We Shall Remain: American Experience

Trail Of Tears

Season 21, Episode 7 of 9

The Cherokee would call it Nu-No-Du-Na Tlo-Hi-Lu, "The Trail Where They Cried." On May 26, 1838, federal troops forced thousands of Cherokee from their homes in the southeastern United States, driving them toward Indian Territory in eastern Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died of disease and starvation along the way. For years, the Cherokee had resisted removal from their land in every way they knew. Convinced that white America rejected Native Americans because they were "savages," Cherokee leaders established a republic with a European-style legislature and legal system. Many Cherokee became Christian and adopted westernized education for their children. Their visionary principal chief, John Ross (actor Freddy Douglas), would even take the Cherokee case to the Supreme Court, where he won crucial recognition of tribal sovereignty. The Supreme Court ruling proved no deterrent to President Andrew Jackson's demands that the Cherokee leave their ancestral lands. A complex debate divided the Cherokee Nation, with Chief Ross urging the Cherokee to stay and Major Ridge (actor West Studi, Cherokee), a respected tribal leader, urging the tribe to move west and rebuild, going so far as to sign a removal treaty himself without the authority to do so. Though in the end the Cherokees' embrace of "civilization" and their landmark legal victory proved no match for white land hunger and military power, the Cherokee people were able, with characteristic ingenuity, to build a new life in Oklahoma, far from the land that had sustained them for generations.

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