Retracing the Path: 2018 Remember the Removal Bike Ride Begins June 35.14.2018
(Will Chavez, a participant of the original 1984 Remember the Removal Bike Ride, far right, leads the group on the last hours of the final day of the journey. Photo by Kristy Herron)
Thousands of Cherokee men, women, and children were forced by the US government and white settlers to leave their homes in the southeastern United States and move west to Oklahoma between 1838 and 1839 in a devastating event known as the Trail of Tears. Both a physical as well as spiritual journey, the annual Remember the Removal Bike Ride (RTR) follows the 950+ miles on the northern route of the Trail of Tears over a span of three weeks.
This year, ten Cherokee Nation (CN) citizens in Oklahoma and eight enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) will depart from New Echota, Georgia, on June 3, and ride together to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, arriving on June 21.
More than a display of physical endurance, RTR is an opportunity for Cherokee riders to learn more about their tribal history. Riders will pass through a total of seven states (Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, and Oklahoma), stopping at important landmarks along the way to experience firsthand where many Cherokee historical events took place. “It ties you to your history, where you’re from,” says Julie Hubbard, Communications Manager of CN. “You get to see it all firsthand versus being in a classroom; maybe you read a paragraph about it in history class.” One stop is the Vann House in Chatsworth, Georgia, once owned by the Cherokee chief James Vann; another is the Blythe Ferry site where Cherokee people gathered before being taken across the Tennessee River away from their homes.
Julie has gone on RTR as a member of the support staff for four years. Along with support staff, there are also two paramedics, and a media coordinator, among other assistants. Members of the staff drive trailers behind the cyclists that carry supplies, such as water, sunscreen, protein bars, pickles (to help alleviate leg cramps), and bananas.
This upcoming ride will be Julie’s fifth. Her son participated when he was in high school. Part of the program is tracing ancestry before embarking to show where participants’ relatives came from. “(My son) learned what his family clan was and we now have photos of our two ancestors that walked the trail,” says Julie.
Fostering Leadership & Wellness
(Original 1984 Remember the Removal logo by Cherokee artist Tom Fields)
The event began in 1984 as a youth leadership program with only CN citizens. It took place intermittently until it became a regular annual event in 2009. In 2011, EBCI joined CN to partner on this project. All expenses for the riders—including kits, bikes, lodging, and meals—are taken care of. The selection process that took place last fall includes an application, letters of recommendation, physical examination, and interview. While there’s a large pool of applicants, the number of participants is limited.
With the exception of support staff and a mentor rider (mentor is for CN), only first-time participants are allowed to participate, Julie says the reason for this is “so that as many young Cherokee citizens as possible can go on this ride and learn what their ancestors endured, learn where they came from, physically see the route that was taken. It gives them a bond to the tribe. They learn some of the history about the EBCI, why they are still in NC. It’s a physical challenge and endurance ride.”
While it continues to focus on youth leadership for the CN (only open to cyclists ages 16–24) under the Education Services department, RTR for EBCI has a different purpose as a health initiative (open to all ages above 15) sponsored by Cherokee Choices, the only diabetes prevention program for EBCI. “You can be a hundred years old and do the ride. As long as you’re over 15,” says Marisa Cabe, the current trainer for the EBCI riders who participated in 2016 at age 50. This year the youngest EBCI member is 17 and the oldest is 62.
A 2011 alumni rider, Sheena Kanott Lambert, M.P.H., has served as program director of EBCI’s Cherokee Choices for seven years. The mission of Cherokee Choices is “to promote physical, emotional, mental and cultural wellbeing in the EBCI community.” Sheena says, “It was a priority of mine to advocate for the project to be within Cherokee Choices. The Remember the Removal Bike Ride project has been in our program since 2014 and has continued to evolve since.”
Sheena says the ride aligns so well with the Cherokee Choices’ mission. “Obviously, retracing the northern route of the Trail of Tears on a bicycle has huge impacts on your physical health in that you have rigorous training and physical demands leading up to and during the journey itself. What we also value is that the project allows riders the opportunity to learn about their culture, which can have a huge impact on their mental and emotional health as well. It can increase self-awareness and self-identity. And in turn can have a drastic impact on their overall health (mental, physical and emotional).”
Mentors Lend a Hand
(Will Chavez leads the 19 other cyclists to the Cherokee Nation Courthouse Square in Tahlequah. Photo courtesy of Cherokee Nation)
Seeing an opportunity for older Cherokee Nation citizens (ages 35 and up) to enrich the program, CN added a mentor rider to the mix in 2017, choosing Will Chavez for the position. At age 17, Will was in the first cohort of riders back in 1984. “I learned I was a lot more capable than I thought I was—mentally, physically. All of the riders get that when they’re finished. They’re capable of more than they think they are.”
A lot has happened in Will’s life since 1984. He joined the army, finished college, and started a family. His son participated on the ride in 2014 (along with EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed). His daughter is going this year. Today, Will served on the selection committee. Will says that in 1984 the focus of the ride was the same as it is today: instill leadership skills in our youth.
“They wanted to give us more self esteem,” says Will. “Cherokee kids in this area were dropping out more often than other kids. It felt like it was need. Something to build their character and self-esteem.” Every day (and sometimes twice a day), a new rider is chosen to lead the group, watching out for potholes and reporting on a walkie-talkie anything they see up ahead. “It’s stressful, but it helps them a lot and shows them what they’re capable of and gives them confidence.”
Will says that it was good to experience RTR again with a different group and perspective. This year’s mentor is Jennifer Johnson, a law student from Oklahoma City.
(Front: EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed on the 2014 RTR. Photo provided by Will Chavez.)
Marisa says that the EBCI training schedule goes above and beyond physical training; it also includes history classes at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, a genealogy class, and a Cherokee syllabary class. Although riders received their bikes in February, training began in January at the Cherokee Fitness Complex. It hasn’t just been cycling. “If we’re not riding bikes, then we are in the gym doing an alternative type of physical conditioning,” says Marisa.
The training schedules in Oklahoma and North Carolina vary, mostly due to the land. “Our terrain is much different than Oklahoma terrain to train on,” says Marisa. “They are doing excessively long rides, but that is more difficult for us here because of the mountainous area that we live in. We actually did a ride yesterday that was only 17 miles, but we had an elevation gain of almost 1,200 feet.” Long rides are on Saturday; evening rides range from 15-20 miles.
This is the first year that Marisa, a retired nurse practitioner, is leading the training with some assistance from Joey Owle, the trainer from 2017. She says the program is in the process of hiring a trainer for future years.
Actions of Encouragement
(Cherokee Nation Principal Chief congratulating EBCI citizen Sheyahshe Littledave after the 2017 Ride. Photo courtesy of Cherokee Nation)
When asked about the dynamics between participants of different ages, Marisa says, “The youth were very encouraging to us as far as continuing the physical part of the ride. In turn, those of us who were older and knew more of the history of the Trail, we helped them more with allowing them to feel the feelings that go along with this ride.”
In her first year on RTR, Marisa recalls that her body was shaking and she didn’t know what lay ahead. “Right now, during the training, it’s that physical and mental part. The not-knowing. Getting your body whipped into shape. When you’re on the ride, it’s the spiritual and emotional part.”
It’s very important to understand that the ride is not a race. “It’s up to you to support and help that rider that may be bringing up the rear to continue,” says Marisa.”
Everyone’s reason for feeling called to the ride is different. “One of the reasons I wanted to do this ride was forgiveness,” says Marisa. “I have a son who has struggled with addiction and even though things that he’s done have been outside of my control—just like things that were done to Cherokees in the past were out of my control—I can’t change that history. I am not hurting anyone but myself for holding onto feelings of anger, distrust, and the sadness that goes along with it. When I came through the ride, I realized we’re not just survivors, we’re thriving. We’re stronger as a people. I’m stronger as a person. My son is clean and sober now and has been for four years. If he never asked me for forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that I should hold things against him. Just like our history. People aren’t around anymore to ask for forgiveness. I have to forgive.”
Follow Along on the Ride
(EBCI Member and rider, Israel Rodgriguez, poses for a photo with his wife and family upon completing the ride. Photo by Kristy Herron)
Join EBCI and Cherokee Nation 2018 Remember the Removal Ride in a public celebratory send-off on Friday, June 1, at 5 p.m. at the Kituwah Mound. Learn more about the Trail of Tears in the powerful retelling “Unto These Hills,” an outdoor drama in Cherokee, NC. Read more about the Trail of Tears and "Unto These Hills." Want to follow along? Visit the Remember the Removal on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages, and follow #weremember.