The Trail of Tears: a Study of the Exile of the Cherokee Native Americans

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The Trail of Tears: Exile

The connotation of the word “exile” is interpreted and expressed negatively in history. Exile is when the individual is forced and threatened by authoritative imposition to leave his or her homeland. Edward Said once expressed in his essay Reflections on Exile that “[exile] is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted” (137). Exile and dislocation isolate the person from his or her homeland and the dejection of exile and dislocation cannot be subdued. Exile and dislocation are depicted on fine prints of textbooks and visual presentations especially about American History. One of the most prominent exiles in American History is the Trail of Tears. Though the Trail of Tears was designed to remove the Cherokee to reconcile with other Native Americans and set them together to the “Native American Lands”, it deprived their devotions and pride of their homelands: once pride and devotions are removed, the idea to live life would not be same.

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A community holds unique stories that create images on its own. With every story, it comes with groups of people and how the people take advantage of their land. From the fertile lands that are near to cool rivers and streams that promise farmers a source of vegetation to infertile lands that have diverse businesses for owners and consumers, every community is different from the other. The commonality of the different environments is that it creates a sense of home and tradition for these groups of people. The idea to be dislocated and exiled deprives people from their history and devotion of their community.

The Native American group, the Cherokees, is the example. The book The Cherokees Nation and the Trail of Tears depicts the life of the Cherokees in the eighteenth century. It states that “They claimed hunting grounds that extended into Kentucky, but they clustered their villages and agricultural fields in the valleys of upcountry South Carolina, western North Carolina, east Tennessee, north Georgia and northeastern Alabama” (Perdue and Green XIII). Ideally, these Cherokees were living in the southeastern parts of the United States during the eighteenth century. As they resided there “They spoke four mutually intelligible dialects of an Iroquoian language. A common culture and bonds of kinship held their far-flung villages together and made them a people” (Perdue and Green XIII). As they settled in these lands, they retained companionship, cooperation, and traditional values. Uniting as a homogeneous whole, the lifestyle of the Cherokees was the dream for individuals who value simplicity, history, and tradition.

The idea of unification within a similar group is not only to have common traditions and backgrounds but also have the common appreciation of the landscape. The journal Cherokee Adaption to the Landscape of the West and Overcoming the Lost of Culturally Significant Plants depicts that “Each of these ecoregions displays distinct landforms, soils, vegetation, and climatic influence, and, taken together, they are a rich and abundant temperate landscape characterized by a diversity of broadleaf deciduous trees and needle-leaf conifers” (Vick 394). The communities and their features influence plant life for the Cherokee. The planting life was very significant on the Cherokee’s way of living other than the hunting life. According to Vick “Cherokees were intimately familiar with these native plants and relied on them for medicine, food, fiber, dye, ceremonial uses, and other uses” (395). For the medicinal, spiritual, and survival purposes, the Cherokees relied on these plants and this shows that they were connected to their lands and taken advantaged of them.

The ties between the lands and Cherokees disunited during the 1800s. Andrew Jackson implemented the Indian Removal Act in order to place the Cherokees and other Native Americans on the western parts of the country. The idea that Said expresses in his essay that “the achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever” (137) relates the emotional dejection of Cherokee Charles Hicks. Hicks states that “It is with sorrow that we are forced by the… white man to quit the scenes of our childhood… we bid a farewell to all we hold dear” (Gilbert 37). Describing the borders of their lands as “childhood” shows how they lived innocently. The idea to “bid a farewell” is a way to show that these Cherokees are unable to recapture that sense of innocence because they were so tied into their lands. Losing their lands under authoritative imposition deprived their sense of peace and history. They were forced to migrate to modern Oklahoma and other western settlements, leaving their history, past, and pride of their beloved homeland.

The Trail of Tears—the name itself gives off a sense of melancholy and despair—was a grueling march towards the western settlements. The matter of dislocation made the Cherokees die out not only spiritually but also physically. Gilbert describes that “among diseases reported were typhoid, measles, scarlet fever, flu, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and cholera” (71). During the trail, there were many diseases that killed the many migrants. Gilbert continues to elaborate “One Cherokee later recalled that his father, an old man, suddenly collapsed in the snow and could not get up… he died the next day. A week later his mother fell and could “speak no more”. Then one by one his brothers and sisters, five in all, fell ill and died. All were buried in the trail.” (71). The Cherokees suffered casualties during this trail and this exemplar witnessed the death and pain of his loved ones. To witness death and to be dislocated cause a hole in the heart of the alive and there is just vacancy in the heart that cannot be filled. The ones who lost their lives in the march died in an unjustified manner because the feeling of emptiness. Dislocation and death are interrelated because they are a matter of physical and spiritual demise.

The Cherokees were not the only groups who experienced the grueling trail and dislocation as they were other Native Indian groups. The relocation of different tribes in the western “Native American lands” was not successful. Though they were forced to join in similar lands, they retained a different history and culture. Perdue and Green show that “each of the dozens of relocated tribes has its own unique and important history. The history of the removal of the Cherokees can never substitute for the histories of the others” (XV). Having different cultures and histories make unification difficult because there is no similar connection. The different tribes may have share similar characteristics but that did not matter. They were raised by a different culture and hold in that very deep pride of their homeland that no one could have understood. The removal of the history and devoted homelands made them feel lifeless. The Native Indian groups, including the Cherokees, lost what was familiar to them and what made them feel alive.

The Trail of Tears was a grueling experience for the past Cherokees. Death, diseases, hunger, sorrow, and despair are very hard to imagine what they have experienced in the march. Not only the march caused so much of pain and deaths but returning to what is perceived as “Native American Lands” made them feel lifeless. They have lost their home and their sense of identity. What physically made them alive is different from spiritual aliveness; to be “alive” and the feeling of being “alive” are two different ideologies. Despite being two different ideas, they coexisted into a powerful force during this time. The Trail of Tears is a prime example of how the Cherokees lost their representation and culture of the southern lands and were deprived of their freedom. There are no benefits when it comes to exile as the people cannot retrace what was theirs.

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