchmark, the Cherokee Nation before Oklahoma statehood. 100 years from now, we want to have what we had 100 years ago."

He mentioned that 100 years ago the Nation enjoyed an enriching cultural identity, economic self-reliance and a strong sovereign government, and then summed up the state as quality of life:

"Quality of life is fishing on the creek bank. Quality of life is not expensive fishing trips to Alaska."

"Quality of life is watching our children and grandchildren at T-ball games. Quality of life is not being able to sit in the owner's box at a professional baseball game."


Among examples of quality of life that he mentioned I was attracted by this:

"Quality of life is appreciating the moments that we have on this earth, and enjoying them and sharing with others. Quality of life is not getting caught in the insecure trap of complaining, and moaning about others."

The last quality of life was "Quality of life is being and doing, not having," which was quite opposite to the American way of living, which encourages more consumption for the sake of consumption and more having for the sake of having. He suggested three key means to enjoy quality of life for Cherokees: language, jobs and community. Losing language is losing culture.

The Trail of Tears was "Nunahi-duna-dlo-hilu-i" in Cherokee meaning "Trail Where They Cried." I felt from the Cherokee words that they were still bleeding and shedding tears, whereas the term "Trail of Tears" implies that the tears had already dried up. Debora agreed with me, saying "When it was anglicized, we lost meaning." Cherokee is the anglicized word; it comes from "Tas-La-Ge" meaning "Village."

Principal Chief Corntassel closed his speech as "Your humble servant." I realized what I was looking for was this. Although the appearance of Tahlequah was disappointingly the same as any other commercially franchised American city, the community spirit was alive in their minds. The Cherokees' struggle for survival is meaningful not just for them but also for Americans because they contribute alternative values of life as well as cultural diversity. If a culturally rich tribe were to thrive in the United States, it could be a boon to a world homogenized by monotonous Americanization.

The Cherokee and other Native Americans, however, still face opponents arguing that there could not be a "sovereign within a sovereign." Tom Coburn was elected U.S. Senator for Oklahoma in 2004 despite his controversial remark that the Cherokee "aren't really Indians" and Indian treaties "are primitive agreements." Cherokee Nation was heavily involved in campaigning against him, but to no avail. Coburn's victory shows anti-Native American sovereignty remains strong, even in former Indian Territory. The "Trail of Tears" should be rephrased as "The Trail where they are crying." It is not a scar but a gash still bleeding.
©2005 OhmyNews
솉깮 湲곗옄뒗 <룞븘씪蹂>뿉꽌 궗쉶遺-젙移섎-援젣遺 湲곗옄濡 씪뻽쑝硫 끂議곗쐞썝옣(2001뀈)쓣 吏깉뒿땲떎. 誘멸뎅 誘몄<由щ븰 꼸由ъ쬁 뒪荑⑥뿉꽌 꽍궗怨쇱젙쓣 留덉낀쑝硫, 誘멸뎅쓽 씪뵒삤 봽濡쒓렇옩 <湲濡쒕쾶 꼸由ъ뒪듃>쓽 봽濡쒕꽌濡 씪븯湲곕룄 뻽뒿땲떎. 쁽옱 <삤留덉씠돱뒪> 씤꽣궡뀛꼸 렪吏묎뎅옣쑝濡 옱吏곸쨷엯땲떎.
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