‘Remember the Removal’ cyclists find strength, develop leadership skills
Cherokee Nation citizen and “Remember the Removal” cyclist Autumn Lawless leads the “RTR” group through Missouri. All participants take turns leading the ride to help develop leadership skills. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Daulton Cochran carries his bicycle as he walks part of the Trail of Tears near the Gasconade River in Missouri. Behind him is Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen Ahli-sha Stephens and CN citizen Amari McCoy. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen Seth Ledford, right, reaches the top of a hill in Missouri with EBCI teammate Nolan Arkansas. Ledford said he’s learned teamwork and leadership skills during the three-week ride. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
WAYNESVILLE, Mo. – Autumn Lawless trained for the challenges she faced on June 15 as she fought the heat and hills of the Ozarks in south-central Missouri.
The 21-year-old from Porum, Oklahoma, said the training the 10 Cherokee Nation “Remember the Removal” cyclists endured from January to May prepared them for the rigors of riding for three weeks through seven states.
“Training was hard, but it was hard for a reason. We were all ready, and we’ve made it this far because of our training,” she said.
She said through the “RTR” program, which started in 1984 for youth leadership, she’s gained more courage and knows “she can do anything.”
“I saw a lot of our riders and how this ride changed them and how strong they were. They were more confident, they were better leaders, and I wanted to be a better leader. I know I can push myself...now. This ride has given me perseverance,” Lawless said. “The ride isn’t just what you see in videos. It’s not just people cheering you on and clapping for you. It’s the time you spend with your teammates on the road motivating each other to get up another hill or just checking on each other. It really is a family, and there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into this ride.”
Ahli-sha Stephens, 34, of Cherokee, North Carolina, said the main reason she wanted to ride was to experience some of the hardships her ancestors endured and “to be able to go where they had been and walk where they walked.”
“It’s something you can tell someone about and they won’t understand it unless they’ve been there and felt it for themselves,” she said.
Walking the now-preserved trails that Cherokee people walked 180 years ago was especially moving for her, she said. “It’s humbling knowing you walked where they walked, and you’re walking in their footsteps and are seeing things that they saw. It wasn’t easy, and I can’t imagine doing it the way they did it day after day.”
Stephens added that riding the trail with other Cherokees created a bond that gets stronger daily. “We rely on each other. We help each other, and we’re there for each other. I think if we didn’t have each other’s backs, it would make this journey a whole lot harder.”
Stephens said she’s also learned to be more patient and wants to use her abilities to help others and to “lead, listen and be a team player.”
“Overall, I think I will be more knowledgeable about who our people were, what they did and what they went through, what they faced. I think I will just be a better person all around,” she said.
Daulton Cochran, 21, of Bell, Oklahoma, said he wanted to ride to “connect” with his tribe better.
“I had a lot of friends who did the ride, and it seemed like it changed a lot of people afterwards, and I craved that, I guess,” he said.
Because of the constant strain of riding for two weeks, he said he couldn’t recall the exact spot that moved him the most, but it was a place in Tennessee where his Cherokee ancestors camped.
“I guess it was the idea of campsites really being gravesites. It really gets to you to see stuff like that,” he said.
He added that he’s appreciated taking on the riding challenge with his teammates. “The fellowship has been great. We all connect. We all hang out. It’s just a good thing. We’re a family now.”
Seth Ledford, 18, of Cherokee North Carolina, said he saw how the ride was a “life-changing” experience for others and wanted to experience it.
“It is a once-in-lifetime experience, and it will change you for the better. That’s what I heard about the ride,” he said. “So far the ride has been good. It has been tough at times, and emotional and physical. We’ve had a lot of tough times, but we make up and still like each other.”
He said he would take away leadership skills and bonds he’s developed with fellow riders. He also has learned to work within a team. “When I wrestle (in high school) I’m by myself in everything. This is really helping me with my teamwork.”