TAHLEQUAH – Six cyclists were at the center of a May 26 ceremony to send them on their journeys as participants in the 2021 “Remember the Removal” Bike Ride.
Deputy Chief Bryan Warner opened with a prayer, and Education Services Executive Director Corey Bunch addressed the gathering after introductions.
“We encourage you (riders) to take care of each other, just as our ancestors did so many years ago,” Bunch said. “I hope that, daily, you will do some reflecting on what this journey means to you… and to remember that we would not be here today if not for them….”
This year’s cyclists, all Cherokee Nation citizens are Shace Duncan, 18, Stilwell; Whitney Roach, 22, Tahlequah; Melanie Giang, 21, Claremore; and Kaylee Smith, 20, Tahlequah. Serving as mentor riders are Ronnie Duncan, 48, of Stilwell, and Tracie Asbill, 39, of Tahlequah.
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the “Remember the Removal” Bike Ride is one of his “favorite events of the year.”
“There is a great deal of pride we take in these young people,” Hoskin said. “The odds of them being accepted to this program… are steep. There probably were times you (riders) thought the odds were stacked against you. The odds have been stacked against the Cherokee people from the moment of European contact. Disease, war, settlers, strife.”
Hoskin said some predicted the removal would resolve the “Cherokee problem” because it would occasion the tribe’s demise.
“Somehow, someway, through faith, through grit and determination, we survived,” he said. “We rebuilt right here after that long journey.”
Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd said the ride was an opportunity for the cyclists to connect with their Cherokee culture and history.
“As you start going up those hills and mountains – and they call it the Smoky Mountains because you can see that in the air once you get there – you can hear the water running down those mountains,” Byrd said. “It peaks about 6,000 feet elevation. The friendship and warmth the Eastern Band Cherokees give you, it’s a feeling that is very hard to describe.”
The approximate 950-mile Northern Route that the cyclists will retrace runs from Georgia to Oklahoma through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.
Roughly 60 miles are traversed each day. Through the years, many ‘RTR’ cyclists have reported the ride to be a challenging and deeply emotional trip, and a tangible connection to their ancestors. During 1838-39 about 16,000 Cherokees were forcibly removed, of which 25% perished due to exposure, disease or starvation.
“To me personally, this journey is a memorial to our ancestors,” Bunch said after the sendoff. “The Trail of Tears is very significant to Cherokee history…. This is an amazing group of riders. They’ve been training for two years – they couldn’t go last year because of COVID. They stuck it out with the program.”
Pointing to Hoskins’ statement about the pride in the riders taken by Cherokees, Bunch said the ride also has special significance for many tribal citizens.
“This (removal) journey is historic,” Bunch said. “It is something we should all know about, study, and realize what it means to each of us today as citizens. We would not be here if those ancestors had not succeeded in that forced journey. It is part of our history and part of who we are. It was a terrible time in our history, but we were able to overcome it and succeed and flourish again today.”
For information about the ride or to follow it, visit www.facebook.com/removal.ride.