How do you celebrate Independence Day? My way of commemorating American history was to visit one of the sites that have preserved the memory of the Trail of Tears, a shameful chapter in American history. Americans tend to forget about the dark side of their history during all of the fireworks, beer, and bloody barbecues.
The Cherokee Tribe keeps alive the memory of the Trail of Tears. In 1838, the federal government under Andrew Jackson (the president so highly esteemed by Donald Trump) forced nearly the entire Cherokee tribe to abandon their homes and lives in eastern Tennessee and adjacent regions and walk (a few rode in wagons) to what is now Oklahoma. One of these many thousands of Cherokees was my great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Hildebrand Pettit, who came with her children on the Hildebrand route of the Trail of Tears. They camped for a couple of very cold weeks in winter at a place called Mantle Rock, waiting for the Ohio River to open up enough for the ferry to take them to Illinois where they continued their journey. I regularly visit Elizabeth’s grave, and have now visited Mantle Rock.
The Cherokees like to talk of the Trail of Tears as a Cherokee experience, although Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muskogees, and Seminoles also had their Trails of Tears to Oklahoma. Indeed, similar stories can be told for the approximately five hundred Native tribes. We do not think of the United States as causing the forced marches of refugees, but that is a part of our history, even though an Oklahoma congressman recently referred to the Trail of Tears as a voluntary walk. We pretend we are the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are, for rich white people, which included most of my ancestors. But not for black slaves. And not for Elizabeth, or her daughter Minerva, who married my great great grandfather Lewis Hicks.
I have posted a video about Mantle Rock, where I explain (in Darwin persona) that human nature has elements of good and evil. We have evolved to be good to those inside our group and evil to those outside. The inside group might be our tribe or our religion. Through human history, we have expanded the boundary outward, to include more people in the inside group: first whole countries, then lots of countries (such as the failed League of Nations or the current European Union), the whole world (the United Nations), and some people even include non-human animals or whole ecosystems.
But in recent years, many nations (most notably America) have retracted the boundary. Many Americans now consider those from outside their country to be unworthy of the most basic human dignity, and those outside their party (or even their extreme faction in their party) to be unworthy of any respect. We are rapidly retreating backwards in history in this particular way. Evolution has given us the ability to expand the boundary between “us” and “them” outward, but we are pulling it back inward.
This is what I am thinking about this Independence Day.
Today, millions of refugees are forced from their homes to places that do not welcome them. The United States is one of the countries that does not welcome them. If their skin is dark, there is practically no way they can enter as refugees. We continue to welcome white refugees.
Back in the 1980s Tulsa welcomed a bunch of Burmese refugees from the Zomi tribe. I am a minority in their neighborhood. Good neighbors! But that was a long time ago.
The video is on my YouTube channel.
I post below some of the images of Mantle Rock, a hauntingly beautiful place now maintained by the Nature Conservancy.
Here is the original Trail:
Here is a photo of Berry’s Ferry, the location where the Hildebrand contingent finally crossed the Ohio River.