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The Act of Remembering: A Deep Map of Cherokee Forced Removal

Deborah Kirk is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a PhD Candidate in Geography at Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, West Virginia University. Deborah’s research interests lie at the intersection of Indigenous historical geographies, Indigenous methodologies, deep mapping, geospatial and geovirtual technologies, experiential/immersive geographies, and geovisualization.

In this presentation, Deborah will begin with the importance of the act of remembering, explain the concepts of deep mapping, demonstrate a deep map of the Cherokee forced removal that focuses on the Hildebrand detachment through Tennessee, and invite participation in furthering this “never ending conversation.”

The schedule said I was going to give a demonstration, but that is not going to happen. If you were expecting a demonstration and are disappointed, now’s your chance to go to another session. But first, before I begin, I want to say thank you to the Trail of Tears Association and the members that I have met and grown to love over the years. You’ve taught me so much about the history of my own people that I didn’t even know, so I want to say thank you. I invite you on a journey with me in a project that I’m working on for my dissertation that will hopefully become our project.

I began, for those of you that don’t know, as a Cherokee growing up outside of the nation in Northern California. I remember brief times of elementary school history instructions on the subject of American Indians, lumped together as a single entity wearing buckskins, feathered headdresses, and living in teepees. For some reason, they were removed to the West via the Trail of Tears. After this short instruction, the film “Ishi” with the last remaining Indian in California was shown. This time of instruction was very confusing to me, and I came away with a completely inaccurate understanding of what the Trail of Tears was. I thought that all Cherokee ended up in California because that’s where I was.

As I grew older, I realized there was more to the story. However, gaining a better understanding also brought up additional questions: What really is the story of the Trail of Tears? Why did this happen? Did we do something wrong? Where did this take place? Where is my family originally from? Who made the journey, and what did they experience? Thus began my journey of listening, looking, and learning. Of course, I began with an internet search.

Via the internet, I learned that published literature concerning the history of the Cherokees begins around the year 1714 and continues through today. This collection of lived-in literature is massive. A Google book search using the phrase “Cherokee Indians” returns millions of references. When narrowed to “Cherokee Trail of Tears,” the millions of returns are turned down to tens of thousands. These books, written primarily from a non-Cherokee perspective, tend to focus on aspects of Cherokee culture and history both pre- and post-removal: Cherokee treaties and land sessions, Andrew Jackson’s role in Indian removals, the discord that existed within the Cherokee Nation about removal, and Cherokee resistance.

I quickly realized that most of the material was regurgitated, and although I did gain a better understanding in some areas, my questions remained. It is only through physically settling and listening through my involvement with the Trail of Tears organization and through my own academic research that I have obtained answers to some of my questions. I am now of the opinion that educational instruction on this subject needs to provide a deeper understanding of all the elements that played a role in the forced expulsion of Indian tribes from the Southeast, including the Doctrine of Discovery, Cherokee village structure, the American Revolution, non-Cherokee settler encroachment, land speculation, and scientific racism.

It is only when we include these elements with the elements of Cherokee pre- and post-removal history, Cherokee treaties and land sessions, the discord among the Cherokees, Andrew Jackson’s role, and Cherokee resistance that we see a complete, cohesive picture of why the Cherokee were forced out of their homeland. Before I continue, I first want to draw attention to the term “Trail of Tears.” This term is part of a broader statement attributed to a Choctaw chief during the Choctaws’ forced removal. Oral tradition has it that in 1831, while moving through Little Rock, a newspaper reporter interviewed a Choctaw chief and asked him about the removal. During the chief’s response, he described the process as being a “trail of tears and death.” Apparently, this phrase caught on and over time was shortened to “Trail of Tears” to describe the removal experiences of Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole peoples from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory. The Cherokee themselves did not use this term to describe their forced steps, though later generations did begin using the phrase “the trail where they cried.” Notice they, not us. The Cherokee who actually experienced the forced removal referred to this time of expulsion more pointedly as “when they kicked us out,” “when they kicked us out of our homes,” “when they kicked us off our land,” and “when they kicked us out of our country.” Out of respect to the old ones, I too will use terms such as forced removal, expulsion, and forced immigration in place of “Trail of Tears” as often as possible.

In 1838, my family members, both young and old, walked over 1,200 miles from our homeland to our new country in present-day Oklahoma. Throughout my adult life, I have wondered about the circumstances of this forced removal journey. Although much historical research exists surrounding the events that led up to our removal, little is actually known about the experience. One memory that remains strong to this day and that my grandma repeated to me was that the experience was cold and dark. But for the most part, our elders did not talk about this time in our nation’s history, nor did they bring the experiences of the journey forward in the memories of following generations. The reasons for this void are only partially known. Perhaps the experiences of our family members were too traumatic for memory to hold, or perhaps our Cherokee teaching of moving forward kept them from dwelling on the past. Whatever the reasons, it is safe to say that little of what was held in living memory concerning the experiences of Cherokee families during their forced removals from North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to Indian Territory was related to future generations.

This poses a problem. If the dominant recollection of the removal resides in the histories and remembrances of those who caused it, then how am I and my fellow Cherokee citizens and others to know the indigenous history of what our ancestors endured, encountered, and experienced during this forced exodus? How do we appreciate the history of those who experienced such an unwilling removal from long-held ancestral homelands and gain a better understanding of the courage shown, the sacrifices made, and the inner strength required for such an arduous journey? How are we to actively remember, observe, and recount these experiences for future generations?

For indigenous peoples, the act of remembering, both good and bad, is vital for societal and cultural continuity. Without it, current and future generations of indigenous peoples are susceptible to assimilation and cultural genocide. This is particularly true of indigenous societies who forcibly left the homelands, the places that gave birth to their identity as a people. Remembering under these circumstances can be painful. However, as poignantly stated by indigenous philosopher Vine Deloria, “A society that cannot remember and honor its past is in peril of losing its soul.” Remembering the removal experience, walking in the footsteps of ancestors, and returning to the place of cultural birth are all positive steps in the retention of indigeneity. Attaining this may be easier said than done. The forced removal experiences of indigenous people are fraught with multiplicities of perspective. These perspectives, from pro-removal and anti-removal factions that existed both within and outside of the community, are in a continual state of recovery as they are being known, fashioned, and refashioned through histories, archived material, family journals, and oral tradition.

In many instances, these multiplicities of contradictions and perspectives and the ongoing discovery of these perspectives fit within a broader contextualized conversation on the history of forced removals, but often do very little in providing a better understanding of the actual removal experience. To better understand the advanced experience of forced removal again, I’m going to point this out: we require a return to the landscape of removal and the need to walk in the footsteps of those who were removed. This again presents challenges for Cherokee peoples. Since the time of our expulsion, segments of historical removal routes have often been partially or sometimes totally erased from the landscape, witnessed by buildings standing in disrepair or made known only through photographs and local memories surrounding the removal events. This is a cause of great concern for those whose ancestors actually experienced the forced removal. Forced removals are forgotten

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