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In Tahlequah, Oklahoma outside of Tulsa, a few weeks after Thanksgiving I met Tony. His ancestors originally lived in the Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina area along with about 125,000 others in the early 1800s. But many of their new neighbors that had moved into the area became jealous of the land they occupied and wanted it for their own. Their neighbors managed to convince their state governments and even then President Andrew Jackson to transfer thousands of acres of their land to white cotton farmers.
In 1831, President Jackson ordered the U.S. Army to evict the Choctaw Native Americans from their land and forced them to walk - some bound in chains and shackles - to the land west of the Mississippi River during winter without food or any assistance from the U.S. Government. In 1836, the President ordered the Army to force the Creeks from their land as well. Of the 15,000 that began the walk to Oklahoma, some 3,500 died on the way. The President then set his sites on the land of the Cherokee Nation - my friend Tony's ancestors.
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After seeing what had happened to the Choctaw and the Creeks, a group of self-appointed representatives for the Cherokee Nation began negotiations with the U.S. Government. In 1835, these representatives signed the Treaty of New Echota trading the the Cherokee Nation's land east of the Mississippi River for $5 million, assistance with relocation, and compensation for their property. Approximately 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation signed a protest to the treaty as it was not initiated, agreed to, nor signed by the leadership of the Cherokee Nation. The U.S. Congress denied the protest and approved the treaty. By 1838, the government decided they were not satisfied that only 2,000 of the 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation had relocated. President Martin Van Buren ordered the U.S. Army to speed things up. 7,000 soldiers led by General Winfield Scott forced the Native Americans into stockades while neighbors from the white community raided and looted their homes. The Army organized a march forcing the Cherokee Nation to walk the 1,200 miles to Oklahoma. 5,000 died along the way. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and the state systematically began forcing the Cherokee to smaller and smaller plots of land than they had been originally granted in the forced relocation.
In the years since, the Cherokee Nation has worked to buy back its land in Oklahoma. As Tony drove us around and pointed to different parcels of land and noted, "We just bought that back." or "We are buying that back." I couldn't help but struggle to understand how a nation of people could be repeatedly forced off their land without just compensation. And then to have to purchase the land back struck me as an insult.
As I talked with Tony, I could sense his pride in his people and his respect for the elders. He works coordinating teams to replace roofs and install wheelchair ramps on homes of elders and those struggling to get by. As he talked about the work, I could sense his pride in making a positive difference in his community. I never sensed any hostility and anger for how poorly his ancestors had been treated, but a genuine interest in improving the lives of those around him. As I traveled home, I thought about his heritage, the unjust suffering of his ancestors, and his humility. I hope that I can learn from his example.