CRYING TIME FOR THE CHEROKEE
by Astrid Bullen
When I first met Savannah Rose, we were both little girls, sharing
a tree-stump listening to Grandfather's yarns. We lived in the
Southern Appalachian Mountains, in Georgia, our Enchanted Land,
and we were the Ani-Yun' wiya - the Principal People.
"We were pushed here because of wars between the Iroquois
and the Delaware," Grandfather said, "and this is where
the white man met us. We were never the same after that."
He went on to describe how our people became objects of the slave
trade to the extent that a tribal delegation was sent to the Royal
Governor of South Carolina to protect us from Congaree, Catawba
and Savannah slave-catchers. Our history abounded with tales of
military prowess and political intrigue, and our culture was irreversibly
altered by white settlers. We adopted many of their customs, and
even as Grandfather spoke, my mother was repairing a ball gown
for Savannah Rose's older sister.
The next time Savannah Rose came by, she wanted to hear Grandfather
"Your village doesn't have a Grandfather?" I asked,
puzzled by her earnestness.
"Of course we do," she snapped back, but she could
not look at me. "And this is my village now, anyway."
Grandfather was happy to tell the "little newcomer,"
as he called Savannah Rose, all about Sequoyah and his work on
a written representation of our language.
Two years later, in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the
Indian Removal Act, because, he said, "no state could achieve
proper culture, civilization, and progress, as long as Indians
remain within its boundaries." That was the beginning of
Grandfather said that over the last forty winters, white settlers
pushed back our frontiers. They also increased the population
of Georgia six-fold. Originally, whites were forbidden on the
land that was inhabited by the Cherokees, but that law was often
ignored. Our people had ceded land to the settlers, but this did
nothing to quench the insatiable thirst for land that the Georgians
had. The whites resented us because they saw other uses for our
homelands. Many of our people moved to Arkansas and settled near
the St. Francis River to avoid white settlers. They were happy
to leave their homes forever and go far into the West, where the
white man could never follow them.
Then the white man found gold in the land, and killing of Native
Americans and theft of our land became federal policy. The white
man's lust for gold and land was all-consuming.
"I heard that the government is confiscating our land,"
I heard my father telling my mother.
"What's confiscating?" I whispered to my older brother.
He shooed me away, because he was old enough to take part in grown-up
conversations. I went two doors down to Savannah Rose's house,
and found her with her mother and sister.
"President Jackson is giving the land to the whites,"
Sav's sister Chemaya was saying. "Junaluska should never
have saved his life. That's how he's repaying the Cherokee nation?"
"But can't we do anything?" Sav's mother asked. "Can't
we appeal to them in some way?"
"We can't even testify in their courts," said Chemaya.
"No, Mother, there is very little we can do."
Savannah Rose looked worried as we walked to the stream, and
I was so frightened I could not speak. If they took our land,
where would we live? What would become of our little log house
with its broken top step that my father was always meaning to
mend so we wouldn't break our necks? What would become of us?
Our chiefs tried hard to keep Georgia and the United States from
taking our homeland. Chemaya told us that they challenged the
Removal Act in the U.S. Supreme Court, and John Marshall, the
Chief Justice, ruled that we were a sovereign nation, and removal
laws were invalid. Only the federal government could deal with
a sovereign nation, and they could only do it with a treaty. That
made me and Savannah Rose feel better, although we didn't know
what all the big words meant.
A few more winters passed, and Sav and I had more chores to do
and less time to play. But we could now butt in when our parents
spoke, and we stayed around when Chemaya arrived breathless from
the council house.
"Stand Watie and John Ridge just sold our land to the whites,"
she gasped, holding her sides.
"What?" her mother shrieked. "You're sure, Chemaya?
They don't have the authority to do that."
"Well, they did, and they signed a treaty, and now the federal
government can remove us, Mother," Chemaya said, with tears
welling up in her eyes. We heard the government paid each of the
20 people who signed the treaty $2000. Not a bad sum. Our chief,
John Ross, found his legal appeals against the illegal Treaty
to be fruitless.
My nation was forced to move to the west of the Mississippi in
1838. Grandfather was long dead, and I was now a young woman ready
for marriage. "We are now about to take our leave and kind
farewell to our native lands, the country that the Great Spirit
gave our Fathers," Vice Chief Charles Hicks said as we prepared
to go. "We are on the eve of leaving that country that gave
us birth . it is with sorrow that we are forced by the white man
to quit the scenes of our childhood . we bid farewell to it and
all we hold dear."
My family left the concentration camp in Rattlesnake Springs
in June, and we were the first group driven west under federal
guard during the ethnic cleansing of the southeast United States.
Thousands of people had died at the camp during the spring from
illnesses brought on by the lack of clean water and proper waste
treatment. It was a rude awakening for us.
"Cherokees!" General Winfield Scott had shouted when
he addressed our people in May. "The President of the United
States has sent me with a powerful army, to cause you, in obedience
to the treaty of 1835, to join that part of your people who have
already established in prosperity on the other side of the Mississippi.
Unhappily, the two years that were allowed for the purpose, you
have suffered to pass away without following, and without making
any preparation to follow, and now, or by the time that this solemn
address shall reach your distant settlements, the emigration must
be commenced in haste, but I hope without disorder."
They began to round us up soon afterward. The Georgia Militia
barged into our little log house with their bayonets and forced
us to leave immediately, and made us live in a stockade for several
weeks. White looters followed, ransacking our homesteads as we
were led away. I saw them making off with our cows, pigs and chickens,
and it frustrated me because I could not stop them. Grandfather's
wife was forced out of her cabin at gunpoint - they gave her only
moments to collect cherished possessions. Somehow we became separated
from my older brother and his new wife - we never saw them again.
Now we were embarking on a long journey in worn-out moccasins,
to endure countless river crossings with only blankets for warmth.
As we marched, we received rations of corn, oats and fodder, and
the hunters supplied meat out of the woods. Each morning when
we broke camp we were told how far we had to go and in what direction.
The hunters would spread out like a fan and go through the woods
to the next camping place, usually about ten miles ahead.
This journey - our Trail of Tears, made our mothers cry and grieve
so much, they were unable to help us children survive. The chiefs
prayed for a sign to lift the mothers' spirits and give them strength
to care for us. From that day forward, a beautiful new flower,
a rose, grew wherever a mother's tear fell to the ground. The
rose is white, the color of the teardrops. It has a gold center,
for the gold taken form the Cherokee lands, and seven leaves on
each stem that represent the seven Cherokee clans that made the
We camped for several weeks near a creek in Southern Illinois.
One day Savannah Rose and I walked through town with some other
girls. As we passed a hotel one of the girls, a slave named Priscilla,
went up to a man standing in the doorway and asked him, "Are
you Marse Silkwood?"
The man was indeed Marse Silkwood, and he recognized her from
a plantation in Georgia. He bought her from the chief who owned
her for $1,000. Some girls have all the luck.
That night, my father, Savannah Rose and I huddled around the
fire, comforting my mother as she got weaker and weaker . she
was with the Great Spirit by morning. Cholera broke out and death
was among us hourly. We buried our dead close to the trail. The
drought was severe and our children suffered greatly. Of the 800
persons that left with our group, 489 arrived.
The groups that followed ours were luckier, because Chief John
Ross made an urgent appeal to General Winfield Scott, requesting
that Cherokees lead their tribe west. In September he won additional
funds for food and clothing.
We relocated to Oklahoma, and set up a government, churches and
schools, newspapers and books, and businesses. We named our capital
Tahlequah. But part of me was missing. My best friend, Savannah
Rose, and her family found refuge in the Snowbird Mountains and
stayed there. There likely will never be a Cherokee child called
Andrew - no such honor to the man who caused so much suffering
with his anti-Indian policies.
Stop the endless search for Native American Indian Names. Click
here for over 2500 Native American Indian Names and their