COMMENTARY – MMIW Profile: The Trail of Tears

by Jun 25, 2024OPINIONS0 comments


Tsisgwohi (Birdtown)


The 2024 Remember the Removal (RTR) riders just concluded their 950-mile trek from New Echota, Georgia, to Tahlequah, Okla., tracing the northern route of the Indian Removal, also known as the Trail of Tears.

Riders from the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) participate in the bike ride to remember the forced displacement of their ancestors. With this tragic history top of mind in recent weeks, I was compelled to research the history of the Trail of Tears as one of the oldest and most well-documented Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) cases for the Cherokee people, and for Indigenous nations throughout the Southeast who were forced to experience the Trail of Tears.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Bureau of Indian Affairs describes the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People as a “crisis,” stating “For decades, Native American and Alaska Native communities have struggled with high rates of assault, abduction, and murder of tribal members. Community advocates describe the crisis as a legacy for generations of government policies inflicting forced removal, land seizures and violence on Native peoples.”

DOI goes on to say, “Native American and Alaska Native rates of murder, rape, and violent crime are all higher than the national averages.  When looking at missing and murdered cases, data shows that Native American and Alaska Native women make up a significant portion of missing and murdered individuals.” MMIR is a crisis affecting all Native American and Alaska Native communities and peoples, with the intersection of Native American and Alaska Native women affected at a significant rate.

Scholars, historians, and activists argue that violence against Native women has been a pattern of colonialism for centuries. Devon A. Mihesuah, a Choctaw author and historian, examines in her book, “Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism” the usurping of traditional Indigenous philosophies of gender and the sexualization of Native women and girls by colonial patriarchal structures.

It is within this historical backdrop that we find the contemporary issue of MMIR. History must not be ignored in the contemporary context of violence, kidnapping and murder facing tribal communities. The devaluing of Native peoples is the historical trend plaguing the MMIR crisis, and that devaluing is on full display in the history and legacy of the Trail of Tears.

In 1941, Adolf Hitler infamously stated, “The Volga must be our Mississippi,” drawing illustrative comparisons to America’s manifest destiny expulsion of Native peoples west of the Mississippi River and the Nazi regime’s mission to meet out the same treachery across the Volga River in Europe.

Nazi Germany and 19th century America shared the same desires to displace, starve, enslave and ultimately kill. The internment, starvation, and murder of Indigenous peoples along the Trail of Tears was an inspiration for Hitler, one of the most notorious names of modern history.

The American president from whom Hitler drew inspiration is plastered across our $20 bill.

Thousands of Cherokee men, women and children died during the Removal from exposure, starvation, and disease. They were buried in mass graves along the route, which our RTR riders visit on their journey.

The displacement, the disconnection, the missing. The unmarked graves of Cherokee people scattered across the middle-United States.

That extreme feeling of loss, of the unknown, of the injustice, is the feeling of MMIR.

MMIR is a crisis that is felt in remembrance of the Removal, but the genocide began well before the 1830s. Our true number, our true list of names, is inconceivable.

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T).