Nine youth cyclists and two mentor cyclists, representing the Cherokee Nation as participants in the 2019 Remember the Removal Bike Ride, stopped in Woodbury on Wednesday during their approximately 950 miles along the northern route of the Trail of Tears.
The Cherokee Nation's 11 cyclists joined 10 from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, North Carolina for the ride. After participating in cultural activities and team-building exercises in North Carolina, their ride began in New Echota, Georgia, on June 2. Cyclists will travel through seven states before concluding in Tahlequah, Oklahoma on June 20.
"This is a special opportunity for these young Cherokee Nation citizens. They will build an unbreakable bond, learn details about our tribal history that they couldn't read in books and, most importantly, come back to northeast Oklahoma and share those invaluable lessons," said Principal Chief Bill John Baker. "We continue to invest in this unique leadership program because there is simply nothing else like it. Year after year I have witnessed how completing this journey transforms young people, gives them confidence and connects them to our Cherokee history and heritage."
The 2019 ride marks the 35th anniversary since the original ride was held in 1984. The current program resumed in 2009, offering participants the opportunity to learn about Cherokee Nation's history, language and culture and get a glimpse of the hardships their ancestors faced while making the journey on foot.
The father of 2019 participant Joshua Chavez was one of the original riders, and he also had two siblings complete the trek. He said their stories and experiences are a major reason he wanted to make the journey himself.
"I wanted to make this journey to see what my father and siblings experienced when they completed the ride, so that I can understand their experiences and stories better. They really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about their heritage, and I look forward to that," said Chavez, of Tahlequah.
This year's ride also marks the 180th anniversary of the Cherokees arrival in present-day Oklahoma after being forced from their homelands. In 1838-39, Cherokees were rounded up and forced from their homes in Georgia, Tennessee and other southeastern states to the Cherokee Nation's current capital in Tahlequah. Of approximately 16,000 Cherokees who were forced to make the journey to Indian Territory, around 4,000 died from disease, starvation and exposure to the elements.
Remember the Removal cyclist Sydnie Pierce, of Locust Grove, said sharing the history of the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee people's story is something she looks forward to while making the journey from Georgia to Oklahoma.
"During our time on the ride, we want to bring light to the removal," Pierce said. "I feel like nowadays it is something that doesn't get talked about as much as it should. Our ancestors experienced and overcame many hardships, and the last thing we want is their journey and perseverance to be forgotten, so through this ride I hope we can share that story with many others."
In honor of the 35th anniversary of the original ride and 180th anniversary of the end of the Trail of Tears, the governor's offices of Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma are each declaring "Trail of Tears Remembrance Weeks" throughout June in honor of those Cherokee ancestors lost on the Trail and to show support for the ride.
The 2019 Remember the Removal participants include Destiny Matthews and Elizabeth Hummingbird, of Adair County; Joshua Chavez, Brooke Bailey, Kayli Gonzales, Ashley Hunnicutt and Steven Shade, of Cherokee County; Sydnie Pierce, of Mayes County; and Shadow Hardbarger, of Sequoyah County. Kevin Stretch, the interim director of Cherokee Nation Community & Cultural Outreach, and Marie Eubanks, a teaching assistant at the Cherokee Immersion Charter School, were chosen as this year's two mentor riders.
Participants from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are Tonya Carroll, Zach Goings and Keyonna Owle, of Birdtown community; Micah Swimmer and Danielle Toineeta, of Painttown community; Dre Crowe and Manuel Hernandez, of Big Y community; and Skye Tafoya, Monica Wildcat and Blythe Winchester, of Wolftown community.
Follow this year's journey at www.facebook.com/removal.ride and on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtags #RememberTheRemoval, #RTR2019 and #RTR35 in honor of the 35th anniversary of the inaugural bike ride in 1984.