By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Asst. Editor
KITUWAH – Ten Cherokee cyclists stood on the mound at Kituwah on a sunny, late spring evening preparing themselves for a journey through history and emotion. A send-off event was held for the 2023 Remember the Removal Ride (RTR) at Kituwah on the evening of Friday, June 2.
Five cyclists from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) – Destiny Mills, Sunshine Parker, Venita Wolfe, Rae Queen, and Nelson Lambert – will join six cyclists and from the Cherokee Nation – Amaiya Bearpaw, Mattie Berry, Samantha Cavin, Kenzie Shell, Faith Springwater, and mentor Libby Neugin – in retracing the northern route of the Trail of Tears over the next several weeks.
The ride was first held in 1984, and this year is the 15th ride and the 11th ride in which EBCI tribal members have participated.
Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, a 2014 RTR alumni, spoke during the event and gave a message to the riders, “I want to ask you to think, for just a moment, that while you’re on this journey that it is really all about reflection. You’re going to have a lot of time to reflect. I know everyone likes to have their music. Turn that off from time-to-time and listen to the silence. Listen to just your voice. Listen to just your breath as you’re peddling and straining to climb hills in the heat.”
“Reflect on what an honor and privilege it is to be selected for this ride. You represent your family. You represent your tribe. And, most of all, you represent yourself because you are going to be forever changed at the end of this journey. Reflect on your own life. Reflect on how you’ve already changed through the training – how your heart has been opened with the knowledge that you need to know your own history, that we all need to know our own history and that that changes us. Reflect on our ancestors. Reflect on their strength, their tenacity, their perseverance.”
Will Chavez, a Cherokee Nation citizen and participant in the first RTR event in 1984, told the crowd, “It’s a memorial ride really. We honor our ancestors. Next year, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first ride.”
Chavez said he recently spent time with RTR co-creator Michael Morris. “He told me the main reason for starting the ride was to get our trails marked by the federal government. All the way from here to Oklahoma, there were were no markers for the trails our people took.”
“Three years later, in 1987, Congress did finally allocate some funding to start marking the Cherokee trails. I like to think we had a part in that just because we were out there trying to bring attention to what happened to our people and the fact that those trails weren’t marked. So, nowadays, once we start in Georgia, you’ll see those brown and blue markers all the new from New Echota (Ga.) to Tahlequah (Okla.).”
Amy West, an EBCI tribal member, who went on the RTR ride last year, told the crowd about her experiences with the ride and said she came home a changed person. “As long as you’ve kept up with your training, physically, you are ready, trust me. You might feel like you’re not the strongest rider, but you have a team and your ancestors to help carry you. I felt my strongest on my bike.”
She said everyone has asked her what the hardest part of the ride was. “To me, it wasn’t the riding. That was really easy. It was feeling how my ancestors struggled and knowing they traveled where you are riding. You will feel them every step of the way. Take it all in. Riding your bike is truly a luxury compared to what they endured. Remember that whenever you cannot pedal anymore.”
The One Feather asked the EBCI riders their thoughts as they’re about to embark on this journey. Here’s what they had to say:
Destiny Mills, of the Wolftown Community, said, “I’m just really excited to get on the Trail and see what our ancestors went through. After learning all of the history and learning our genealogy, it just reminds me that this was real. This happened to our ancestors, and I think it is important that we remember it, remember them, and I’m super-excited to do that.”
Rae Queen, of the Big Cove Community, said, “I’m just ready to make new friendships with the Cherokee Nation team and gain the knowledge and history that we didn’t learn in school and just enjoy this journey and learn more about myself.”
Venita Wolfe, of the Big Cove Community, said, “I am just thinking about getting on the road and doing the best ride we can each day and supporting each other throughout the entire ride. It’s going to be a journey. I’m really happy that Cherokee Nation is here and that we’re all one team. Go Cherokees!”
Sunshine Parker, of the Yellowhill Community, said, “I think the biggest thought that we’ve been talking about is that it just came really fast – six months seemed like a long time out. Suddenly, we’re two days out from leaving and just thinking about seeing all of the spots that we’ve learned about on the Trail and knowing where our ancestors were at…I’m excited to see Rattlesnake Springs because that’s where Standing Wolf turned around and came back home, and that’s my ancestor. So, I’m excited to see that and what that looks like…I think a chance to finally put a location to all of the things we’ve learned about. I’m excited. I’m ready to go.”
Nelson Lambert, of the Birdtown Community, said, “There are a lot of emotions and excitement. I know we’re ready physically. We did a team-building earlier today, and we let some stuff out about why we are doing the ride.”
Lambert said one of his fears early on was not feeling the connection. “I was actually nervous about getting there and not feeling anything.”
Prior to Friday’s event, the riders had a private ceremony on the Kituwah Mound, and Lambert said that helped to squelch his fear. “Something touched me, and I wanted to share something with the group that I haven’t shared with anyone…we haven’t even started biking yet, and I already know that I’m going to get everything out of it that I wanted to get out of it and even more. When they talk it being life-changing, it already has been.”