Remember the Removal riders take to the trail

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The months of training are up and the Eastern Band of Cherokee riders have met up with their Cherokee Nation partners. Together, the group of riders comprising the 2019 team will retrace the steps of their ancestors by bicycle traveling from Georgia to Oklahoma and clocking in over 1,000 miles on the northern route of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.  

It’s the 35th anniversary of the annual ride, and a send-off ceremony was held at Kituwah Mound, or Mother Town to the Cherokee, on Friday, May 31. 

This year’s riders include 10 from EBCI including: Keyonna Owle, Zach Goings, Monica Wildcatt, Manuel Hernandez, Micah Swimmer, Skye Tafoya, Daniel Murray, Tonya Caroll, Dre Crowe and Dr. Blythe Winchester.  

The 11 riders from the Cherokee Nation are: Shadow Hardbarger, Kevin Stretch, Destiny Matthews, Joshua Chavez, Brooke Bailey, Elizabeth Hummingbird, Kayli Gonzalez, Ashley Hunnicutt, Sydie Pierce, Steven Hade and Marie Eubanks. 

The send-off ceremony attended by about 300 family members and friends was both celebratory and somber as speakers covered the heartbreaking hardships faced by previous generations, the challenges of the ride and the deep friendships and connections made on the journey. 

EBCI Principal Chief Richie Sneed, a 2014 alumni of Remember the Removal Ride, opened the event Friday and called the journey one that will change each rider’s life forever. 

The ride honors the forced removal of the Cherokee and other native peoples from their homes East of the Mississippi River out West, following the Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. 

Jack Baker, president of the National Trail of Tears Association, recalled that history on Friday. 

“There was great loss of life both in the camps and on the way, yet those who survived persevered and those who returned here, the ones who were able to stay here, left us a great legacy due to their perseverance and left two great nations- the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” Baker said. “For this reason we need to remember those who were removed. They’re the ones who gave us this legacy.”

Will Chavez, of the Cherokee Nation, was on the inaugural RTR ride in 1984. The ride was both started to give the young riders a sense of purpose and “remind people of what happened to our ancestors,” he said. At that time, much of the trail wasn’t marked. He recalls one day the riders rode over 100 miles because they got lost. 

Congress did allocate money to begin marking the trail within three years after that first journey, he said. 

“We used the momentum from that ride to do a lot of things for ourselves and for our nation, and I’m proud of that too. Never forget,” Chavez said. 

Jan Smith, of the EBCI, an alumni from the 2018 RTR, called the ride the hardest thing she had ever done and that she really loves her teammates. 

“When I got tired, hot, exhausted and the end was not in sight, and I was going up hill after hill, I remembered the journal message from that day,” she said. She thought of the people who died or got sick during the forced removal and thought, “you have it easy” by comparison. 

Thinking about her ancestors helped give her strength to complete the ride, she said, and not only did she develop a strong bond with her fellow riders but also a cultural and historical connection to tribal members before her. 

Before a meal catered by Granny’s Kitchen was shared by all in attendance, each rider for 2019 received a copy of “The Journal of Rev. Daniel S. Butrick” and “The Diary of Lt. John Phelps.” Anita Finger-Smith with the NC Trail of Tears Association and Robin Swayney of the Museum of Cherokee Indian, presented the journals. 

The ride is slated to conclude in Tahlequah, Oklahoma on June 20. In addition to the riders, the ceremony Friday gave a shout out to the support staff that helps the riders make their journey a success. 

The riders embarked on the 2019 journey Sunday morning from Echota, Georgia, the Cherokee Nation’s former capital in the East. You can follow updates by visiting the team’s Facebook page, Remember the Removal Bike Ride. 

Smoky Mountain Times

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