Remember the Removal bike rider Tighe Wachacha celebrates on June 20 as he crosses into Oklahoma from Arkansas. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX

Cyclists return after retracing Trail of Tears

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians rider Marvel Welch of Cherokee, N.C., center, helps lead the Remember the Removal riders on June 21 into Tahlequah, Okla. At 53, Welch was oldest rider. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX Friends and family greet LaTasha Atcity of Tahlequah on June 21 as she enters the Cherokee Courthouse Square in Tahlequah, Okla., during a welcoming ceremony for the Remember the Removal bike riders who retraced the northern route of the Trail of Tears. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians cyclist Hilary Gallegos, right, rides into the Cherokee Courthouse Square during a welcoming ceremony on June 21 for 22 Cherokee riders who retraced the Trail of Tears on the 175th anniversary of the forced removal. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX Casey Cooper, CEO of the Cherokee Indian Hospital in Cherokee, N.C., speaks on June 21 during a welcoming ceremony about the importance of the Remember the Removal bicycle ride. Cooper, who rode the trek in 2011, commended the Cherokee Nation for organizing the ride. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX A map showing the route of the Remember the Removal bike ride from New Echota, Ga., the old Cherokee Nation capital, to Tahlequah, Okla., the current CN capital. COURTESY PHOTO
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians rider Marvel Welch of Cherokee, N.C., center, helps lead the Remember the Removal riders on June 21 into Tahlequah, Okla. At 53, Welch was oldest rider. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
06/25/2013 08:36 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Marvel Welch, 53, the oldest of the 2013 Remember the Removal bicycle riders, helped lead the cyclists on June 21 into Tahlequah as they ended their journey to cheers by family and friends.

Welch was one of seven riders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who joined 15 riders from the Cherokee Nation. Together, they rode through seven states in three weeks – from New Echota, Ga., to Oklahoma – to commemorate the Trail of Tears. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the beginning of the forced removal that began in May 1838 when Cherokees were captured and moved to Indian Territory.

Welch of Cherokee, N.C., said her Cherokee ancestors remained in their North Carolina homelands after the removal, but dispelled the thought that her ancestors were not affected.

“My grandfather French moved back to North Carolina (after living in Oklahoma) and brought my mother. He traveled back and forth between Tahlequah and Cherokee,” she said. “This journey has been truly amazing with the young spirits that are with me. They’re all younger. I consider them kids. Their energy has kept me going. The land, at the places we have stopped, you can feel our past relations with us.”

Welch said she struggled at times during the journey, once riding up a large hill in Tennessee’s Cumberland Gap. She said she refused to get off of her bike and walk as other riders saw her struggle and came back to encourage her and put their hands on her back without pushing as she made it to the top of the hill.

“It’s just the amazing the energy that was there and the togetherness. I thought I was here to watch over them, and they were watching over me,” she said.

LaTasha Atcity of Tahlequah said she’s known of the ride since 2009 when it was reorganized 25 years after the initial trek. She hesitated turning in an application for four years. After hearing more about the ride she thought it would be an “amazing experience” because she knew little about her Cherokee heritage or the Trail of Tears and saw the ride as a way to learn.

“That’s something that really motivated me – to figure out what my heritage is and (learn about) the ancestors that brought me where I am today,” she said. “When I struggled every single day or when it was hot and I’m hungry, I knew that there was an end. My ancestors didn’t really know what the end was going to be. I’m going to go home, and I’m going to be able to sleep in my bed and see my family. They didn’t have that opportunity.”

EBCI rider Tighe Wachacha helped film a documentary about the ride two years ago. He applied for the ride in 2012 but was not selected. He trained and applied for this year’s ride and made the cut.

“After I watched them complete the ride...I immediately knew I wanted to try it,” he said. “Yeah, my ancestors didn’t have to make the trip, but the people of the Cherokee Nation are cousins or brothers and sisters of mine. I get a sense of how they felt leaving my own family behind because I’ve got two girls and a wife at home who I’ve not seen in three weeks.”

Fellow EBCI rider Hilary Gallegos said the opportunity to take the journey gave her a chance to learn about a time in Cherokee history that her family barely discussed and to form a bond with Oklahoma Cherokees.

“I’m glad I had this opportunity to get to know the facts about the Trail of Tears and what happened and to let everyone know we’re still here,” she said. “I’m just overwhelmed with joy for getting to know those that are in this journey that will forever be my family.”

The riders pedaled 950 miles through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma via a land route known as the Northern Route. Approximately 16,000 Cherokee people were removed from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina in the spring of 1838. It’s estimated nearly 4,000 of them died during the roundup, incarceration and removal.

EBCI rider Yona Wade said he can imagine how Cherokee people felt leaving their homes as he left his in Cherokee, crossing the Tennessee River at Blythe Ferry and watching the mountains fade into the distance.

“The Trail of Tears is a very important part of Cherokee history as a whole and us as one people, so it was very important for me to participate in this to understand the trials and tribulations our people faced during their journey to Oklahoma,” Wade said.

During the welcoming ceremony, Casey Cooper, CEO of the Cherokee Indian Hospital in Cherokee, spoke about the importance of the ride and encouraged CN leadership to support it. Cooper, who took the ride in 2011, commended the CN for organizing it to instill leadership in youth and teach Cherokee history.

“I am confident that your investment in your future leadership will bring you more yield than anything else you could possibly invest in,” he said. “We hope that you endeavor to keep this alive and that you will continue to put all the resources necessary into ensuring that not only our tribe, the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band, UKB (United Keetoowah Band) and tribes across the country never forgets the Trail of Tears, but that our country never forgets the Trail of Tears.”


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09/23/2014 03:35 PM
WASHINGTON – Viewers watching the Sept. 21 Washington Redskins game on Fox Sunday were shown the “South Park” season 18 preview as it aired during the fourth quarter. In the commercial, “South Park” character Eric Cartman takes advantage of the team losing the team’s trademark name, naming his company after the team. During the preview, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder demands that Cartman change the name stating that it’s offensive and derogatory. “When I named my company Washington Redskins, it was out of deep appreciation for your team and your people,” Cartman said. The “South Park” series premiere begins Sept. 24 on Comedy Central.
09/23/2014 11:53 AM
WINSLOW, Ariz. (AP) – A dusty, barren field in the shadow of a busy Arizona interstate was for decades a place where children played freely, teenagers spooked themselves on Halloween and locals dumped trash, seemingly unaware of the history beneath them. Inside cotton sacks, burlap bags and blankets buried in the ground are the remains dating back to the 1930s of stillborn babies, tuberculosis patients, and sick and malnourished Native Americans from Winslow and the nearby Navajo and Hopi reservations. It’s hard, if not impossible, to know where each grave, some just 18 inches deep, is located at the Winslow Indian Cemetery. The aluminum plates and crosses that once marked them were trampled on, washed away or carried off. It was no place to mourn, thought local historical preservationist Gail Sadler, before she made it her mission to unearth the identities of the roughly 600 people buried there and help their descendants reconnect with their history. “If anyone is searching for family, I don’t want these little ones to be lost,” said the soft-spoken child welfare worker. What she learned, however, was that not everyone wanted to reconnect. Her Mormon belief about the value of knowing one’s ancestry suddenly came up against traditional Navajo beliefs about death as something one rarely discusses, and Navajo and Hopi tradition about not visiting burial sites. Some warned her that she risked inviting evil spirits if she continued her pursuit of the dead. Sadler, 58, said she was both heartbroken - and appalled - at the condition of the cemetery when she first laid eyes on it in 2008, soon after she had been appointed to the Winslow Historic Preservation Commission. On her first visit, she climbed through a barbed wire fence and found liquor bottles, roofing shingles and a washing machine. She wondered if a hole in the corner meant someone was trying to dig a fresh grave or dig up an old one. She said she was moved by a “sweet spirit” and a desire to restore respect and dignity to the burial ground, with a better security fence and a monument. “It just struck me that it was going to need a champion or nothing would be done,” she said. The cemetery was an afterthought in Winslow, a railroad city on the edge of the Navajo and Hopi reservations that was immortalized in 1972 by the Eagles’ song, “Take it Easy,” with the lyrics: “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.” In the early 1930s, the land where the cemetery is was tied to a tuberculosis sanatorium that broadened its patient base and finally became the Winslow Indian Health Care Center. Native Americans who died there were taken the half-mile to the cemetery and largely forgotten over time. Finding out who was buried there became Sadler’s main fundraising tool to get a more secure fence built. With the names of only a few dozen that she gathered from a former commissioner, she said city officials initially were hesitant to contribute to the cause. Her mission quickly became an obsession. On nights after work and on weekends, Sadler would go online and scour death certificates - some 8,800 from 1932 to 1962 - looking for the Indian Cemetery as the final resting place. Sadler then would painstakingly enter each detail into a spreadsheet, from parents’ names to birthplaces to causes of death. Her project also kept her up at night. Lying restless in her bed, she would slip out of the blankets and walk barefoot in the dark to a corner bedroom set up as an office. She would flip on the light and get to work. She would imagine the stories and the faces of the people she read about. Sadler struggled with reading about a mother who died in labor, along with her newborn. The placenta preceded the child, and the mother hemorrhaged. Sadler experienced hemorrhaging in successfully delivering one of her own children. “I shed more than one tear, especially when I would see the same mother, several times over the years burying a baby there. It just melted my heart,” said Sadler, who has eight children in a blended family, and 17 grandchildren. So far, she has found at least 543 names of people buried at the cemetery, and publicized her index in local papers and at the “Standing on the Corner” festival and others that attracted townsfolk, tourists and Navajo and Hopi tribal members. Sadler was met with blank stares, raised eyebrows and warnings not to press forward with her work when she spoke with traditional Navajos, whose culture teaches that death is not something to dwell on and that burial sites should be avoided. “If you talk about death, you’re in a sense luring death to come to you,” said Paul Begay, whose knowledge of Navajo culture and history was passed down through his father and grandfather, both medicine men. Burials of Hopi generally are private and occur within a day of a person’s death to allow the physical and spiritual journey of a person to begin simultaneously. Once a person is buried, Hopis don’t revisit the burial site. “We allow nature to take its course, and the spirit has journeyed already,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe’s cultural preservation office, but talking about a deceased person isn’t frowned upon. “When you remember your people, you recognize that spiritually they are still with us,” he said. In April, Sadler accomplished one of her goals: A simple black iron fence replaced the barbed wire fence at the cemetery, paid for by donations and the city. She still is seeking funds to build a monument to those who were buried there. Her index, however, continues to inspire discussions among Native American families, unearthing lost history. Sylvia John, 63, found out five years ago that she had a brother who died after a fall as a toddler. She asked her mother about him after seeing him in old family photos but didn’t push for more details in deference to her traditional Navajo beliefs. On a recent day, they took a break from a quilting class and flipped through photos of the chubby-cheeked toddler wearing a western shirt, sitting on his mother’s lap and standing next to his father. Only then did John, who is Mormon, ask her 89-year-old mother where her brother was buried. At the Winslow Indian Cemetery, she said. His name is on the first page of Sadler’s index. “I’m just wanting to go there to the cemetery and look for him,” Sylvia John said.
09/22/2014 03:43 PM
CLAREMORE, Okla. – Something new has been added to the four-day “Will Rogers Days,” marking the Nov. 4, 1879, birthday of Will Rogers and the 1938 opening of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore. A “Mid-Afternoon Frolic” amateur talent show will be Sunday afternoon from 2-4. Open to the first 20 applicants, cash prizes will be $150, first place; $100, second place; and $50, third place. Applications are available on the website at or at the Museum admissions desk. The “Frolic” is a take-off on Will’s vaudeville days when he performed in the “Midnight Frolic” variety show on the roof of New York City’s Amsterdam Theatre. “Will Rogers Days,” begin at 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 1, with a parade through downtown Claremore and continues with the Indian Women’s Pocahontas Club traditional program including a wreath laying and a lunch at the Memorial Museum. Headlining the parade will be Alaska & Madi, a Tulsa duo who competed in The Voice as part of “Team Blake (Shelton).” Parade entry forms are available on the Claremore Reveille Rotary website. Cash incentives are offered marching bands. Monday, Nov. 3, is “Children’s Day” at the Museum. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. school children are invited to tour the museum. Schools are required to make reservations to assure available space. A magician has been added to the list of activities that includes popular Cherokee storyteller Robert Lewis, trick roping, sing-a-along, old-fashioned games, coloring and refreshments. Roger’s birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 4, will be a day for a group of area school children to enjoy the ranch near Oologah, where Rogers was born, and to celebrate his 135th birthday. Kowboy Kal, a champion trick roper, will entertain. Oologah-Talala students, directed by Kim Grazier, will present her original musical of the life of Will, which will also be presented during “Children’s Day.” The program starts at 10 a.m. and ends about 11:30 a.m. with birthday cake and cookies. All events are free and open to the public.
09/22/2014 01:52 PM
COLCORD, Okla. –The Cherokee Nation recently donated a 2009 Honda Accord to Colcord Public School in order to help the school continue its driver’s education program. The school previously leased a car from the Ford dealership in Stilwell but no longer had that option due to budget constraints. The donated CN car was previously used as a government vehicle. Colcord Public Schools Superintendent Bud Simmons said he was grateful for the tribe’s donation. “Without the gracious donation by Tribal Councilor Curtis Snell and the Cherokee Nation, Colcord Public Schools would have had to discontinue the driver’s education program,” Simmons said. “The tribe basically saved the program for our school.” According to a CN Communications press release, Colcord Public Schools has approximately 625 students enrolled, with nearly 50 students participating in the driver’s education program each year. Tribal Councilor Curtis Snell said having a driver’s education program is essential for school systems. “I’m happy Chief Baker and the tribe were able to help continue the program so that Colcord students could get safe driving instruction,” Snell said.
09/19/2014 03:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Entry-level Cherokee Nation employees will see their wage increase from $9 to $9.50 beginning Oct. 1 when the tribe’s new fiscal year begins. By executive order, Principal Chief Bill John Baker raised the tribe’s minimum wage to $9.50 on Feb. 24, 2014, and ordered it to go into effect Oct. 1. The order raises the minimum wage for employees who have been employed by the CN for at least six months, provides for staggered increases for the minimum hourly wage, and it encourages other CN entities to implement a comparable wage increase. CN Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said by raising the tribe’s minimum wage, Chief Baker “pushed wages up” overall throughout the tribe’s government and businesses, meaning current workers would see their hourly wage increase and would not be making the same wage as someone just hired by the CN. “We really raised it because Chief Baker thought it was the right thing to do. The buying power of our minimum wage just wasn’t what it used to be. We needed to make sure our entry-level employees had a wage that they could make a living on,” Hoskin said. The tribe’s minimum wage is $2.25 more than the state’s minimum wage of $7.25. “When we can pay our entry-level employees a competitive wage we really do them a favor, but we really do the whole nation a favor because we raise the quality of life among all our people,” Hoskin said. “It’s important because we want the folks that are entry-level employees to be able to make a living. We want them to be able to put money aside for savings, be able to pay their bills.” He added the CN and its businesses also offer an optional benefits package for employees that include health and 401(k) retirement benefits that the CN and its businesses contribute to for an employee. Last March, the Cherokee Nation Businesses Board of Directors answered Baker’s challenge and unanimously voted to also increase its minimum wage to $9.50 an hour for its businesses, which also goes into effect Oct. 1. CNB Vice-President of Human Resources Bob Thomas said current CNB employees would actually receive an increase of more than $9.50 to prevent “compression.” “We would take that rate all the way up to people making $10.35, it would be a sliding scale, and it would give us the opportunity not to have any kind compression going on where we have somebody that’s been here a year or two making $9.50 an hour all of sudden making the same amount as a new person that comes in,” Thomas said. Board member Jerry Holderby said a study commissioned by the board shows what a CNB employee is making in total when other benefits are included like incentives, bonuses, health insurance, and employer contributions to 401(k) retirement plans. The study showed minimum wage CNB employees were actually making $13 an hour if they took advantage of all the benefits offered by the company. “Folks out in the communities, Cherokee and non-Cherokee, have expressed appreciation (for the minimum wage increase). You have to remember with 9,000 employees we are all over northeastern Oklahoma, so if our people are earning a better wage that helps the communities and the buying power of families. It’s really a win-win for the whole region,” Hoskin said.
09/19/2014 01:28 PM
WASHINGTON (AP) – A U.S. senator threatened the NFL with legislation over Washington's nickname, a letter was dispatched to the other 31 team owners, and the issue was linked to the league's other recent troubles Tuesday as the anti-"Redskins" movement took its cause to Capitol Hill. In a news conference that featured Native American, civil rights and religious leaders, Sen. Maria Cantwell took aim at the NFL's pocketbook by announcing she will introduce a bill to strip the league's tax-exempt status because it has not taken action over the team name. While prospects for such a bill becoming law would be tenuous, the inevitable hearings before lawmakers would enhance the spotlight on a movement that has gained substantial momentum over the past two years. "The NFL needs to join the rest of America in the 21st Century," said Cantwell, D-Wash., the former chairwoman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "We can no longer tolerate this attitude toward Native Americans. This is not about team tradition. This is about right and wrong." Overall, the message from the "Change the Mascot" leaders was that they don't plan to go away, despite team owner Dan Snyder's vow not to change the name. They presented a letter that will be sent to every NFL owner except Snyder, asking each to use his "position of authority" to end the league's "promotion of a dictionary-defined racial slur." Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter said he hoped an owner will take a bold position against the name. He cited Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who integrated major league baseball by signing Jackie Robinson, and longtime Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who changed his NBA's team from Bullets because of the violence associated with the term. "We're looking for the Branch Rickey, looking for Abe Pollin," Halbritter said. "They're out there. We know the owners don't share in this, but they share in the profits." Halbritter had harsh words for the league as a whole, referencing the NFL's handling of health problems suffered by former players, as well as the recent Ray Rice domestic violence saga and the child abuse charge levied against Adrian Peterson. "The NFL is currently facing an integrity crisis. ... While these are different issues, they are joined by a common thread of showing commercial and moral arrogance and a blatant lack of respect for those being negatively impacted," Halbritter said. The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier Tuesday, the league announced that it has hired a former White House official to help the league with legislative issues. Cynthia Hogan will be the league's senior vice president of public policy and government affairs and will be based in Washington. A team spokesman Tony Wyllie responded to Cantwell's proposed legislation by citing a poll in the team's favor. "Our position remains consistent with more than 80 percent of Americans who do not want to change the Washington Redskins name," Wyllie said. The debate over the name could influence the team’s plan to build a new stadium when their lease at FedEx Field, located in D.C.'s Maryland suburbs, expires in 2027. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's delegate to Congress, said the team would have a hard time moving back to the city unless the name is changed. "I would make every effort in the Congress to make sure they could not come back with that name," Norton said. Snyder has said that the team name and logo is meant to honor Native Americans, and the team has promoted American Indians who say they aren't offended by the name or by the use of the term "redskin" in general. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., offered a counterargument by displaying an 1863 newspaper front page that included the sentence: "The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory." "It can only be money that motivates the NFL with a slur that harkens back to the darkest days, when a white man could get paid for hunting down and murdering an Indian in cold blood for money," McCollum said. "This team name is a reminder of that brutal violence."