Every year, Cherokee youth take to their bikes to explore the tragic history of the Trail of Tears on a 950-mile ride.
When 20-year-old Kaylee Smith of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, stepped into the sacred water of the Blue Hole Spring at Red Clay State Historic Park in Tennessee, she felt the emotional tug of her ancestors like never before. As part of a tribal cycling team made up of Cherokee youth from Oklahoma and North Carolina, Smith was taking part in a bike journey from her tribe’s original homelands in Georgia and Tennessee through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas to the capital of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah to experience sites that are part of her history. The Blue Hole was a sacred place for the Cherokee before the U.S. government brutally relocated them from their homelands to a land they didn’t know.
“That was a place where the Cherokee went to the water for traditional and spiritual purposes,” Smith says. “My team and I were allowed to enter the water. That was probably my favorite part of the ride because I never really learned about the traditional experiences that a lot of my people went through.”
While the dip into the sacred water was enlightening for Smith and her touring team, other experiences along the cyclists’ Trail of Tears route were shocking and emotional for the history they evoked. More than 180 years ago, tens of thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands in the Southeast (and other parts of the country) and made to march on foot to Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. The Removal tribulation began in 1830; the Cherokee Trail of Tears mainly spanned a period from August 1838 to March 1839, including a particularly horrific winter that final year.
A quarter of the Cherokee population died in the Removal.