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Congress seeks to educate on Trail of Tears

Students in Tennessee are learning about American Indians and  the history of the Trail of Tears, and Congress recently approved a study that aims to improve knowledge about the forced removal of Southern tribes in the late 1830s.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Standing in a rural cabin, Cherokee descendant Alva Crowe plays a flute made of river cane for kindergartners on a field trip to the Trail of Tears.

The youngsters are learning about American Indians as part of a school lesson about Thanksgiving. While that story is well known, the history of the Trail of Tears is less so, and Congress recently approved a study that aims to improve that knowledge.

Visiting youngsters "don't have a clue" about the forced removal of Southern tribes in the late 1830s, said Cleata Townsend, also a Cherokee descendant, who works with Crowe at the Chattanooga Audubon Society's Audubon Acres, an official stop on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

"They all think we lived in tepees. That's the one thing they see in movies," Townsend said as she led students along a creekside trail, pointing to trees and describing how they can be used to make canoes and medicines. "The parents are not any better, and you would think they would be."

The study called for by Congress would better define the routes taken by more than 15,000 members of the Cherokee, Creek and other tribes who were forced from their homes in 1838 to make way for white settlement. Untold hundreds and perhaps thousands of American Indians died during the removal to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.

The Trail of Tears dates to 1830 when President Jackson submitted a plan to Congress to remove the tribes from the Southeast.

Cherokees at the time were very established and "may have lived in better houses" than white settlers, Townsend said.

"We may have been having dinner and soldiers came to our door and took us at gunpoint," Townsend said.

The National Park Service oversees the Trail of Tears. According to a park service handout, "families were separated — the elderly and ill forced out at gunpoint — people given only moments to collect cherished possessions. White looters followed, ransacking homes as Cherokees were led away."

Recognizing mistakes
The primary sponsor of the Trail of Tears expansion, Republican Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, said that besides the study, an education and research center and a possible movie are also in the works to educate Americans about the forced removal.

"You have to recognize and acknowledge your mistakes for the white man to make this right," said Wamp, who himself claims Cherokee ancestry. "There has to be an acknowledgment that ... slavery was a mistake, the Trail of Tears was a mistake."

Research was limited when Congress created the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in 1987 in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Omissions discovered
Historians have since uncovered omissions. There were no routes recognized in North Carolina or Georgia, even though up to three-quarters of the Cherokees likely started from those states. The official trail markers also leave out two major arteries in Arkansas and water routes in eastern Tennessee.

"To me it is very important that it happens accurately, so future generations can go and visit these sites," said Shirley Lawrence, a Cherokee descendant who represents Tennessee on the Trail of Tears Association board. "We can certainly learn from it."

She said the education and research center will be built on a bluff at the junction of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers in East Tennessee, where the Blythe Ferry once operated and thousands of Cherokees and Creeks were taken by force to begin the journey.

Crowe said expanding the trail would hopefully generate new interest in the history.

"They don't understand really, truly how bad the government was in the old days," Crowe said.