When President Reagan raised the issue of human rights during the Moscow summit, his Soviet hosts retorted with questions of their own about American treatment of Native Americans. And nothing is more troubling in that regard than the Trail of Tears 150 years ago, when the federal government brutally moved the Cherokee Indians to what is now Oklahoma.
Contrary to the stereotypical image of the Indian in Hollywood westerns, the Cherokees of the early 19th century were a civilized and educated people. They were informally linked together as the Cherokee Nation in 1825, and in July 1827, they adopted a constitution, modeled after the federal government's.With 18 Cherokee schools and the first American Indian newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, they seemed content to coexist peacefully with white settlers. Major Ridge, a Cherokee elder, called on his people to direct their efforts "to agriculture and to the increase of wealth and to the promotion of knowledge."
But in December 1927, the state of Georgia, where half the Cherokee Nation lived, proclaimed that the Indians living there had no legal rights to the land they lived on and that the state government could take it at will. Then in 1829 the state took away all independent Cherokee rights and annexed their land.
The Cherokees sued in the United States Supreme Court, but in 1830 the court dismissed their suit on the grounds that the Cherokee Nation was not an independent nation but a "domestic dependent nation." In a second suit, however, the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia couldn't take away independent Cherokee rights. It put the Cherokees, and other Indians, under federal jurisdiction, a precedent that still stands.
But President Jackson, who wanted to move all Indians to western sections of the United States, dismissed the Supreme Court ruling. "Well, John Marshall has made his decision," Jackson is said to have quipped of the chief justice, "now let him enforce it."
Pressure on the Cherokees intensified. Although most of them, including Cherokee Nation Chief John Ross, wanted to remain on the land they consider their own, in 1835, 20 members of a so-called treaty party signed the treaty of New Echota called for the Cherokees' removal from their home to Indian Territory, now know as Oklahoma.
More than 16,000 Cherokees signed a petition repudiating the treaty, but to no avail. On May 23, 1836, the treaty was approved by the Senate, and the Cherokees were given until May 1838 to move peacefully.
Only 2,000 Cherokees did so, and on May 26, 1838, the government started rounding up the Cherokees and putting them in detention camps. For the most part, the Cherokees were kept in the camps all summer because of a drought. The conditions were awful, and approximately 2,000 died from diseases like measles and whooping cough.
When the emigration got under way again in October, the Indians were a dispirited lot, and the coming winter chill did not make conditions any better. Another 2,600 Indians died on the forced march to Oklahoma, many from tuberculosis and pneumonia.
On March 25, 1839, the final group of Cherokee Indians arrived in Oklahoma. In the course of a year an estimated one-fifth of them had perished.