A Cherokee Indian chief said tribe members may live thousands of miles apart and have different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common - the Trail of Tears leading back to their North Carolina "home."
Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Western Band of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma, was one of many dignitaries on hand Tuesday for events marking the 150th anniversary of the forced march of 16,000 Cherokees from their lands in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to reservations in Oklahoma.It took nearly 200 days to complete the journey, and an estimated 4,000 of the Cherokees on the march died from exposure, malnutrition, disease and broken hearts, Mankiller said.
"I will always feel that Cherokee, North Carolina, is home," Mankiller said. "We have a lot of history here. Whether we live in Oklahoma or North Carolina, whether we're rich or poor, we all have one thing in common - the Trail of Tears. We will always have that in common."
Beginning in the spring of 1837 and continuing throughout the autumn of the following year, the Cherokees were corraled into a dozen stockades and transported from their lands on an 1,800-mile journey through nine states.
The Cherokees were forced from the homeland as a result of a national policy of the time that on the surface aimed to remove "friction" between the Indians and the ever-increasing number of white settlers, Mankiller said.
But the discovery of gold in the Cherokee homeland was the real root of the forced march, Mankiller said.
"We were forced to leave the lands we had occupied for hundreds of years, even thousands of years, before the march," Mankiller said.
Gov. James Martin addressed the gathering, which included representatives from all nine states through which the trail moved as well as representatives of both the Eastern and Western bands of the Cherokee nation.
Martin said the march was a low point for the white race.
"It is painful to say, but the Trail of Tears serves as a monument to man's inhumanity to man," Martin said. "It will live forever as a dark spot in American history."
Accounts of the march mention beatings and other inhumane treatment, daily deaths and burials in shallow, unmarked graves.
One account, written by Army Pvt. John G. Burnett, a soldier who took part in forcing the march, gives an indication of the poor treatment the Indians received.
"Men working in the fields were arrested and driven to the stockades, and women were dragged from their homes by soldiers whose language they could not understand," Burnett wrote in a journal in 1837. "Children were often separated from their parents and driven into the stockades with the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow."
Today's Cherokees are well acquainted with the accounts of their ancestors march, but say they are beginning to forgive the whites for the atrocities.
"It was a bad time for everyone involved," said Robert Squirrel, 45, who was born and raised on the reservation. "The government has tried to make amends every way they can, and I think their effort proves that they know what happened was very, very wrong."