March 24, 1839: 180th Anniversary of Trail of Tears is Time to Reflect and Look Forward

Guest Commentary
This Day in History – March 24, 1839

Published March 25, 2019

On March 24 we commemorate the 180th anniversary of the end of the infamous Trail of Tears with a National Day of Remembrance. On this day in 1839, the last detachment of our ancestors’ forced removal from their homelands in the southeast region of the United States occurred as they marched to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. We remember and honor the sacrifices and untold hardships of our ancestors. Those who completed the trek and those who perished on that brutal journey will always remain in our hearts and in our minds.

Their indomitable spirit to live despite the odds stacked against them enabled them to survive the treacherous journey. It is that same spirit that allowed them to rise above and to create a new home for themselves and their children. It is that the same spirit that enabled them to rebuild our nation. It is that same spirit that lives on in each of us. It is that same spirit that allows us to ensure the great Cherokee Nation we have today is an even better tomorrow for our children and for generations to come.

Chief Bill John Baker

During the Trail of Tears, an estimated 4,000 Cherokees perished along the way, which represented about one quarter of our tribe. The grit and determination of our ancestors allowed them to not only survive adversity, despair and grief, but it empowered them to thrive. That sense of where we come from and who we are is deeply rooted in who we are as Cherokee people.

It is especially poignant to be commemorating the anniversary because this year during the annual Cherokee Days gathering at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian in Washington, D.C., the Treaty of New Echota, the legal document that paved the way for the forced removal of our ancestors, will be on public display. For the first time in recent history, selected pages from the actual signed treaty will be available for viewing.

It is the sacrifices of our ancestors that have made Cherokee Nation the strong nation it is today. As a country, we do a poor job of educating our youth on the bright moments of our past and the dark periods of injustice against Native people as the birth of America evolved. I know we can improve on that in Oklahoma – telling our story, teaching our children the history and traditions of tribes.

Trail of Tears Exhibit at Cherokee Heritage Center

After removal, the Cherokee people re-established our government in modern-day Oklahoma. We recreated our school systems and re-established our courts. Our newspaper began to print again and informed citizens of events and the day’s news. We rebuilt one of history’s most sophisticated societies in a new and unfamiliar land. But we will always remember who we are. We will never forget. We, as a nation, will always honor our ancestors and the sacrifices they made. As Cherokee people, we are stronger today than ever before.

Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

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