TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -- Twelve cyclists participating in the 2017 Remember the Removal Bike Ride left the Cherokee Nation Tuesday to begin a three-week, 950-mile trek retracing the northern route of the Trail of Tears.
The Cherokee Nation cyclists will join eight cyclists from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, North Carolina, and will begin their ride in New Echota, Georgia, on June 4. The ride spans seven states before concluding in Tahlequah on June 22.
"Each and every year, the Remember the Removal effort enables some of Cherokee Nation's strongest emerging leaders to participate in a unique event that is focused on individual growth, teamwork development and, most importantly, sharing Cherokee history and heritage," Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. "The journey from Georgia to Oklahoma is mentally and physically challenging, and these young people will return home in a few weeks with a new and profound appreciation of the multitude of sacrifices our ancestors made along the Trail of Tears."
The original Remember the Removal Bike Ride was in 1984, with the leadership program resuming in 2009. Participants learn about Cherokee Nation history, language and culture and get a glimpse of the hardships their ancestors faced while making the journey on foot.
In 1838, 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 trek to Indian Territory, it is estimated that 4,000 died from exposure, disease and starvation.
Remember the Removal Bike Ride participant Ellic Miller said the ride gives him the opportunity to connect to his ancestors.
"I want to go and honor our ancestors and retrace their steps from when they were removed to somewhat experience what they felt, but for us, this is voluntary and not life and death," Miller said. "When I first signed up, I wanted to do the Remember the Removal Bike Ride for the physical sport and I thought it would be fun to push myself, but now I really feel like I'm doing it to learn about my ancestors. To me, it will be a mental challenge and we just have to keep going. It's going to be hard, but not as hard as it was for our ancestors on the Trail of Tears."
This year, riders will be accompanied by Will Chavez, a participant of the original 1984 Remember the Removal Bike Ride. Chavez was chosen as the program's inaugural "Mentor Rider."
"I did the inaugural ride in 1984 as a 17-year-old kid. The Remember the Removal program means a lot to me because it changed my life as a young man, giving me the confidence to take on the challenges I faced later in life," Chavez said. "Today, the program continues to boost the self-confidence and develop the leadership skills of participants, showing them they are capable of much more than they realize. It has been a great experience for me to take part in this commemorative ride again as one of the riders."
Cyclists will also help promote national parks along their journey in honor of a $25,000 grant awarded to the program by the National Park Foundation.
Cherokee Nation cyclists include Brian Barlow, Hunter Scott, Ellic Miller and Macie Sullateskee, all of Cherokee County; Trey Pritchett, KenLea Henson and Susie Q. Means-Worley, all of Adair County; Skylar Vann and Gaya Pickup, both of Mayes County; Breanna Anderson, of Tulsa County; Shelby Deal, of Muskogee County; and Raven Girty, of Sequoyah County.
Participants from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are Zane Wachacha, Bo Taylor, Israel Rodriguez, Chavella Taylor, Haley Cooper, Taylor Wilnoty, Renissa McLaughlin and Sheyahshe Littledave.
Follow the Remember the Removal Bike Ride journey at www.facebook.com/removal.ride or by searching for the hashtags #RememberTheRemoval and #RTR2017 on Twitter.
Cyclists will travel through the following cities and states on these dates:
June 4 - New Echota to Cleveland, Tennessee
June 5 - Cleveland to Dayton
June 6 - Dayton to Spencer
June 7 - Spencer to Murfreesboro
June 8 - Murfreesboro to Goodlettsville
June 9 - Goodlettsville to Hopkinsville, Kentucky
June 10 - Hopkinsville to Paducah
June 11 - Paducah to Cape Girardeau, Missouri
June 13 - Cape Girardeau to Farmington
June 14 - Farmington to Cuba
June 15 - Cuba to St. Robert
June 16 - St. Robert to Lebanon
June 17 - Lebanon to Springfield
June 19 - Springfield to Cassville
June 20 - Cassville to Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 21 - Fayetteville to Stilwell, Oklahoma