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The Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears remains a haunting reminder of one of the darkest chapters in American history. In the 1800s, the US government committed the genocide of Native American tribes through forced relocation, an American tragedy known as the Trail of Tears. By violating the human rights of these communities, the government caused catastrophic and long-lasting effects that continue to impact Native American communities today. Even so, many museums and monuments memorialize the Trail of Tears in modern-day society.
In the 1800s, the US government committed the genocide of Native American tribes through forced relocation, known today as the Trail of Tears. To understand what constitutes a genocide, Theda Perdue, introduce and qualify, explains in “The Legacy of Indian Removal” the definition of genocide; “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, ethnic, religious, or national group” (5). Purdue’s definition considers more than purely death count. People experience loss of families, highlighting mental and emotional affects in addition to physical. However, the Trail of Tears included a considerable reduction to the Native American population: “The forced relocation of the Cherokee people led to a population loss of up to 38%, resulting in estimates ranging from 16,000 to 24,000 deaths” (Thornton 290). Physically, the United States government directly caused the mass killing of the Native American population. All tribes: the Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw alike, suffered exponentially because of the United States government. President Andrew Jackson designed the Indian Removal Act. Rather than concern for fellow American people, Jackson removed Native Americans from their land to appease his own desire for more land, and the possibility for gold. Native Americans suffered physically because of the United States government, as it is estimated that more than one-third of the Native American population died. Genocide can involve not only the killing of individuals but also the destruction of a culture. The Trail of Tears clearly exemplifies a cultural genocide, as the United States government forced thousands of Native Americans to leave their homes and ancestral lands. The forced removal of these communities from their land separated families and culturally devastated the Native American population, as the United States government tried to eradicate traditional practices and language of the people. Truly, Native Americans lost a sense of cultural identity as much as they suffered physically from the Trail of Tears.
While the cultural genocide occurred in the 1800’s, Native American communities still suffer from the consequences of the Trail of Tears today. The Trail of Tears reduced Native American land drastically. According to the National Park Service, “Today, Native Americans suffer from a lack of control over their own land and resources.” This lack of control limits the ability of Native American communities to sustain themselves. The initial Indian Removal Act still influences communities today because Native Americans suffer financially with little control over their own land. Corporations try to profit from the Native’s land, with small regard to Native Americans, leading to competition over the land. Additionally, the lack of control over their land makes it difficult for Native Americans to continue cultural practices today. Another way in which Native Americans continue to suffer Tears is through struggles to maintain traditional practices and languages. The forced relocation of Native American tribes had a devastating impact on their cultural identity, as it was designed to “eliminate the practices, traditions, language, and overall identity of Native American people” (Purdue 5). The loss of cultural identity made it difficult for Native American communities to maintain their traditional practices and languages, central to their cultural identity. Due to the loss of population and difficulty in attaining basic needs, language and traditional practices of the Native Americans suffered. Today, only about one in every five Native Americans speak their native language. Finally, Native Americans still suffer in their lack of access to basic resources like healthcare and education. “Many Native Americans suffer from poverty, unemployment, and a lack of access to basic resources like healthcare and education” (National Park Service). Lacking access to resources has a profound impact on the health and well-being of Native American communities, as well as their ability to thrive economically. Native Americans cannot thrive today because of the effects of the Trail of Tears. Native Americans have considerably high rates of preventable diseases in the United States, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Without proper health, a society cannot function properly at their fullest potential, because it damages physiology and leads to mental health issues. Additionally, the lack of educational opportunities impacts the social well-being of Native American communities, partly due to the location of the communities. The issues caused by the Trail of Tears and the rural location of Native American communities has led to a lack in educational opportunities.
Many museums and monuments memorialize the Trail of Tears in modern-day society. According to the National Park Service, “By preserving the memory of the Trail of Tears, we honor those who were removed and remind current and future generations of the need to respect and preserve the rights and dignity of all people.” Many have come together to build several sites along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, including the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park in Tennessee and the Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri. These try to remember the Native American cultures accurately, thus “honoring future generations and preserving the rights and dignity of all people.” Additionally, the Trail of Tears Association works to preserve the Trail’s legacy. Members of the public can discuss the ongoing impact of the Trail of Tears at the annual Trail of Tear Association conference. Overall, efforts to remember and memorialize the Trail of Tears highlight its continuing significance and address the need to recognize and honor the experiences of Native American communities.
The Trail of Tears remains a tragic reminder of the genocide of Native American communities. The forced relocation of Native American communities from their ancestral lands has led to catastrophic loss of lives and culture. Today, the Trail of Tears still negatively impacts Native American communities in many aspects from land to language, healthcare, and education. Despite the horror caused by the Trail of Tears, memorialization efforts have preserved the rights and dignity of Native American communities and culture. Despite acting to memorialize, remember, and improve, the Trail of Tears will always remain a burden for Native American people.
Perdue, Theda. “The Legacy of Indian Removal.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 78, no. 1, 2012, pp. 3-36.
Thornton, Russell. “Cherokee Population Losses during the Trail of Tears: A New Perspective and a New Estimate.” Ethnohistory, vol. 31, no. 4, 1984, pp. 289-300.
National Park Service. “The Trail of Tears and the Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation: Teaching with Historic Places.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/travelamericasailing/trail-of-tears.htm.
National Park Service. “What Happened on the Trail of Tears?” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/trte/learn/historyculture/what-happened-on-the-trail.htm.
Buckner, Philip, and Douglas Hunter, editors. Review: Violence, Culture and Resistance: New Directions in the Study of Settler Colonialism and Indigeneity. University of Toronto Press, 2019.
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