September 16th is Trail of Tears Commemoration Day. This was news to me. As an Oklahoman, living in former Indian Territory, the place where tribal-altering and life-shattering journeys brought Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Muscogee-Creek peoples, one would think there would be a general awareness of this holiday.
Welcome to modernity, a world where an event like the Trail of Tears can be stripped and cleansed of historical significance and context to be appropriated for a social media #campaign. Why engage in being educated about a moment in US history that signaled a legal commitment to the devaluing of Native lives, culture and property when you can just like it as an event on Facebook? I am not opposed to a day to remember those who lost their lives on those treacherous journeys, but honoring needs to be done appropriately.
There seems to be a cultural disconnect when it comes to including indigenous narratives concerning appropriate modes of honorific displays of their identities, cultures and histories. The Trail of Tears is symbolic for US citizens as a manifestation of an explicit desire to erase the indigenous body from the American political and physical landscape; or put bluntly, the Trails of Tears symbolizes the moment US law and democracy decided “Native lives don’t matter”. After Cherokee Nation found no protection from the threat of removal in the Supreme Court’s decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), every tribal community faced a reckoning of their cultures and lands through the forces of colonialism.
Respect through inclusion is a major component of honoring done right. Every year in May, Choctaw Nation holds a Trail of Tears commemorative walk and uses it to bring tribal members together to remember the past through community and a continuation of culture. In March, Cherokee Nation has their own day of remembrance. Who decided September 16th?
In a twist of incongruity irony, Mayflower Day is September 16. The two holidays on the same day pose a unique juxtaposition of remembering both the colonial innocence of immigrating to a ‘New World’ and colonial violence associated with the forced emigrations of Cherokee people to Indian Territory, saying a lot about the cultural phenomena of creating national holidays, and saying even more socially if one was a response to the other holiday.
After inquiries with friends about their knowledge of holidays on September 16th, I started to consider the possibility that this holiday was not meant to include narratives from the Southeastern tribes forced to relocate from the encroaching hordes of American citizens. Unless you participate in some capacity in the production of the holiday, like being asked to write an article.
So, when we say, “The Trail of Tears Commemoration Day”, what exactly are we commemorating? Though many debates centering on numbers of lives lost will continually find their way into academic journals, the Trail of Tears as a distinctive episode is most associated with the forceful removal of Cherokee people in 1838 from their ancient homelands in Georgia and Alabama as enforcement of the Treaty of New Echota. As an event in United States history, the Trail of Tears was a series of removals following the passing of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 that sent the Five Nations—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Muscogee-Creek—west of the Mississippi River.
Beginning with the Choctaw people in 1831, in order to accommodate increasing demands by US citizens for ‘Indian’ lands, each nation was forced to negotiate and sign treaties based upon the protocol of the Indian Removal Act. Authorizing the swapping of federal territory for tribal lands, with no other option in sight, the Five Nations of the Southeast made the ultimate sacrifice for future generations and left their aboriginal homelands for new lands in Indian Territory. In facing insurmountable odds, family and legacy provided a daily sense of resilience among tribal communities in Oklahoma to take steps towards the future with an ear and a heart grounded in the past. This is how we remember and honor those who left their ancient homelands on the Trail of Tears in Oklahoma.
Scott Ketchum (Choctaw) is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on Native North America, climate change and human-nature interactions. He is currently a technical advisor and researcher with Oklahoma NSF EPSCoR.