Connecting With My Native American Roots!

“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root”

Chinese proverb

State 36: Oklahoma April 6, 2018


We woke up in a Walmart in Seminole looking forward to the day's adventures. Yesterday, we had a very disturbing encounter with a Navajo Fry Bread Taco Restaurant, and today we are hoping for a more cheerful day. Our first task of the day is a 61 mile drive South to the town of Sulphur, OK to visit the National Park depicted on the reverse of the Oklahoma State Quarter: Chickasaw National Recreational Area. Established on July 1, 1902, Chickasaw National Recreation Area consists of almost 10,000 acres of flowing springs, meandering streams, and vast lakes offering visitors endless opportunities for swimming, boating, fishing, picnicking, camping, hiking and so much more. The park is named in honor of the Chickasaw Indians who sold the original 640 acres of the park to protect the land from development. According to the terms of the agreement between the Chickasaw tribe and the US Government, Chickasaw National Recreational Area does not charge visitors an admission fee. At least this is one agreement with Native Americans the government did not break!

Chickasaw National Recreational Area features a multitude of free flowing springs many of which are suitable for drinking. One of the springs actually had a large sign displaying the chemical and mineral composition of the water. Some of the springs were enclosed by pavilions, which were created in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC. Established by FDR as part of the “New Deal”, the CCC was a public works relief program during the Great Depression providing unskilled manual labor jobs to young unemployed and unmarried men. Even after almost 100 years, the pavilions and enclosures surrounding the springs still stand strong and tall. When America builds, we built it to last! Please see the pictures below of the springs we visited at Chickasaw.

One of the key features of park was a waterfall called “LITTLE NIAGARA”! I have previously visited Niagara Falls, so I expected a scaled down waterfall of similar grandeur. What I found upon arriving at “LITTLE NIAGARA” was a waterfall approximately 8 feet tall! I actually stopped a jogger who happened to be passing by to make sure I was currently at “LITTLE NIAGARA”, and sure enough I was! How very anti climatic!!! LOL! While Chickasaw was beautiful and serene, it appeared to be over developed for my preference. Too many picnic tables, paved pathways, and grassy fields gave the impression of a city park verses a national recreation area. Nevertheless, we had fun time spending the day exploring. Please see the pictures below.

After departing Chickasaw National Recreational Area, we wished to learn more about the Chickasaw Indians, so we drove across town to the Chickasaw Cultural Center. Upon our arrival, we discovered we were just in time for a Stomp Dance Demonstration. The Stomp Dance is an important aspect of Chickasaw culture, and believe their ceremonial songs and dances have been a part of tribal custom since time began. Chickasaw’s view the fire at the center of the dance circle as the embodiment of their Creator on earth, and the smoke lifts their prayers up to the Creator. Stomp dancers always move counterclockwise around the fire, so their hearts are closest to the fire.

The Stomp Dance is announced by one of the tribal leaders to let the other clans know who is going to lead the song. Next, the lead singer makes his way towards the fire with a handheld turtle shell rattle to set the rhythm of the dance. The rest of the clan or people follow him and form a circle around the fire holding hands in alternating gender; man, woman and so forth. It is believed the lead singer’s chants or prayers are answered in four days. Depending on the seriousness of the leader and if he is asking for himself or the other clan people, the Creator may grant what was asked.

The Stomp Dance begins with the lead singer letting out a yell to awaken the Creator. Then the lead singer lets out a second yell, and all the other dancing men let out a yell as if the Creator is speaking through them. The lead singer starts the dance, begins his chant, and only the Creator knows what the lead singer is saying. During the Stomp Dance, the men follow the lead singers chants in a call-and-answer format. Traditionally, the women enhance the rhythm set by the dance leader with shakers made from turtle shells worn on their legs. The use of turtle shells is intended to show respect and gratitude to the animal world for providing so many good things for their people. Instead of turtle shell shakers, today's Chickasaw women wear cans on their calves with beads inside.

The Stomp Dance demonstration began by a Chickasaw Native American sharing the history and significance of the first Stomp Dance to be performed: The Friendship Dance. Back in the day, the Chickasaw Friendship Dance was performed between two clans or tribes, so there will be no war between them. Either clan or tribe can farm, hunt and fish on the same land without fear of a battle. The dance also helps to protect their villages. The Friendship Dance is still alive today among the Chickasaw people, and is often the first dance the Chickasaw perform with visitors to symbolize their desire to live in harmony with one another! Below are some pictures from the Stomp Dance demonstration.

Next, the Chickasaw Native American's asked for volunteers from the audience to join them on the stage to partake in the Friendship Dance. I literally jumped out of my seat! There was no way I was going to pass up on an opportunity to dance with Native Americans! I LOVE TO DANCE, but Nate not so much. Nate graciously volunteered to sit this one out, so he could film me dancing. How very convenient!!! By the way, Nate stills owes me a dance after our line dance that fell through back in Texas, which you can read about clicking here. See Nate! There is the proof! You STILL owe me a dance, and don’t you forget it!!! LOL!!! To watch a video of me partaking in the Chickasaw Friendship Dance please click here. This was one my favorite moments of my cross country trip! Please see the pictures below.

After departing Chickasaw Cultural Center, we drove 190 miles Northeast to the capitol city of the Cherokee Nation; Tahlequah, OK to visit the Cross Country Couple's “Historic Location” for Oklahoma; “Trail of Tears Exhibit”. After gold was discovered in Georgia in 1828, President Andrew Jackson signed into law “The Indian Removal Act” on May 28, 1830. The new law authorized the President to negotiate with and forcibly remove Native American Tribes from there ancestral lands in the Southeastern US to federally owned territory in present day Oklahoma. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 has been hailed by historians as an act of genocide!

Between 1830 and 1850, the United States Government imposed a series of death marches upon the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Ponca tribes. The aforementioned tribes were made to march over 1,000 miles on foot through rugged terrain to unfamiliar lands. During the forced march, thousands of Native Americans suffered and died from exposure, warfare, disease, and starvation before reaching their destinations. Albeit all of the aforementioned tribes suffered heavy losses, the most infamous was the forcible removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 known as the Trail of Tears.

On December 29, 1835, the Treaty of New Echota was signed by the US Government, and representatives from a minority party of the Cherokee Nation. The treaty stated the Cherokee Nation would secede all territory West of the Mississippi in exchange for land in present day Oklahoma, and a $5 million payment from the US Government. However, The Minority Cherokee Party who entered into the agreement did not possess the authority to do so. The Cherokee National Council and Cherokee Principal Chief were not present during the negotiations, and neither approved nor signed the treaty. Of the 16,543 members of the Cherokee Nation, 16,000 signed a petition to prevent the treaty’s ratification. In March of 1836, the US Senate approved the treaty by a single vote legally authorizing the forcible removal of the Cherokee people from their ancestral lands.

According to the terms in the “The Treaty of New Echota”, the Cherokee had two years to relocate to their new land in present day Oklahoma, but only a fraction of the Cherokees left voluntarily. With assistance from the states militias, the U.S. government placed the Cherokee in concentration camps in eastern Tennessee, divided them up into groups, and forced them to march over 1,000 miles to Oklahoma through heavy rain, snow, and freezing temperatures. Of the estimated 16,543 Cherokee men, women and children forced to march, an estimated 2,000–8,000 died along the Trail of Tears.

Upon our arrival in Tahlequah, OK, we drove to the location of the “Trail of Tears” exhibit at the Cherokee Heritage Center. Operated by the Cherokee Historical Society, the heritage center features a: nationally-recognized Cherokee art show, outdoor living history village with authentic reproductions of traditional homes from the 1700's with villagers demonstrating traditional Cherokee crafts, the Cherokee Family Research Center, an on-site genealogy library where visitors may reconnect with their Cherokee lineage, and world-class educational exhibits, such as the acclaimed Trail of Tears.

After parking Rosie, we began our exploration in the Cherokee Heritage Center’s main building featuring the “Trail of Tears” exhibit. In conjunction with the National Park's Service, the Trail of Tears exhibit tells the story of the forced 19th century removal of the Cherokee from their indigenous territory to present day Oklahoma. Through the use of audio visual displays, historical artifacts and written documentation, the exhibit concentrates on six specific aspects of Cherokee history and culture: Cherokee life before the Trail of Tears, legal issues leading up to forced removal, unlawful imprisonment of Native Americans before walking the trail, the forced removal of other indigenous tribes, geographical route and events occurring along Trail of Tears, and how the Cherokee Nation adapted, thrived, and rebuilt their nation from scratch.

Admission to the exhibit was $8.50 per person, and I was sad to learn pictures were not permitted. I must begin by apologizing in advance to all my readers! I usually give a very detailed description of each experience on my trip. However, I left the “Trail of Tears” exhibit so deeply disturbed and disgusted by the US government's gross disregard for human life. As a result of my heightened emotional state, my memory of the exhibit is a bit of a blur.

There were a few aspects of the “Trail of Tears” exhibit I would like to highlight. One fascinating display was the document establishing the Cherokee’s Reservation in Oklahoma signed by the 8th President of the United States Marten Van Burren. The most powerful and haunting of the displays in the exhibit depicted the Cherokee loss of life along the Trail of Tears. After turning a corner, we suddenly entered a large room depicting dozens of ashen white life-sized Cherokee statues of men, women, families, and children. The statues were eerily life like, and some depicted the Cherokee as walking, some as sitting and some as lying dead on the floor! I literally felt as if I was among ghosts! This was one of the most powerful and haunting displays I have encountered on my entire cross country trip, and it pained me to be banned from taking pictures! However, I found one picture of the aforementioned display on the Cherokee Heritage Website, which is shown above.

Since the victors are the ones who write history, it was both fascinating and traumatizing to learn about the atrocities of the Trail of Tears from the perspective of the victims, the Cherokee Indians. Although the Trail of Tears occurred almost 150 years before my birth, I exited the exhibit ashamed, with my head held low. I literally could not bring myself to look at a Cherokee in the eye! I felt disgusted by the actions of my country, and embarrassed to be an American.

However, the Cherokee do not live their lives stuck in the past. The atrocities suffered by their ancestors on the Trail of Tears is part of their history, but does not define who they are as a people. The most inspirational part of the story of the Trail of Tears is how the Cherokee, and other forcibly relocated Native American tribes, rebuilt their nation from scratch in a foreign land, and preserved their culture and traditions even when faced with overwhelming adversity. I have always felt deeply inspired by the adaptability, perseverance and resilience of the Native Americans, as these are traits I too possess! My Great Great Grandmother was a Tuscarora Indian, which makes me 1/16 Native American. Albeit a small slice of my overall ancestral pie, it is a part of my heritage of which I am quite proud! Above is a picture of my Great Great Grandmother.

After departing the Cherokee Heritage Center, we drove to 72 miles Southeast to a Fort Smith Walmart for the night.