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"Charlie"

 

For those of who’ve never heard of Corey Smith, you’ve missed out on a true Georgia treasure! Corey is a talented singer songwriter with a gift for taking our way of living here in the southeast and putting it into meaningful song. His lyrics tell stories, and they run a hundred yards of emotion: fun and socially provocative, hopeful and sentimental, happy-go-lucky and sad.  A few days back, his song, Cherokee Rose, a beautifully haunting and respectable tribute to the Cherokee People, popped up on my iTunes’ playlist, and for the first time I really listened to the words…and it got me to thinking…

The American Heritage Dictionary can’t define the Cherokee, the Native American Cherokee,  without mentioning their dehumanization at the hands of the early United States Government. The dictionary description makes the dismantling of a nation sound simple, and only slightly unfriendly.

  Cherokee: n., pl., Cherokee, or -kees.   A Native American people formerly inhabiting the southern Appalachian Mountains  from the western Carolinas and eastern Tennessee to northern Georgia, with  present-day populations in northeast Oklahoma and western North Carolina. The  Cherokee were removed to Indian Territory in the 1830s after conflict with  American settlers over rights to traditional lands.

Phrases such as, “the Cherokee were removed to Indian Territory” doesn’t paint a clear picture of what actually took place when 12,000 Native American men, women and children, ranging in age from infant to the elderly, were forcibly extricated from the only life they had ever known and forced to walk from the lush, green southeastern states of this country to the barren lands of Oklahoma. Conditions were so harsh, more than a quarter of the Cherokee died before arriving in Oklahoma.

Some of the Cherokee separated themselves from the others and, rather than walk westward, they settled in North Carolina, eventually becoming known as the Eastern Cherokee; from this group, a strong-willed limb of my maternal family tree grows.

The nicely worded definition of Cherokee barely hints at the inhumane treatment they suffered. The definition doesn’t clearly state or emphasize the cruel way in which the Cherokee were stripped of their mountains and lands and human rights. Or the way our ancestors forced them to live within the confines of reservations, in essence making them prisoners inside invisible walls built by foreign men .

Growing up, we would visit North Carolina in the summers. One year, I think it was the summer I was sixteen, I saw this inscription on a monument:

“They promised us many things, so many I can’t remember them all.

But they only kept one promise.

They said they would take our land; and they did.”

I remember reading those words over and over, letting them sink deeply in. I remember feeling sad and hurting for people I never knew, wishing I could go back in time and do things differently, better.

One hundred and eighty-two years separate us from  the Trail of Tears; how do we make amends after all this time? How does a nation make an apology for stripping an entire group of people of their God-given inheritance?  How do we express regret for the unwanted ‘gifts’ we gave them…the gift of English diseases? Diseases unknown to the Native American before the settlers stepped foot on free soil, wiped out thousands of Native American families. Sure,  the state of Georgia made the Cherokee Rose our official state flower. My highschool’s name and mascot, the Cherokee Warriors, offered a nod of acknowledgement to the Cherokee. And I can’t forget Jeep’s tribute to the Cherokee people, the Grand Jeep Cherokee… These are sad and feeble attempts to recognize and call attention to the people our ancestors didn’t want around….Ironically, today many of us search our family trees in vain, hoping to find a trace of Native American blood, any tribe, rolling through our veins. And that task proves difficult…because our ancestors saw the Native American as subhuman and were usually mortified if  “Red Man Blood” polluted a ‘pure family blood line’, and as a result of that attitude, births were left unrecorded. Identities lost forever….But today, when we discover a connection, no matter how small,  we proudly declare, I have Cherokee Blood…or Creek…or Navajo…

It seems to me we all lost something on the Trail of Tears ~