Twenty-one cyclists from the 2019 Remember the Removal Bike Ride arrived in Tahlequah Thursday, finishing their three-week journey that retraced the northern route of the Trail of Tears.
The ride began June 2 in New Echota, Georgia, the former capital of the Cherokee Nation before forced removal to present-day Oklahoma. Cyclists from the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians rode nearly 950 miles through portions of seven states.
The Cherokee Nation held a return ceremony at the tribe’s Cherokee National Peace Pavilion in historic downtown Tahlequah on Thursday, where tribal leaders, friends and family gathered to welcome the returning cyclists.
“These Cherokee men and women have honored our ancestors by riding hundreds and hundreds of miles, from New Echota, Georgia, to the Cherokee Nation capital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma,” said Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “Along the way they have formed new bonds with fellow Cherokees, gained a deeper understanding of what their ancestors endured, and faced their own personal adversities – only to defeat them, because that’s what Cherokees do. I am so proud of the 2019 Remember the Removal cyclists and what they have accomplished.
This year marked the 35th anniversary of the inaugural Remember the Removal Bike Ride, which was held in 1984. In honor of that anniversary and to commemorate the 180th anniversary of the end of the Trail of Tears, governors in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma issued proclamations declaring it “Trail of Tears Remembrance Week” as cyclists made the trek through their respective states. Oklahoma Secretary of Native American Affairs Lisa Billy presented Oklahoma’s proclamation during the return ceremony on behalf of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
After the original ride in 1984, the leadership program resumed in 2009. Each year, cyclists learn about Cherokee history, language and culture while gaining a deeper understanding of the hardships faced by their ancestors who walked the Trail of Tears.
“Coming home was probably one of the most monumental moments of the ride,” said Ashley Hunnicutt, a Cherokee Nation citizen from Tahlequah. “I appreciate home more than I ever have. I was just overwhelmed with gratitude and love and peace to be here. The ride was life-changing. I am a whole new person, and I’m ready to be here to share what I’ve learned with my family and my friends and the people of my community. Hopefully that will empower them to share that with others, and our ancestors’ legacy will continue to live on.”
During the journey from Georgia to Oklahoma, Remember the Removal Bike Ride participants visited historical landmarks that were important to Cherokee people, including Blythe Ferry in Tennessee, which was the last part of the Cherokee homeland walked by Cherokee ancestors before they began their journey into Indian Territory. Cyclists also visited Mantle Rock in Kentucky, which provided shelter to many Cherokees as they waited for safe passage across the frozen Ohio River.
Of the estimated 16,000 Cherokees forced to make the Trail of Tears journey to Indian Territory 180 years ago, around 4,000 died due to exposure to the elements, starvation, and disease.