Remember the Removal 2021: Meet the Eastern Band Riders Retracing the Trail of Tears on Bicycle | Cherokee, NC

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Remember the Removal 2021: Meet the Eastern Band Riders Retracing the Trail of Tears on Bicycle

(Photo by Bear Allison)

Each year, a group of Eastern Band Cherokees are selected to participate in the Remember the Removal bike ride, traveling over 950-miles on bicycle, retracing the northern route of the Trail of Tears. The ride commemorates the Cherokees who were forcibly removed from their homeland and made to travel on foot to what is now Oklahoma, between 1838 and 1839. As part of the Remember the Removal experience, participants take classes in Cherokee language, Cherokee history, and genealogy to uncover and connect with their roots. 

The ride was cancelled last year due to COVID-19, but three of the selected EBCI 2020 riders were able to sign on for the 2021 ride, along with six riders from Cherokee Nation. 

We had the pleasure of speaking to the Eastern Band riders before they departed on Memorial day. Here’s a condensed excerpt of what they shared. 

(Photo via EBCI Remember the Removal Riders)

Raylen Bark

Raylen, 18, grew up in the Wolftown community. She’s a freshman at Dartmouth college, exploring Native American studies, with aspirations to go into the legal field.

Why did you want to do the Remember the Removal Ride?

For the experience: getting to know more about your family and your entire culture and seeing how they’ve persevered and survived all of that trauma. My senior year I wanted to do something big before I went to college. Now that the ride is going to happen, I’m learning so much about our culture and how we can trace it back to our ancestors and where they were in a certain point in history. 

What have you learned about yourself during this process?

I can get in shape a lot quicker than I thought! With the pandemic, we weren't able to train for a year. Then we had five weeks to train once we knew the ride was happening this year.   

The biggest thing for me is figuring out who I am, not just as an individual, but how I got here today, and the history is so deep. It’s honestly amazing to see how we’re all here today. One of the biggest things I’ve discovered is that my strength comes from my generations of ancestors: they had children to keep alive, as well as our culture. 

Are you dedicating your ride to someone or something?

Definitely my family. I have a friend here who had one of my late grandma’s baskets that she made years ago. A week before we took off, I was given this basket and I felt like there was some type of supernatural force behind it. I’m riding for my grandma and my family. 

What will motivate you to keep going when you’re on the ride? 

Doing genealogy, I know where my ancestors were during the ride. They had to walk this. Even if it hurts or I’m struggling this isn’t even close to what they had to endure. The reason I’m here is because of their resiliency. That will be my motivation. 

(Photo via EBCI Remember the Removal Riders)

Bear Allison

Bear, 40, lives in Birdtown with his girlfriend, Tonya, and their dog Chester. He grew up in Wolftown and is a photographer and filmmaker. 

What got you interested in doing the Remember the Removal ride?

It started when the Eastern Band started participating, back in 2011. I didn’t understand how we were honoring our ancestors who were not removed because the Eastern Band is here. We were able to remain. And so that got me motivated to research and find out more about it. 

My girlfriend’s mom did the ride in 2018, and Tonya did it in 2019. While Tonya was training, she missed some of her rides and she wanted to make them up, so I got a bike and started to ride with her, and I’ve been riding since then. 

What did you learn about how the Eastern Band fits into the Remember the Removal ride?

The ride that Cherokee Nation has created isn’t just about honoring the ones who were removed, but to not forget that the removal happened. Even though we were not removed, we still had to deal with the removal happening and there was all this fear and uncertainty for what was going to happen to the Cherokees that remained here.

When the ride was cancelled last year, I co-organized the Remember the Remained ride for the Eastern Band, to honor the ancestors that remained here. To honor the ones that remained, resisted, and returned. Some of the Eastern Band were removed and turned around and came back. 

It was a pilot test ride. We modeled it after the Removal ride, and stopped at historical sites and had people come out and talk to us about the history of those sites. 

What have you learned about yourself during this whole process?

I’ve learned more about my family history as opposed to anything about me personally, or anything that I can do. I learned more about who my ancestors are and were, and where they were at, and the things they had to endure and survive, just because they were Cherokee. 

Are you dedicating your ride to someone or something?

I don’t know if it’s a dedication, but since the ride it is to remember the ones who were removed, and all the ones who experienced the removal—that’s why I’m riding.

(Photo via EBCI Remember the Removal Riders)

Drew Johnson

Drew, 22, grew up in Cherokee. He’s currently studying mechanical engineering at Western Carolina University, and works for the Sequoyah National Golf Club in Cherokee. 

Why did you want to do the ride?

My sister, Carmen, did the RTR ride back in 2012. She was a huge inspiration to me, and I was in full support of her when she did it. She said it was such an amazing experience, and she couldn’t put into words how it changed her, emotionally and spiritually—knowing the gravity of the situation, and all of the struggle and pain our nation went through. I applied after high school, and I continued to stay with it until I was selected for the 2020 group. 

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for you on the ride?

I think it’s going to be the whole experience. It’s going to be physically and mentally draining, because we’re going to be moving nonstop every day to hopefully bring some lessons, history, and stories home to our friends and family. I’m going to try and live in the moment and also try to balance journaling and taking pictures to remember my experience. 

What’s been the hardest part of training?

I haven’t personally had too many difficulties in training. It is hard when you see your friends wreck on the bike or have cars come close to hitting you. It was interesting doing the genealogy and finding people who were related to me on the trail. That was pretty emotionally awakening. 

Are you dedicating your ride to someone or something?

I’d have to dedicate it to my family. To supporting future generations and to setting the bar high. If I had to dedicate it to one individual person, I would dedicate it to Oscar Welch, my grandfather. He got his masters in public health and was the head of the hospital in Cherokee, and he was the first principal of the high school on the boundary. He was a member of our family that we always looked up to. He’s the reason we have the things we have today. 

Follow the Journey

To keep up with the EBCI and Cherokee Nation riders, and to follow their progress, follow EBCI Remember the Removal Riders and Remember the Removal Bike Ride on Facebook, and ebci_rtr on Instagram. 

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