TAHLEQUAH – After a bicycling journey of nearly 1,000 miles through seven states, the nine Remember the Removal riders for 2021 arrived in Tahlequah on June 18.

Family, friends and tribal officials greeted the six Cherokee Nation and three Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians cyclists and took part in a ceremony to celebrate the cyclists’ retracing of the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears.

This year’s CN cyclists included: Shace Duncan, 18, Stilwell; Whitney Roach, 22, Tahlequah; Melanie Giang, 21, Claremore; and Kaylee Smith, 20, Tahlequah. Serving as mentor riders were Ronnie Duncan, 48, of Stilwell, and Tracie Asbill, 39, of Tahlequah. The Eastern Band riders from North Carolina were: Raylen Bark, 18; Drew Johnson, 22; and Bear Allison, 40.

For most who undertake the RTR trek, participation is physically and emotionally demanding. Smith, speaking at the ceremony, said, “it was a small glimpse of what our ancestors endured so long ago.”

“As the distance grows between us and our ancestral land, so does our physical pain,” Smith said. “I’m speechless when people ask me about it. There are really no words to talk about how mentally and physically exhausting this trip was, but it was so rewarding at the same time.”

Smith said she initially expected the ride to be primarily a physical challenge.

“After being able to see everything we did and being able to stop at all the historical sites where our ancestors camped, it was definitely more mental and emotional,” she said. “It is so hard to be able to comprehend your feelings and be able to stand where they stood. They went through the worst things possible, and we are still here today, and we are still strong.”

Allison said he had researched the removal in recent years, and that it had an impact on his ancestors, even if they weren’t among those on the trail.

“Walking, even experiencing a sliver, of what those who were removed experienced; seeing and hearing the stories of the places and what they went through,” Allison said. “It’s a way for me to honor the ones who stayed as well as the ones who were removed.”

Along with the mental and physical challenges, Allison said he also experienced a spiritual impact.

“The places we stopped – we walked where they walked,” he said. “We cried where they cried. We prayed where they prayed. We saw the graves and mass burial sites. We heard the stories of those who died. I offered up tobacco every chance I could with my prayers. It becomes a heavy burden.”

All the riders had words of graciousness for each other and those supporting RTR.

“It was my team that made this experience once-in-a-lifetime,” Smith said. “I could not have gone through any of this without them standing by my side. They were there for me at my highest points and my lowest points. We all struggled together, and we all fed off each other’s energy.”

Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the RTR experience would be a useful reference in the lives of the riders.

“I have no doubt that the riders saw obstacles they thought they might not overcome, but they were able to keep going and progressing as the Cherokee people have done and as their ancestors have done,” Hoskin said. “They will inherit a Cherokee Nation and future full of challenges, but the future will not be bigger than this generation of riders.”

After hearing from the tribal dignitaries, the riders – despite their exhaustion – lingered for photos and interviews, embraced each other and departed with their families.

“I missed my family so much,” Smith said. “It’s crazy to come back after a three-week journey and becoming a whole different person.”