‘Remember the Removal’ cyclists visit Mantle Rock
SMITHLAND, Ky. – “Remember the Removal” cyclists have visited numerous sites on their 950-mile journey retracing the Trail of Tears, but the emotional impact of Mantle Rock will keep it fresh in the memories of several for years to come.
“Whenever we got down there to the actual rock, we all kind of sat down and I just couldn’t help but cry, thinking of everything (our ancestors) had to go through,” Macie Sullateskee, cyclist and Cherokee Nation citizen, said.
Mantle Rock is located near the Kentucky-Illinois border and is the largest freestanding arch east of the Mississippi River. At 188 feet long and 30 feet high, it can be reached only by walking a mile through forest terrain.
The Hilderbrand contingent of 1,766 Cherokees was forced to stay at Mantle Rock for three weeks during the winter of 1838-39, taking shelter under the rock arch while waiting on the Ohio River to thaw to allow them to cross. It is unknown how many Cherokees died at the site, which is now part of the National Trail of Tears Historic Trail.
“Sometimes it’s hard to really imagine it, and now we’re here and we’re walking the same path that they walked,” said Sullateskee. “I was just trying to think about all the emotions that they must have been feeling and how scary that must be, to not know where you are, how much longer, if you’re going to lose one of your loved ones or not.”
At the site, the mood was somber and quiet as the cyclists gathered underneath the arch to reflect upon its significance.
“It really put me in a weird sense of feeling, like, ‘Wow, so long ago, they were there,’” Zane Wachacha, an Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians cyclist, said. “My ancestors were there in the exact same place and they were forced there, yet I made a decision and choice to go there and I could leave any time of the day. It just amazes me how so many years down the road, how it means so much and it just hits you, touches your heart.”
Several cyclists carved their Cherokee names into the moss as a way to leave their mark at the site and connect to their ancestors who came before. They also sang a traditional Cherokee hymn and prayed before making the mile trek back.
“We were all standing around and circled up and prayed,” Shelby Deal, CN cyclist, said. “I just started crying. It was really emotional and it’s like, you just feel it.”
EBCI cyclist Sheyahshe Littledave admitted to not knowing much about the site before speaking with the program’s past participants, but she was quick to take their advice of simply sitting down quietly to take it all in.
“Everybody was quiet and I just sat there and closed my eyes and what I got was guilt,” she said. “I got guilt because I don’t feel like I’ve done enough as far as educating others and trying to make sure that our ancestors have not been forgotten. It was really hard to sit there and just realize that people died and you’re off living your life. It’s in your blood. It’s part of your legacy, your ancestry.”
Moving forward, Littledave is using the stops along the ride as a way of educating onlookers about her Cherokee ancestors.
“I’ve learned it’s a step. That’s part of our job, and part of what we’re doing is to make sure that we never forget the Trail of Tears. So hopefully I’m on my way to doing better things for my people.”
The cyclists began their journey on June 4 in New Echota, Georgia, and were slated to finish June 22 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.