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Path to understanding

Seventeen cyclists participating in the 2018 Remember the Removal Bike Ride made a stop in Madison County June 12.

The riders were approaching the half way mark of their three-week long journey spanning approximately 950 miles along the northern route of the Trail of Tears. 

Nine members of the Cherokee Nation met up with eight from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, North Carolina to begin their ride.

Before they began their ride June 3 from New Echota, Georgia the cyclists spent a few days participating in cultural activities and team-building exercises in North Carolina. 

This year’s ride will commemorate the 180th anniversary of the Trail of Tears and cyclists will travel through seven states before ending in Tahlequa, Oklahoma.

“The Remember the Removal Bike Ride ensures our future leaders don’t forget the past and always honor the sacrifices our ancestors made,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “It is a grueling journey on a bike, but the struggles on the ride offer greater understanding of what our ancestors experienced along the trail 180 years ago as they make stops at museums, gravesites, national parks, churches and other historic sites. This experience will reshape how these young people view life and their heritage.”

According to the press release, the original Remember the Removal Bike Ride was held in 1984, and the leadership program resumed as an annual ride in 2009.

Along the journey, cyclists are given a the chance to feel the hardships their ancestors faced along the same route while taking the time to learn more about the Cherokee history, language and culture along the way.

“I have already learned so much and I am just so honored to be a part of this ride and have the opportunity to represent my tribe in this way,” Courtney Cowan said.

Jan Smith from the Eastern Band said the experience allows her to pay back her ancestors for their struggles.

“When our people came through on the Trail of Tears they struggled so that we could have a better life,” Smith said. “So this is just one small way to pay them back.”

Smith said the nicest people have come to them asking questions and even teaching them about Cherokee history they did not know.

“They are just very passionate and have talked to us about what they have researched and what they know,” Smith said. “They devote their life to researching our people and then they tell us about it.”

Smith said that the ride is hard but they all have a blast throughout the journey and are brought back to their purpose every time they go somewhere special.

“It means to actually understand what it means to be resilient as a Cherokee person,” Sky Wildcat from Cherokee Nation said. “You go through a lot of hard training and a lot of hard days but you do it together as a family and you literally learn who your relatives are. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

According to the press release, starting 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. It states that approximately 16,000 Cherokees were forced to relocate with about 4,000 dying during the journey from disease, starvation and exposure to the elements. 

Wildcat said not all that apply to participate are chosen.

“The selection process is competitive. You have to make it through the training and you have to pass a few tests,” Wildcat said. “It can be really physically trying and your body can go against you.”

Wildcat said during her training she experienced kidney failure and was unable to train for a month. 

“I didn’t know if I was going to get to do the ride,” Wildcat said. “Now that I am here it is like, wow I can’t believe I got through that.”

Smith said most aren’t allowed to participate more than once, and it is very competitive to get in.

“It’s a one-shot deal because there are so many applications,” Smith said. “We were supposed to have seven but eight got to go because one of our riders was hurt last year and didn’t get to go.”

Cyclists prepare their bikes for the end of their journey for the day as they load them into the trailers.

Cyclists prepare their bikes for the end of their journey for the day as they load them into the trailers.

According to Cherokee Nation Public Relations Specialist Josh Newton, the cyclists bike an average of 60 miles per day with water breaks every 10 to 15 miles.

“They all start training in January and spend every single weekend riding together and during the week alone,” Newton said. “We go to every effort to make sure they get where they are going and that it is very safe.”

Newton said a paramedic from the Eastern Band spent the first half of the trip with the cyclists and one from Cherokee Nation will now follow them through the second half along with two marshals.

“We have two marshals from Cherokee Nation. That’s our police force that comes out and is responsible for the safety,” Newton said. “The marshals are here to look out for the safety of the riders so they drive ahead and we may hit somewhere that there is a lot of traffic and they will say ‘hey it’s too dangerous to continue.'”

Due to high traffic on Route OO, the cyclists were forced to end their day early.

The 17 cyclists looked as if they had known each other for years as they rested under the shade tree at the Skaggs Farm. Some had only met briefly before their journey began.

“The two tribes hadn’t met until they met up in North Carolina (last) Tuesday,” Newton said. “They train for six or seven months as tribes and then they had about two days to get to know each other before the journey.”

“This has been an awesome experience so far,” Smith said.

The cyclists continued their journey through Missouri with stops in Farmington, Steelville, Waynesville, Competition, Strafford, Republic and Cassville before heading into Arkansas June 19.

According to the press release, cyclists from Cherokee Nation include Daulton Cochran of Adair County; Emilee Chavez, Lily Drywater, Dale Eagle, Parker Weavel and Sky Wildcat, all of Cherokee County; Courtney Cowan of Delaware County; Autumn Lawless of Muskogee County; and Amari McCoy of Sequoyah County. The riders are being accompanied by Jennifer Johnson, an Oklahoma City lawyer and Cherokee Nation citizen who was chosen as the 2018 mentor rider.

Participants from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are Jan Smith, Seth Ledford, Lori Owle, Nolan Arkansas, Brooke Coggins, Darius Lambert, Ahli-sha Stephens and Bo Taylor.

To follow the Remember the Removal Bike Ride at http://www.facebook.com/removal.ride and at https://remembertheremoval.cherokee.org/ or on Twitter and Instagram, search for the hashtags #RTR018 and #WeRemember.

Cyclists participating in the Remember the Removal Bike Ride posed for a group photo during their break in Madison County Tuesday. Pictured from left are Bo Taylor, Jan Smith, Emilee Chavez, Lily Drywater, Lori Owle, Jennifer Johnson, Brooke Coggins, Sky Wildcat, Nolan Arkansas, Amari McCoy, Darius Lambert, Ahli-sha Stephens, Autumn Lawless, Daulton Cochran, Seth Ledford, Courtney Cowan and Parker Weavel.

Cyclists participating in the Remember the Removal Bike Ride posed for a group photo during their break in Madison County Tuesday. Pictured from left are Bo Taylor, Jan Smith, Emilee Chavez, Lily Drywater, Lori Owle, Jennifer Johnson, Brooke Coggins, Sky Wildcat, Nolan Arkansas, Amari McCoy, Darius Lambert, Ahli-sha Stephens, Autumn Lawless, Daulton Cochran, Seth Ledford, Courtney Cowan and Parker Weavel.

Victoria Kemper is a reporter for the Democrat News. She can be reached at 573-783-3366 or at vkemper@democratnewsonline.com

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