Thousands of motorcyclists pay tribute to Cherokees forced on Trail of Tears

Sunday, September 21st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WATERLOO, Ala. (AP) _ Thousands of motorcyclists offered a rumbling, 200-mile tribute Saturday to Cherokee families who were forced from their homes to present-day Oklahoma in the brutal trek that became known as the Trail of Tears.

The annual ride from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Waterloo, began in 1994. Eight motorcycles started the drive that year, but their number swelled to about 100 by the time they reached their destination.

Cherokee descendant Keith Sneed said the ride is the only public acknowledgment of a shameful episode of history, when the federal government forced thousands of Cherokee families from their homes, herded them to Chattanooga, then took them by boat, wagon and on foot to present-day Oklahoma in 1838-39. The brutal conditions of the trek killed thousands.

Sneed, 55, of Cherokee, N.C., said the main benefit of the spectacle is that it inspires discussion and questions among spectators, including children.

``The Trail of Tears has been forgotten,'' he said.

Sneed said communities along the 960-mile route between Chattanooga and the Cherokee Heritage Center and tribal headquarters at Tahlequah, Okla., are starting to notice the ride _ if only for the economic benefit.

He said the tens of thousands of riders have ``probably got a minimum of $100 each in their pocket. People want to get associated with that money.''

Bill Cason, the ride leader and organizer, said money raised from selling T-shirts and mementos is helping provide college scholarships for American Indians in Tennessee and Alabama and is paying for historical markers.

``Our main thing is education,'' said Cason, 65, a retired construction worker who said he would be riding with his wife, Paulette. ``They even take it out of history books and we'd like for them to put it back in.''

Eastern Cherokee vice chief Carroll J. Crowe said Friday that the motorcycle commemoration ``when first organized I think was just kind of a joyride. I think it has grown into a kind of significant event.''

He said the Cherokee trail of tears is ignored because it is a ``shameful part'' of American history where Cherokees in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee were rounded up and forced out.

``People just aren't aware of what truly happened. Any cause in which people are willing to get out and call attention to it, that is beneficial,'' he said.