Monday, April 13, 2009

More Trails of Tears

I just read a commentary in the newspaper about a PBS special called "We Shall Remain" - beginning today - where the third segment (set to air on April 27) will take Cherokee Major Ridge's side in the role he played in the removal of the Cherokee from the Georgia (and the Smoky Mountains) to Oklahoma in the 1800s. This is like saying Judas was a really good guy.

Here are straight facts, as I understand them (and I've researched this from a lot of different angles): John Ross was the elected leader of the Cherokee Nation. He was in the process of challenging all of Andrew Jackson's efforts to remove the Cherokee by going through court process. He was winning. There was a small minority of Cherokee who were interested in just giving in. Major Ridge and his son John Ridge led this faction and gave themselves a title: the "Treaty Party." One day, the Georgia guard arrested John Ross at his home in Tennessee (interesting exercise of state authority), seized all his papers and threw him in prison. They also shut down the "Cherokee Phoenix" (the Cherokee newspaper) and arrested a white journalist. While John Ross was in prison, Major Ridge signed the treaty along with others from his small faction. (Most Cherokee refused to attend this meeting, organized by white folk, because John Ross was in prison.) One of Ridge's supporters, Elias Boudinot, stated, "An intelligent minority has a moral right, indeed a moral duty, to save a blind and ignorant majority from inevitable ruin and destruction." Let them eat cake, too, Elias.

From prison, John Ross denounced the treaty as "fraud upon the Cherokee people." The general in charge of the removal - General Ellis Wool - also protested the treaty as a fraud (and Jackson called him out for being "disrespectful"). Between 15,000 and 16,000 Cherokee - virtually the entire Cherokee population - signed a petition denouncing the treaty. Major Ridge and his family received, I believe, $500,000 (supposedly for Cherokee education, but hmmm - wonder where all that money went) (and even if it did end up in the Cherokee coffers, that may not have been Ridge's original plan). Andrew Jackson brought the now-"signed" treaty to Congress for ratification. Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett was one who protested, saying the signatures were not of the actual Cherokee chief and should not be considered legitimate. Crockett stated:

None of my colleagues agrees with my sentiments. But if I should be ... the only man of the United States who disapproved of it, I would still vote against it.... A treaty is the highest law of the land, but there are those who do not find it so. They want to juggle with the rights of the Indians and fritter them away. It's all wrong. It's not justice! ... These Indians are remnants of a once-powerful race, and they must be fairly treated.

The treaty was approved by only one vote. Ridge and other supporters (about 1,000 people - most of whom probably denounced the treaty before its passage in Congress) went ahead and moved to Oklahoma. The rest of the Cherokee did not move. Instead, they followed their leader John Ross (now out of jail). Years later, with a false treaty ratified, our American army seized the Cherokee, threw them into stockades, and then force-evacuated them to Oklahoma, all through a raging hot summer and a freezing cold winter. Thousands of Cherokee died in this process, most on the Trail (4,000 deaths is a conservative estimate, 8,000 is a more realistic estimate). The trail is still not really marked, except for here and there - and at Cape Girardeau State Park in Missouri (where Cherokee were stuck for weeks on either side of the Mississippi River as the snow and ice made the river impassable for the inadequate river boats that the military had hired to get the Cherokee across). The trek is called the "Trail of Tears," after the Cherokee name for it (literally, the "trail where they cried"). Small flowers sprung up along the pathway as the Cherokee walked. They are called the Cherokee Rose, and are said to have grown from the tears of the women as they walked along the trail.

So, let's say that Major Ridge had the "best interests" of the Cherokee at heart. He still was not Chief. He still received money that he spent. He still did not have the bulk of the tribe behind him (almost all of them did not move with him). And he still signed the treaty while John Ross was in jail. I'm sorry, but that's not how things are done. There is no honor in that. It is not the sympathetic side. It is the coward's side - at best. And it is the side of the betrayer. All that is missing is a Judas kiss on the cheek.

So now PBS is going to tell this story from Major Ridge's point of view? When most people in this country have no clue about the original set-up of the story? I'm very upset. John Ross is a hero of mine. He worked against all odds. He might have won had it not been for Major Ridge's complicity with Jackson. History could have been wholly re-written if Ridge had listened to the chief of the Cherokee Indians. Instead, Ridge took matters into his own hands.

The hero in this story is John Ross. To make Major Ridge the hero instead is just very odd.

Major Ridge and his son John were murdered after they signed the treaty and moved out west. This was no good. It should not have happened. (There is no evidence that John Ross was aware of the plot to kill them.) At a minimum, the Ridges and their supporters should have been tried by the Cherokee nation for treason and then received whatever punishment was appropriate, not just out-and-out murdered. Still, their murders should not now make them heroes.

I imagine I'll have to watch the segment on this (apparently it's the third one, to be aired on April 27) and see if they do any justice whatsoever to the facts of the story. It's 90 minutes. Sigh. Will I be able to tolerate it long enough to watch it and decide for myself what they've done to this slice of history?

A Cherokee Rose

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