Brits cite cultural learning as reason to retrace Trail
Jamie Barnes and Ian Finch, United Kingdom citizens who followed a Trail of Tears route from the Smoky Mountains to Tahlequah, meet with Principal Chief Bill John Baker on June 10, a day before returning to London on June 11. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – Having completed a lengthy journey, a pair of foreign visitors took up residence for a few days at the Cherokee Heritage Center as part of their effort to learn more about Cherokee culture.
Their trek wasn’t for the faint-hearted, and it roughly followed a 1,500-mile route of the Trail of Tears that Cherokees were forced along after their ejection from homelands in the early 19th century.
Ian Finch, 40, and Jamie Barnes, 25, are United Kingdom citizens, but they decided to make an 80-day journey that mirrored a removal trail because of a wish to learn about the history, culture and traditions of another people.
Referring to the Trail of Tears as a “story of injustice, survival and resistance,” Finch, an experienced long-distance outdoors traveler, along with Barnes, making his first ultra-trip, walked five days from the northeast side of the Smoky Mountains, paddled 900 miles in a canoe along stretches of the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and walked nearly 400 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, to Tahlequah.
“Growing up, I always had a fascination with cultures all around the world, and Native American cultures always stood out to me,” Barnes said. “I never heard anything about the Trail of Tears. I had very minimal knowledge about the actual tribes. I was told of the Trail of Tears by a friend of mine from Florida, and I was quite shocked that something like that had happened that recently in history.”
Finch and Barnes’s journey was not a simple test of their mettle. They wanted to learn about the momentousness of their route, historically and culturally. They were accompanied on the last few miles of their walk by brothers Wrighter and Parker Weavel – “Remember the Removal” riders from 2015 and 2017, respectively. Elder John Ross of the Cherokee Nation’s Department of Translation was along for a mile. They discussed the trail’s importance, including its emotional significance, to the Cherokee people.
Upon completing the journey, Barnes said they “wanted to learn about the Cherokee culture of today.”
“This week (in Tahlequah) has been really important,” Finch said. “We got to meet people and talk with them. We even got to meet the (Principal) Chief (Bill John Baker). We have met people who are interested in sustaining cultural traditions such as language, clothing and music. This was a very important element to the trip. Wrighter and Parker are part of the future of these cultural traditions, and we really wanted to speak with those who cared and wanted to preserve Cherokee culture.”
Barnes’ longest trip prior to his Tahlequah excursion was a 100-mile hike into northern Norway. He has also visited the northeast U.S. Finch has gone on several lengthy trips, and has visited many regions of the U.S., including a 2,000-mile canoe trip on the Yukon River in Alaska.
“That also had a thread of Native culture,” Finch said. “I canoed the river and talked with some of the people who depend on the river for subsistence living. There is a disconnection because now they can’t live on the chinook and moose, because the government is telling them how many fish they can take from the river, or that they can only take one moose per winter.”
The men characterized their Cherokee hosts as “wonderful.”
“Everyone has been humble, generous and hospitable,” Barnes said. “And there was even some curiosity about us, just as we’re curious about them. I don’t think I’ve met anyone in the U.K. who is even aware of the Trail of Tears. For us, it is nice to be able to meet people, take photographs, and take a story back.”
Barnes is a video producer designing games, and Ian is an outdoor guide and photographer, but word of their trip has trickled into some places across the Atlantic.
“This has generated some interest in the U.K. about the story, not about us, but about the Cherokee people and the Trail of Tears,” Finch said. “It also highlights the Cherokee culture of today – the depths, traditions and nuances – that are not really well known in the U.K.”