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River Routes

Solo explorer, naturalist, folklorist, natural sound recorder, and award-winning media host who still seeks that next great adventure.

Dale started dreaming of exploring the world and the culture of people very early in life. His motivation for these journeys is pretty simple – an insatiable curiosity about culture, coupled with an almost obsessive desire to seek out their stories.

In the summer of 2012, he undertook the challenge of paddling and re- tracing the Water Route of The Trail of Tears. Dale chose this in remembrance of and to draw attention to the many thousands of men, women, and children of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole forced from their homelands and moved west of the Mississippi River to the Oklahoma Territory. He used this journey to educate not only about the little known ‘Water Route,’ but also, he wanted the truth of the story to never be forgotten. Dale started his paddle journey at Ross’s Landing in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He paddled the Tennessee river north to the Ohio river. He then paddled the Ohio west to the Mississippi River. His journey then turned south on the Mighty Mississippi, before taking the Arkansas river northwest to Oklahoma. He ended this epic paddle on the bank of the Grand river at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. This historic journey covered some 1400 river miles and was accomplished by Dale in 63 days.

Stories preserve culture and pass on cultural knowledge from one generation to another. In essence stories keep cultures and their history alive. Stories provide a timeless link to traditions, legends, myths, and archetypes. But they also connect us to the universal truths about ourselves and our world.

Dale’s various radio, television and film appearances explore a wide range of stories, and performances that function to entertain as well as educate. As the way of life of any given group, culture is a powerful force that shapes and defines people’s ways of seeing the world. Anywhere where a group of people interact and share the same language (including jargon and slang), values, norms, symbols, interests, etc., we can identify their group as one culture, or society.

Have y’all enjoyed the conference? I think this is the third or fourth of these I’ve done. I missed the last two years, like we all did, and I’m glad to see the Trail of Tears conference back. I was especially glad it was back in Cherokee since I live in Asheville, so I didn’t have as far to come. Although I’m filming down in Belize, so I flew in from Belize Sunday night and have to fly out to Belize tonight, but that’s a whole other story. We’re doing a series on indigenous tribes from around the world with National Geographic, and I’m honored to do that.

I’ve always been fortunate to have lived with indigenous tribes on six continents and spent a lot of time with them. That’s sort of what I was known for, and then I got known for paddling these wild rivers. I was fortunate enough to paddle the Amazon, the Nile, the Yangtze, and I was looking for something to do in the United States because I had never done an expedition in the United States. I started looking around and talking to some of my friends here in the Eastern Cherokee, and we ran across the water trail. As I began to dig and do research on it and talk to people about it, I found out that not a lot was known about it. In fact, to this day, and it’s been 10 years—I did this in 2012—there are still people who don’t know about the water trail, don’t know that that was one of the trails.

It’s amazing to me when I talk to people, and I’ve talked to people around the world about the Trail of Tears and the water trail. By the way, the most knowledgeable group I’ve ever talked to about the Trail of Tears were from Japan. They knew more about the American Indian movement and the Trail of Tears than anybody I’ve ever talked to. It was pretty amazing and a little sad that they seemed to know more than a lot of Americans did. Anyway, I came across the water trail, and I decided as an explorer and as someone who likes to discover things and then talk about them that this was something we could share with the world and talk about the water trail and, at the same time, bring attention to the Trail of Tears so that we never forget.

Backing up a little bit, the population growth from the colonists was really what started all this. They were beginning to push more and more west, looking at where they were going to go. A lot of people think that this all started with Andrew Jackson, but in fact, there were proclamations about the American Indian going back to King George II, even before we became an independent nation. He wanted to stabilize the relationship between the American Indian and the colonists, especially after the French and Indian War. So, he had proclamations about what we should do with the American Indian even back then.

George Washington talked about the “Indian problem,” and his idea was to assimilate the American Indian into the colonies and into the white man’s world, if you will. That was his way of saying, “Well, if we can get them to be more like us, everything will be good, everything will be alright.” So, George Washington had a proclamation. Thomas Jefferson came along, and he did the same thing. Jefferson is really the one who started the removal policy and began talking about moving the American Indians from the East Coast west across the Mississippi. Now, you have to understand, when Jefferson first started talking about moving the Indians west, we didn’t own Oklahoma at that time. The Louisiana Purchase happened in 1803, so about the time he purchased it, but up until then, we didn’t own Oklahoma or Arkansas or anything west.

Then came Andrew Jackson. He became president in 1829, and the American Indian population east of the Mississippi River at that time was really dwindling. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was signed by Andrew Jackson in May of 1830. When I was researching the Trail of Tears and any expedition I’ve done, I always do a great deal of research before I actually set out. One of the sad things was that there was not a lot that I could find about the water removal. There were little pieces here and there, but a lot of people didn’t know much about it. They knew that some of the Cherokee were removed by water, and some of the other tribes were removed by water, but nobody seemed to know a lot about it.

So, I headed up to the Library of Congress and started digging and looking, and one of the things I came across was a copy of the original Indian Removal Act. Reading that and looking at how it impacted the people was pretty special to me.

As you know, not only were the Cherokee removed, but the Five Civilized Tribes were all removed on the Trail of Tears. They were removed at different times. The Choctaw were the first tribe to be removed in 1831. The Seminole were next in 1832, the Creek in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and the last group removed were the Cherokee. That gives you an idea of when the removals took place, even though most people seem to know the Cherokee as the main ones removed by the Trail of Tears. They were actually the last group to be removed.

There were things that those tribes did early on to try to assimilate. They adopted a farming lifestyle, especially the Cherokee. They began to receive formal education, established their own newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, and adopted the white man’s idea of black slavery and established plantations. They were doing all of these things to try to assimilate, to try to get along, and it still didn’t work.

When I first started looking at the water trail, I tried to determine where I should start and where I would end. I decided to depart from Ross’s Landing, which is now Chattanooga. You can see me there on the right with the hybrid boat that I had built. The boat is made out of Kevlar and carbon fiber, 18 feet long, and weighs 22 pounds. It was an amazing boat. The trip was a little over 1350 miles. People always ask me how I thought about paddling that far. I don’t; I think about paddling that day. I can paddle 20 to 25 miles a day, depending on the river. I made better time on some parts of the Mississippi River because of the current, but that was about my average.

The Choctaw were the first removed and they were put on steamboats around Vicksburg, Mississippi, went up the Mississippi River to the Arkansas, and then across to Oklahoma. The original group was removed by water. The federal government originally wanted to remove all the Indians by water, thinking it would be the fastest and easiest way. However, the rivers today are different than they were in the 1830s. We have dams today, and the water is larger; we don’t have the rapids that they had to face.

The Seminole were the only tribe that was removed 100% by water. They fought a war, the Second Seminole War, to keep from being removed. The majority of them went deep into the Everglades, where the American military could not get them out. About 800 Seminoles were removed by water, taken to Tampa, Florida, put on sailing ships to New Orleans, then put on steamboats and barges to the Arkansas River, and then across to Oklahoma.

The Creek were removed in 1834, with most of the Creek starting at Tuscumbia Landing in Alabama. They traveled by steamboats and keelboats. The Chickasaw were removed in 1837, with about 4,000 enrolled for removal. They were transported by boat from Memphis, Tennessee, to Fort Coffee, Oklahoma, using six steamboats pulling flatboats and keelboats. The conditions on these boats were very difficult, and the rivers were challenging. In some cases, the water was so low that the steamboats had to stop, and the Indians had to walk around the areas.

Four detachments of Cherokee traveled to Indian Territory by rivers, accompanied by military escorts. John Ross, the Cherokee leader, had a steamboat and

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