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April 17, 2023 | Theatre,

The history of the Trail of Tears

DeLanna Studi’s upcoming performance of And So We Walked tells the story of a contemporary Cherokee woman and her father who embark on a 900-mile journey along the Trail of Tears to retrace the ​same ​​​path her great-great grandparents were forced on in the 1830s. Before you see this powerful one-woman show, read below to learn more about the Trail of Tears and this period of American history. 

In the early 1800s, the United States began a significant push towards expanding west, including the acquisition of the vast midwestern territory from France in the Louisiana Purchase. The incorporation of this land nearly doubled the size of the United States, resulting in the government encouraging families to move west to occupy this new land.

Due to the success of Westward Expansion in the early years of the 19th Century, the United States then began developing plans to acquire Indigenous Territories in the southern part of the country as well – an initiative that ballooned when former Army General Andrew Jackson became President in 1829. Jackson had long been a proponent for the removal of Indigenous Americans to redistribute their land to Southern farmers and in 1830, he signed into power the Indian Removal Act, allowing for the forced removal of indigenous tribes. As a part of this act, removed individuals would be forced to relocate to a government-sanctioned “Indian Territory” hundreds of miles away from their homes. Although the law technically states that the government could not enact violence or physically force Indigenous Peoples, Jackson and his military officials ignored this. 

The Choctaw Tribe, who were originally based in the Southeast (present day Alabama and Mississippi), were forced of their land in the winter of 1831 and sent to travel by foot to the area that is now Oklahoma. This journey resulted in the deaths of thousands of Choctaw people. When speaking to a newspaper in Alabama regarding their harrowing experience, a tribe member is quoted as calling the journey “a trail of tears and death.” The name of the routes taken by tribes to the territory in Oklahoma has since become known as the Trail of Tears.

 It is estimated that over 2,000 Creek peoples and over 5,000 Cherokee peoples died as a result of the forced relocation, although this number is likely much higher. Diseases ran rampant on the Trail of Tears as people did not have access to clean food, clothing, water, or shelter. Cholera, whooping cough, and syphilis became an epidemic. 

By1840, over 10,000 indigenous tribes had been forced to relocate to this designated “territory” in Oklahoma. However, once people began to settle in the area, the United States government began to take back pieces of the land to continue their own Westward Expansion plan. The so-called “Indian Territory” grew smaller and smaller until Oklahoma was declared a state in 1907 and the land promised to the relocated tribes was once again taken away from them. 

In 2020, almost two centuries after the Indian Removal Act was instated by Jackson, the United States Supreme Court declared the majority of Oklahoma to be considered an American Indian Reservation, which functions mostly independently and autonomously of the federal government.

The Trail of Tears and generational trauma stemming from the period is explored as a central theme in And So We Walked, which runs from April 26-30 on the Robert J. Orchard Stage at the Emerson College Paramount Center. Click here to learn more and purchase tickets to this poignant story of survival, family, and one’s own sense of being. 

For more resources on the Trail of Tears, visit Indigenous Foundation or The Cherokee Historical Society. Additional reading includes John Ehle’s book, Trail of Tears: Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation.

Paige Walker, April 2023

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