Research shows ‘RTR’ ride benefits participants
Raven Girty, of Gore, speaks about her experiences on the annual “Remember the Removal” bicycle ride that she took part in 2017 during a panel discussion held in April at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. Sitting with her are KenLea Henson, left, and Macie Sullateskee, who also participated in the 2017 ride. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen J.D. Arch, left, speaks about how the “Remember the Removal” bicycle ride benefitted him in 2016 and how it continues to help him. With him is Trey Pritchett, who rode in 2017 and also spoke about the benefits of the ride during an April panel discussion at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – Research is ongoing on how the annual “Remember the Removal” bicycle ride benefits participants, and during an April panel discussion at Northeastern State University, some past cyclists shared how it has benefitted them.
The ride groups Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizens for a three-week, 950-mile ride from New Echota, Georgia, to Tahlequah. It follows the Northern Trail of Tears route to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died during the roundups, incarceration and removals over land and water trails, as well as after the journey.
Dr. Melissa Lewis, of the University of Missouri, began her “RTR” research in 2013 and started using focus groups in 2015. Riders from the 1984 and 2015 rides were interviewed and their answers compared. In 2017, Lewis began using lengthy surveys with 19 riders participating. The survey focused on social, physical, emotional and cultural health and feelings before and during training, after the ride and six months later.
“People told us they lost weight and had improved their eating habits, had decreased stress, had increased feelings of a connection to peers and a stronger connection to Cherokee culture,” she said.
Lewis also studied Native-specific measures, including micro aggressions or “everyday subtle discriminatory experiences;” discrimination and historical trauma such as losses of land, culture, people in their families; and things related to the effects of colonization and how often people think about those things.
“We know that all three of those particular things – micro aggressions, discrimination and historical trauma – relate to worsening mental and physical health, so that’s why we took a look at those things,” she said.
Lewis added that results show the riders’ daily hassles, at first, “were significant,” but after the ride their stress and anxiety had improved, and this improvement continued six months later. The ride also helped those dealing with depression feel better, and this got even better six months later, she said.
Also, after six months, participants had less anger and experienced less micro aggressions.
Two areas Lewis said was concerning were post traumatic stress disorder and historical trauma. Right after the ride, the numbers for those were “statistically significant” and had increased. She said a likely contributor was that cyclists constantly visit or see gravesites of Cherokee people lost during the removals or read about the removal in a journal written by an eyewitness who traveled with Cherokees.
“It doesn’t seems there are many days that go buy where you all don’t see graves, and so these thoughts about historical loss, it’s not surprising that they went up,” Lewis said. “As the peak of knowledge happens…they felt sad and angry and frustrated, but the cultural pieces are so strong, that’s what the riders are left with. They’re not left with thinking about graves every day.”
During the panel, Billy Flint, a CN rider, said the history he learned in 2015 changed him and made him a stronger person. “I had a photograph of my third great-grandmother who was a child during the removal, and I carried that with me on the ride. And for someone who has dealt with issues of self-esteem and self-doubt for a good chunk of their life…the ride was truly a godsend in my life. I’m a stronger person. I’m a more socially conscious person than I was before. I realize I can do anything.”
Raven Girty, a 2017 CN cyclist, said she believes the PTSD and historical trauma can be attributed to seeing the graves of her people and learning about what happened to them. “You don’t come out of the ride the same as you were before the ride. You are going to change in some way. And what she (Lewis) was talking about with the PTSD and historical trauma, you see things that will break your heart. You see fields and fields of mass burials. You pass by areas that will have plaques that will tell you who passed away there. You learn stuff you had never been taught before, and it really hits home.”
However, Lewis’ research shows the biggest impact is to physical health.
J.D. Arch, an EBCI citizen who rode in 2016, said he weighed 270 pounds when he started training, and when it was over he weighed about 245. He said he’s stayed at that weight thanks to eating better and not consuming sugary drinks.
CN citizen KenLea Henson, who rode in 2017, said training and the ride taught her to eat healthier and that she continues that practice. “During the training period I really wanted to eat better because every time I ate better, I felt better. So to get through those really long rides, I had to make sure I was fueled with really healthy foods to help me keep going. So now, to feel better, I eat vegetables and fruits and no fast food and just drink water. So it really improved my health.”
Trey Pritchett, a 2017 CN rider, said the ride drove him to be conscious of his physical health. “Throughout high school, I was really an athletic kid. I played a lot of sports and did a lot of working out. When I graduated high school, I wasn’t playing sports anymore, so I thought there’s no need to be working out the way I did because I’m not competing anymore, so I just kind of let myself go. Throughout the course of this training I actually realized how important it is to actually be healthy and to stay fit whether you compete or not.”
He said by being fit he might add 20 years to his life and be that elder who can help keep the tribe’s culture and traditions alive. “One day, I could be that 80- or 90-year-old elder that people are going come to. Attempting to prolong it (life) and live longer, that gives me more time to be with my people to teach them and help them.”