The Trail of Tears refers to the forced relocation in 1838 of the Cherokee Native American tribe to the Western United States, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4,000 Cherokee. In the Cherokee language, the event is called Nu na hi du na tlo hi lui—"Trail where they Cried." The Cherokee were not the only Native Americans forced to emigrate during this era, and so the phrase "Trail of Tears" is sometimes used to refer to similar events endured by other Indian peoples, especially among the "Five Civilized Tribes."
The Education of Little Tree by Forest Carter, 1976
Granma and Granpa wanted me to know of the past, for “If ye don’t know the past, then ye will not have a future. If ye don’t know where your people have been, then ye won’t know where your people are going.” And so they told me most of it.
How the Cherokee had farmed the rich valleys and held their mating dances in the spring when life was planted in the ground; when the buck and doe, the cock and peahen exulted in the creation parts they played.
How their harvest festivals were held in the villages as frost turned the pumpkins, reddened the persimmon and hardened the corn. How they prepared for the winter hunts and pledged themselves to The Way.
How the government soldiers came, and told them to sign the paper. Told them the paper meant that the new white settlers would know where they could settle and where they would not take land of the Cherokee. And after they had signed it, more government soldiers came with guns and long knives fixed on their guns. The soldiers said the paper had changed its words. The words now said that the Cherokee must give up his valleys, his homes and his mountains. He must go far toward the setting sun, where the government had other land for the Cherokee, land that the white man did not want.
How the government soldiers came, and ringed a big valley with their guns, and at night with their campfires. They put the Cherokees in the ring. They brought Cherokees in from other mountains and valleys, in bunches like cattle, and put them in the ring.
After a long time of this, when they had most of the Cherokees, they brought wagons and mules and told the Cherokees they could ride to the land of the setting sun. The Cherokees had nothing left. But they would not ride, and so they saved nothing. You could not see it or wear it or eat if, but they save something; and they would not ride. They walked.
Government soldiers rode before them, on each side of them, behind them. The Cherokee men walked and looked straight ahead and would not look down, nor at the soldiers. Their women and their children followed in their footsteps and would not look at the soldiers.
Far behind them, the empty wagons rattled and rumbled and served no use. The wagons could not steal the soul of the Cherokee. The land was stolen from him, his home; but the Cherokee would not let the wagons steal his soul.
As they passed the villages of the white man, people lined the trail to watch them pass. At first, they laughed at how foolish was the Cherokee to walk with the empty wagons rattling behind him. The Cherokee did not turn his head at their laughter, and soon there was no laughter.
And as the Cherokee walked farther from his mountains, he began to die. His soul did not die, nor did it weaken. It was the very young and the very old and the sick.
At first the soldiers let them stop to bury their dead; but then, more died – by the hundreds – by the thousands. More than a third of them were to die on the Trail. The soldiers said they could only bury their dead every three days; for the soldiers wished to hurry and be finished with the Cherokee. The soldiers said the wagons would carry the dead, but the Cherokee would not put his dead in the wagons. He carried them. Walking.
The little boy carried his dead baby sister, and slept by her at night on the ground. He lifted her in his arms in the morning, and carried her.
The husband carried his dead wife. The son carried his dead mother. The mother carried her dead babe. They carried them in their arms. And walked. And they did not turn their heads to look at the soldiers, nor to look at the people who lined the sides of the Trail to watch them pass. Some of the people cried. But the Cherokee did not cry. Not on the outside, for the Cherokee would not let them see his soul; as he would not ride in the wagons.
And so they called it the Trail of Tears. Not because the Cherokee cried; for he did not. They called it the Trail of Tears for it sounds romantic and speaks of sorrow of those who stood by the Trail. A death march is not romantic.
You cannot write poetry about the death-stiffened baby in his mother’s arms, staring at the jolting sky with eyes that will not close, while his mother walks.
You cannot sing songs of the father laying down the burden of his wife’s corpse, to lie by it through the night and to rise and carry it again in the morning – and tell his oldest son to carry the body of his youngest. And do not look nor speak nor cry nor remember the mountains.
It would not be a beautiful song. And so they call it the Trail of Tears.
We always called Oklahoma “the Nations” for that is what it was supposed to be, until it was taken from the Indians and made a state.