Transcript

107:

Trail of Tears
Transcript

Originally aired 07.03.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/107

Prologue.

Ira Glass

What's history good for anyway? A couple of years ago I went with a group of Chicago eighth-graders on their class trip to Washington DC. And their teacher, Mr. Perlstein had all these ambitious plans for the trip. And one of the most ambitious involved us going up to the top of the steps at the Lincoln Memorial. And we had brought with us this boom box, this massive boom box, like, 20 D cells in this thing, just for this moment at the top of the stairs. And Mr. Perlstein had to get special permits from the US Park police just for this one moment.

The class was all African-American and Mexican-American kids from the west side of Chicago. And Mr. Perlstein had this idea that we would sit there on the stairs right near where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King gave the "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

Mr. Perlstein

All right, listen up. Dr. King spoke from the marble stairway to the right, approximately where that gentleman's walking up with the red backpack. Look out into the distance, you can see, first, the reflection pool. Do you remember the picture I showed you of people standing in the trees? Those are the trees over there on the left. Remember, they were up in the trees with the signs?

Ira Glass

Mr. Perlstein talked for a while, trying to evoke that day of 1963. A cassette of Dr. King was queued up in the boom box.

Mr. Perlstein

Sit back. Transport yourself into the past.

(SUBJECT) MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

Ira Glass

The class listens, staring out in the distance over the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument. A few passing tourists stop and stand and listen with us. Dr. King's voice reverberates out over the stairs. And, afterwards, I ask the kids about it. And it turns out you don't get to be a 14 year old, minority kid in the public schools in America without having heard the, "I Have a Dream" speech a few times. Most of the kids were like, that speech? Again?

Student

It wasn't emotional or anything. We just had to sit there and listen to it, the same old speech. You know, I thought it was going be real moving or something like that, but it was just listening to him talk, you know?

Ira Glass

And you've heard that speech before?

Student

Thousands of times. Thousands of times.

Ira Glass

To be fair to these kids, what exactly is somebody supposed to do on the tourist sites of our own history? How exactly is it supposed to touch us? On our national holidays we pack up our children and we drive to Gettysburg and Williamsburg, to the Alamo and to the grassy knoll near the Dallas book depository, to the house where Richard Nixon grew up and to Al Capone's cell in Alcatraz. And we stand there, thousands and thousands of us, maybe even right now people standing there staring at the historic sites, trying to imagine what it was like back then, trying to absorb something, some lesson, some feeling, into ourselves. It's not easy.

Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But, you know, the opposite is also true. Those who can remember the past are also condemned to repeat it to their children on summer road trips. But, besides repeating it to someone else, what are you supposed to do with history? Especially history as ambiguous as that of our beloved United States of America, a history that's alternately murderous and heroic, money grubbing and idealistic.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, on our program, we try to make some sense out of the past. Writer Sarah Vowell and her twin sister, Amy, head out on the road to visit the site of a historic tragedy, one that involved part of their own family 160 years ago. Stay with us.

Act One.

Ira Glass

Sarah and Amy were born in Oklahoma, where our story ends and where it also begins. They're part Cherokee. That's an important element to their story. We're going to be devoting our entire program today to their trek through history. It's a story of the past and what to make of the past today.

Sarah Vowell

Being at least a little Cherokee in northeastern Oklahoma is about as rare and remarkable as being a Michael Jordan fan in Chicago. I mean, who isn't? I'm 1/8 Cherokee on my mother's side, about 1/16 on my father's. It goes without saying that my twin sister, Amy, is too, except that I have dark eyes and dark hair and she's a blue-eyed blond. And so our grandfather nicknamed me "Injun" and her "Swede."

Here's Amy's take on all this. I must point out that, while my sister and I don't really look alike, we sound almost exactly alike. A hint for listening to this story, I'm usually the grouchy one. Here's Amy.

Amy Vowell

I mean, those roles were assigned to us-- you know, Indian and Swede-- because of the way we looked, but it was also more like the things we were told about ourselves. And she was the one who was given the Cherokee language book, and I was the one who was always told how much alike I was to our Swedish grandmother. And I think I was probably six, or seven, or something before I realized that I was Cherokee too.

Sarah Vowell

We're a little French and Scottish and English and Seminole too, typical American mutts, but the Cherokee and Swedish sides of the family were the only genealogies anyone knew anything about. Here's what we knew about ourselves, Ellis Island, Trail of Tears. And I think, to a kid, "trail of tears," the Cherokee's forced march from the East to Oklahoma where we were born, seemed enormously more interesting, just as a name.

Even the smallest children know what tears mean, and I think in my earliest understanding of where I came from, I pictured myself descended from a long line of weepers with bloodshot eyes. The Trail of Tears, between 1838 and '39 the US Army wrenched 16,000 people from their homes, rounded them up in stockades, and marched them across the country. 4,000 died.

Every summer when we were children, our parents would drive us to a place about half an hour from where we lived called Tsa-La-Gi, which is the Cherokee word for Cherokee. Tsa-La-Gi is the tribe's cultural center. There's a re-created colonial village, a museum, and-- this was our favorite part-- an amphitheater which staged a dramatic re-creation of the Trail of Tears. Every summer we watched Chief John Ross try like mad to save the Cherokee land back east. We saw his hot-head rival, Stand Watie, rage off to the civil war. We especially loved the Death of the Phoenix, a noisy, magenta-lit interpretive dance in which the mythic bird would die only to rise again.

Amy Vowell

We would get these programs, or brochures, and Sarah was kind of in charge of them. And sometimes she'd let me look at them. She had a whole little file, and we would look through them. And I did take it to heart. It was a story that was really tragic. I have a sort of reverent feeling towards it, and I think it's because of this play. Because this play was so serious and told such a detailed story, that it kind of took this place of significance, like it was really important and it really mattered.

Sarah Vowell

Here's the measure of how important the amphitheater show was to Amy and me. Our father and our grandfather used to show us photographs of Cherokee leaders in books, but, even now, when I imagine Stand Watie, I picture the actor at Tsa-La-Gi. So all my life I knew I wouldn't exist but for the Trail of Tears, and it struck me as a little silly that most of the things I knew about it were based on an amphitheater drama I haven't seen for nearly 20 years.

At first, I thought I'd read some books about it, which I did. But then I wanted to see it, feel it, know how long a trek it was. I wanted it to be real. I enlisted Amy. Perhaps she'd like to do all the driving? A historical tragedy and five 14-hour days behind the wheel? Who could pass that up? And so I fly from Chicago, she from Montana. And one spring morning we find ourselves in a rental car on our way to northwestern Georgia, the homeland of the Cherokee before they were shoved out to Oklahoma, the place the Trail of Tears begins.

The Cherokee territory once encompassed most of present-day Tennessee and Kentucky as well as parts of Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Even before contact with the Europeans in 1540, they were a proto-democratic society. They built these enormous council houses, big enough to fit the entire tribe inside, so everyone could participate in tribal decisions.

We're barely on the road an hour when we spot them, Injuns. Ceramic ones, three feet tall, at a shack on the side of the road. Amy drives past them. We do a double take, and we don't even discuss whether or not to stop, she just backs up immediately and parks.

Sarah Vowell

Are you of Native American descent?

Man

I'm a Mexican. I'm from Texas.

Sarah Vowell

From Texas? And what brought you to Calhoun, Georgia?

Man

The work.

Sarah Vowell

The eight little Indians he's selling are of the kitschy, teepee-toting, Plains Indian, squaws and braves variety, which are probably a lot easier to sell than the stereotypical image of a Cherokee. A tired out old woman tromping through the Trail of Tears in rags, who wants that as a lawn ornament?

Sarah Vowell

Who buys these statues, these Indian statues?

Man

People here from Calhoun, around Georgia. People here around Georgia love Indians.

Sarah Vowell

Really?

Man

Uh-huh.

Sarah Vowell

Well, after they got rid of them? [LAUGHS]

Man

That's right. [LAUGHS] That's true.

[LAUGHTER]

Man

You're telling the truth there.

Sarah Vowell

Thank you, very much.

Man

Uh-huh.

Sarah Vowell

The Cherokee, especially the mixed bloods, were always your nerdy, overachiever, bookish, sort of tribe. And, in the early 19th century, they launched a series of initiatives directly imitating the new American republic. In one decade, they created a written language, started a free press, ratified a constitution, and founded a capital city. New Echota was that capital. Now it stands in the middle of nowhere, a Georgia state park with a handful of buildings across from a golf course.

Sarah Vowell

Can we follow you in this car?

Man

Drive on in.

Sarah Vowell

OK.

New Echota was founded in 1825. To call it the Cherokee version of Washington DC is entirely applicable, given the form of government the tribe established there. They ratified a constitution based on that of the United States, dividing into legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Its preamble begins, "We, the Representatives of the people of the Cherokee Nation in Convention assembled, in order to establish justice, ensure tranquility, promote our common welfare, and secure to ourselves and to our posterity the blessings of liberty."

Unlike Washington, New Echota is cool and quiet and green. Site manager, David Gomez, showed us around the grounds. And Amy and I were unprepared for the loveliness of the place, for its calm lushness, its fragrance. Everywhere, honeysuckle was in bloom.

Sarah Vowell

I like it here.

David Gomez

It's nice. It's peaceful and it's right. The atmosphere is right for what was going on in the story that we tell here, you know? It's a story that's sad in a lot of ways, but there was a lot of great things happening with the Cherokee Nation.

Sarah Vowell

The Cherokee, along with the other Southeastern tribes who suffered removal to Oklahoma-- the Chickasaw, the Creek, the Chocktaw, the Seminole, are one of the, so-called, five civilized tribes.

It was in 1822 that the Cherokee hero, Sequoyah, developed an alphabet, inventing the sole written language of any North American tribe. Only six years later Cherokee editor, Elias Boudinot, founded The Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual English-Cherokee newspaper published at New Echota.

Many Cherokee, especially the mixed bloods, practice Christianity. And, because many of these lived as civilized Southern gentleman of the early 19th century, they owned prospering plantations, which meant they owned black slaves. More than any other Native American tribe, the Cherokees adopted the religious, cultural, and political ideals of the United States, partly as a means to self-preservation. By becoming more like the Americans, they hoped to co-exist with this new nation that was growing up around them. They weren't allowed to. Georgia settlers wanted their land and their gold, which was discovered near New Echota in 1829.

David Gomez

They were really progressing so fast at this time period. The printing operation was going with their newspaper here. Things were moving so fast forward and for a short while here that it looked very promising. But because of gold and the big demand for land, the fate had already been really sealed for them in earlier years.

Sarah Vowell

The tribe allowed Christian missionaries to live and work among them and to teach their children English. The most beloved of these was the Presbyterian, Samuel Worcester, who built a two-story house at New Echota which functioned as a post office, school and rooming house. It's still there, and David Gomez walks us through.

David Gomez

All right, we've got some steep steps here. You all hold on when you go down. I don't want you all to have a broken leg on the rest of your trip.

Sarah Vowell

The state of Georgia, which of all the Southern states treated the Cherokee with the most hostility, passed a number of alarming laws in the 1820s and '30s undermining the sovereignty of the nation. One of these laws required white settlers within the boundaries of the nation to obtain a permit from the state of Georgia. Samuel Worcester refused to apply for such a permit, arguing that he had the permission of the Cherokee to live on their lands and that should suffice.

Georgia arrested Worcester and imprisoned him for four years. Worcester appealed to the Supreme Court, and the case, Worcester v. Georgia, became a great victory for the tribe. The Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that the Cherokee Nation was just that, a sovereign nation within the borders of the US and, therefore, beholden only to the Federal government, i.e., not under the jurisdiction of Georgia state laws.

David Gomez

And the Cherokee nation was elated, you know. They thought, all right, the highest court in the land of the United States, this government that we're trying to copy, they've ruled in our favor. This is going to be good. But, of course, Andrew Jackson, who was pro-removal-- from the early years, he had campaigned on that issue-- decided he wasn't going to back the Supreme Court ruling.

Sarah Vowell

On hearing of the ruling, the President is said to have replied, "John Marshall has made his ruling, now let him enforce it." Think about that, what that means, a breakdown of the balance of power in such boasting, dictatorial terms. Jackson is violating his own oath of office to uphold the Constitution. In the 20th century, when people bandy about the idea of impeachment for presidents who fib about extramarital dalliances, it's worth remembering what a truly impeachable offense looks like. It didn't happen, of course. I refer you to the face on the $20 bill. Anyway, the state of Georgia was thrilled when Jackson thumbed his nose at the Court, and immediately dispatched teams to survey the Cherokee lands for a land lottery. Soon, white settlers arrived here.

David Gomez

They show up two years later in 1834-- you know, with a land lottery deed and with the Georgia soldiers saying, "I've got this land from the lottery. Get off of it."

Sarah Vowell

One small constitutional violation that was part of the land grab, Georgia seized the Cherokee printing press so they couldn't publicize their cause and win political support in states up north. The tribe was divided about what to do-- stay and fight, or demand cash for the land and head west.

No one exploited this split more than Andrew Jackson, and no one annoyed Jackson like principal chief, John Ross. Ross was a Jeffersonian figure in almost every sense, a founding father of the Cherokee nation in its modern legal form. It was Ross who cribbed from Jefferson in writing the Cherokee Constitution. Like Jefferson, he preached liberty while owning slaves. An educated, gentleman planter, Ross was only 1/8 Cherokee, just 1/8, even I'm more Cherokee than that. But he was their Chief from 1827 to 1866.

In his later years, he corresponded with Abraham Lincoln. In his early years, he was such a believer in the inherent justice of the American system that he lobbied relentlessly in Washington DC, believing that once the Congress and the President understood that the Cherokee were a virtuous, sibling republic, that they'd treat the tribe fairly, as equals. Once the state of Georgia began evicting the Cherokee and John Ross among them, Ross wrote, "Treated like dogs, we find ourselves fugitives, vagrants, and strangers in our own country."

The vast majority of the tribe wanted to stay put and supported Ross. But around 100 men-- including Phoenix editor Elias Boudinot and his brother Stand Watie, 100 in a tribe of 16,000-- met at Boudinot's house in New Echota and signed a treaty with the US government. They had no authority to do this. Called the Treaty of New Echota, it relinquished all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for land in the West. They figured, Georgia was already seizing Cherokee land, this might be the only way the Cherokee could get something for it.

John Ross, whom the Georgia militia arrested so that he could not protest, was stunned. He accused the treaty party of treason. The rest of the 16,000 Cherokee signed a petition calling the treaty invalid and illegal. Congress ratified the treaty by only one vote, despite impassioned pleas on behalf of the Cherokee by Senators Henry Clay and Davy Crockett. The tribe was given three years to remove themselves to the West.

Now we're standing at the site of Elias Boudinot's house, where the infamous New Echota treaty was signed.

David Gomez

Yeah, well, the spring of '38 rolled around about like right now, and nobody was going anywhere. So Georgia and the Federal government thought they were going to have some problems. And you had about 7,000 troops come in to forcibly remove the Cherokees from their farms, from their houses. And initially rounded up into what were known as forts or stockades, and then moved up into eastern Tennessee and northeastern Alabama to three immigration depots, where they were then transferred and then moved out on the Trail of Tears as everybody knows it. So, technically, this is the starting point for the Trail of Tears. For the individual Cherokees, it really started at their front door or wherever they were rounded up from, though.

Sarah Vowell

Amy and I want to step on it, this patch of grass where the treaty was signed, but we hesitate. "It's not a grave," Gomez tells us. But that's what it feels like. We tiptoe onto it, this profane ground. And then we tiptoe away. Perhaps we should be embarrassed by certain discrepancies between our Trail of Tears and theirs. We're weak. We're decadent. We're Americans, which means road trip history buffs one minute, amnesiacs the next. We want to remember, except when we want to forget.

We register at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the Chattanooga Choo Choo. It's a hotel now. A gloriously hokey, beautifully restored Holiday Inn in which the lobby is the ornate dome of the old train station, and the rooms are turn-of-the-century rail cars parked out on the tracks.

We're in giggles the entire night for the simple reason that the phrase "choo, choo" is completely addictive. We try to work it into every sentence. "What should we do for dinner? Stay here at the Choo Choo?" We end up going out for barbecue, saying, "This is good, but I can't wait to get back to the Choo Choo." We watch The X-Files in our train car, commenting, "Is is just me, or is this show even better in the Choo Choo?" I send email from my laptop just so that I can write, "Greetings, from the Chattanooga Choo Choo," exclamation point. Number of times I just said "choo, choo," seven. Number of choos, 14.

Day two, sadly, we check out of the Choo Choo and drive across town to Ross's Landing. It used to be where John Ross's ferry service carried people across the Tennessee River. But, in 1838, it was one of the starting points for the water route of the Trail of Tears. I stand on the sand and read a weathered historical marker.

Sarah Vowell

"Established about 1816 by John Ross, some 370 yards east of this point. It consisted of a ferry, warehouse and landing. Cherokee parties left from the landing for the West in 1838, the same year the growing community took the name Chattanooga." And I'm sure there's no connection at all between those two points. That sounds so nice. They just left for the West. Bye-bye. Bon voyage.

I haven't mentioned that Ross's Landing also functions as Chattanooga's tourist center. Up the hill from the river is the gigantic Tennessee Aquarium and an IMAX theater. The place is crawling with tourists. A crowd so generic and indistinguishable from one another, they swirled around us as a single T-shirt.

160 years ago, thousands of Cherokees came through this site. In the summer, they were forced onto boats and faced heat exhaustion in a drought that stranded them without water to drink. In the fall, they headed west by foot, eventually trudging barefoot through blizzards. Either way, they died of starvation, dysentery, diarrhea and fatigue. A quarter of the tribe was gone.

And here, in the shadow of the aquarium, the Trail of Tears is remembered by a series of quotations from disgruntled Native Americans carved into a concrete plaza. One of the citations, from a Cherokee named Dragging Canoe, is from 1776.

Sarah Vowell

"The white men have almost surrounded us, leaving us only a little spot of ground to stand upon. And it seems to be their intention to destroy us as a nation." Good call.

We're moving diagonally across the sidewalk. And Andrew Jackson, in 1820, "It is high time to do away with the farce of treatying with Indian tribes as separate nations." We'll step on that one.

Amy Vowell

These cracks in the sidewalks, they are symbolic of broken promises.

Sarah Vowell

[LAUGHS] Are you making that up?

Amy Vowell

No, it says right here, "Some of the pavers are cracked to symbolize the broken promises made to the Indians."

Sarah Vowell

Hm.

Most Americans have had this experience. Most of us can name things our country has done that we find shameful. From the travesties everybody agrees were wrong, the Japanese internment camps or the late date of slavery's abolition, to murkier partisan arguments about legalized abortion or the Enola Gay. World history has been a bloody business from the get-go, but the nausea we're suffering standing on the broken promises at Ross's Landing is peculiar to a democracy because, in a democracy, we're all responsible for everything our government does.

Sarah Vowell

This is the letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to President Martin Van Buren in 1838. "A crime is projected that confounds our understandings by its magnitude, a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokee of a country. For how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations, our country any more? You, sir, will bring down the renowned chair in which you sit into infamy if your seal is set to this instrument of perfidy, and the name of this nation, hitherto, the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world."

And the path ends with a quotation from an unknown survivor of the Trail of Tears who said, "Long time we travel on way to new land. People feel bad when they leave old nation. Womens cry and make sad wails. Children, and many men, and all look sad like when friends die. But they say nothing, and just put heads down and keep on go towards west. Many days pass, and people die very much. We bury close by trail."

That last passage, especially the part about when friends die, bring us to tears. And we just stand there, looking off towards the Tennessee, brokenhearted. Meanwhile, there are little kids literally walking over these words, playing on them, making noise, having fun. We sort of hate them for a second.

We ask a teacher who's with a group of fourth graders why she isn't talking to them about Cherokee history. And she says normally she would, but it's the end of the school year, and this trip is their reward for being good. It sounds reasonable. I ask Amy if she thinks these kids should share our sadness.

Amy Vowell

Well, I think it's a sad story. It's like, I mean, it's sort of like the holocaust. You don't have to be Jewish to think that that's definitely a sad part of history. And I think the Trail of Tears is America's version of genocide. And, I mean, really, it started right over there. You look like you're about to hit something.

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Vowell

Still, I can't take my eyes off those children. I envy them. I want to join them. I'm an IMAX person. I had been to an IMAX theater just weeks before. I wanted to come on this trip to get a feel for this trail that made us, but standing here at Ross's Landing, it hits me how crazy that is. Suddenly, the only thing I get out of it is rage. Why should we keep going?

Sarah Vowell

I don't know. I don't know why. I don't know why we're here.

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Vowell

I seriously don't. Like, I know it's an interesting story and yes, we are always interested in our past, but sometimes I wonder what good comes of that. I don't think it makes me a more contented person at all. In fact, I think I feel really haunted by all of this, and I feel very weighed down by the pain. Part of me thinks this whole thing is a mistake. And maybe I feel more knowing about it, but it's not like this is a story where the more you know, the better you'll feel. It's just the opposite. The more I learn, the worse I feel and the more hatred I feel towards this country that I still love, and therefore, the more conflicted.

I just feel all this anger at everything. And we're standing next to this stupid aquarium building and talking to coast guard guys. And there are ducks around. And now there's a calliope? I mean, I don't know. Now I just feel like-- I feel worse. I feel worse.

There are only so many hours a human being can stomach unfocused dread. I was tired and confused and depressed, and I needed the kind of respite that can only come from focused resentment. In the Trail of Tears saga, if there's one person you're allowed to hate, it's Andrew Jackson, the architect of the Indian removal policy. And since the Trail of Tears passed through Nashville anyway, we stop at his plantation, The Hermitage.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell and her sister entered the enemy's bedroom. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, so close to the Fourth of July, a program about the past and what to make of the past. We continue with the story of Sarah Vowell and her sister, Amy, retracing the path of the Trail of Tears. They have just arrived at the home of the president responsible for the trail, someone they hate and intend to keep hating in a very un-public radio way, Andrew Jackson.

Sarah Vowell

The house and museum are closed to the public when we arrive because of astonishing tornado damage. Part of me wanted to destroy Andrew Jackson and everything he represented. Seeing all those hacked up trees made me feel like someone had beaten me to the punch.

Sarah Vowell

God, look at it. All the trees are down.

Amy Vowell

Yeah.

Sarah Vowell

The wrath of God.

Inside, there's no display mentioning Indian removal because, remarkably, there is no display about Jackson's presidency. Carolyn Brackett showed us around the house, a columned antebellum mansion that looks like a cross between Graceland and Tara. Unfortunately for my spite spree, I liked Carolyn Brackett. I felt bad for her. Like, she would point into the library and say Jackson subscribed to a lot of newspapers before his death, and I'd say, "Was one of them The Cherokee Phoenix?" She wasn't sure. She wanted to show off the mansion's painstaking restoration.

Carolyn Brackett

All of the rooms that have original wallpaper, all of the paper was conserved and had to be cleaned with an eraser the size of a pencil eraser. So that was quite an undertaking. The portrait of Jackson was finished nine days before his death. I don't think he shows the wear and tear of his life in that portrait. The one over the--

Sarah Vowell

Hey. He looks like he's sticking his head out a car window.

[LAUGHTER]

Carolyn Brackett

I guess he wasn't worrying about his hair much by then.

Sarah Vowell

Carolyn guides us past the flower garden planted by Jackson's wife, Rachel, and into the family graveyard. There are a few piddly headstones and one Greco-Roman monstrosity with an obelisk rising from the center.

Sarah Vowell

Let me guess which one of these graves is Jackson's. [LAUGHS]

Carolyn Brackett

Here he is. He actually had this designed for Rachel and left room for himself. And these are other family members.

Sarah Vowell

I pull a book out of my backpack, a book with the subtitle, Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. Carolyn and Amy exchange a worried look.

Sarah Vowell

Well, so I'm standing here on Andrew Jackson's grave. And there is part of me, as a person of partly Cherokee descent, that wouldn't mind dancing on it. [LAUGHS] You know? I would like to-- there's a letter that Jackson wrote about the removal of the Southeastern tribes. And-- can you hold that, Amy-- this is his opinion on the Southeastern tribes leaving their land.

"Doubtless, it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers. But what do they more than our ancestors did nor than our children are doing? To better their condition in an unknown land, our forefathers left all that was dear in earthly objects. Our children by thousands yearly leave the land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions."

And then it ends, "Can it be cruel in the government, when, by events which it cannot control, the Indian is made discontent in his ancient home to purchase his lands, give him a new and extensive territory, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode. How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions?"

I mean, there's something sort of nutty about Old Hickory in this passage. You know, just the fact that he just thinks-- well, to compare the removal of Indians from their land with the opportunity of his generation to just go out west. I mean, what do you make of that? Can you help me understand that mindset?

Carolyn Brackett

Probably not. I mean, the interesting thing about that era was that they really felt that they were preserving. This is how they justified it in their own minds was that they were actually having preserve it, that this was inevitable. It was sort of the early thought of manifest destiny, that it was inevitable that this would happen.

Interestingly, to me, is they never seemed to think that we were going to settle the country all the way to the West, all the way to California. So, if they just kept moving everybody further away, they would suddenly get to a point where there wasn't going to be any settlement, which, of course, didn't happen.

Sarah Vowell

We drive on into Kentucky towards Hopkinsville. When the Trail of Tears passed through southern Kentucky in December of 1838, a traveler from Maine happened upon a group of Cherokees. He wrote, "We found them in the forest by a roadside camped for the night under a severe fall of rain accompanied by a heavy wind. Canvas for a shield against the inclemency of the weather and the cold, wet ground for a resting place, after the fatigue of the day, they spent the night."

"Several were then quite ill, and an aging man we were then informed was in the last struggles of death. Even aged females, apparently ready to drop into the grave, were traveling with heavy burdens attached to the back, on the sometimes frozen ground and the sometimes muddy streets with no covering for the feet except for what nature had given them. We learned from the inhabitants on the road where the Indians passed that they buried 14 or 15 at every stopping place."

John Ross's wife died in a place like this, in winter, of pneumonia. She had one blanket to protect herself from the weather, and she gave it to a sick child during a sleet storm.

There's more. It gets worse. I always knew the Cherokee owned slaves, that they owned them in the East and that they owned them in the West. Only in the course of this road trip did it occur to me that the slaves got to Indian territory in the same manner as their masters, on the Trail of Tears. Can you imagine? As if being a slave wasn't bad enough? To be a slave to a tortured Indian made to walk halfway across the continent?

Day three, Hopkinsville. We stopped here because it was on the map, but pulling into town we saw signs for a Trail of Tears Memorial Park we didn't know about. It seemed like a good idea to go there.

Joyce

Good morning.

Sarah Vowell

Do you work here?

Joyce

Yes, I do.

Sarah Vowell

Mind if we bother you a second?

Joyce

What you need?

Sarah Vowell

Can you tell me about what the origin of this place is, and why there's a park here, and how it came about?

Joyce

Hopkinsville was a ration stop along the way on the Trail of Tears, and the Cherokee camped here. They were here for a week or so. While they were here, two of their chiefs died, and they're buried up on the hillside. You should start here and walk up to the grave area. There are three bronze plaques on each one of the posts. The last one, just before you enter the grave area, tells you about the two chiefs, Whitepath and Flysmith.

Sarah Vowell

The plaque nearest the graves says that Whitepath was one of the Cherokee who fought under Andrew Jackson in 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Jackson even gave Whitepath a watch for his bravery. In that battle, a Cherokee saved Jackson's life, which hints at the level of Jackson's betrayal of the tribe. Had a Cherokee not saved his life then, Whitepath and Flysmith might not be buried here beneath our feet.

The graves are up on a little hill. You can hear the highway down below, but still it's serene. Up until this moment, all the graves along the trail had been metaphorical. All through Tennessee Amy and I kept saying, "We're driving over graves. We're driving over graves." But, even then, we just imagined them there, under the blacktop, off in the woods. But here, the skeletons suddenly had faces, specific stories. The graves were real.

It took the Cherokee about six months to walk to Oklahoma. We're doing it in five days. Every 10 minutes, we cover the same amount of ground they covered in a day. We drive with the sun in our eyes on back roads through Kentucky. We duck into a remote section of downstate Illinois Chicagoans fear to tread. A plaque marks the spot where thousands of Cherokee camped, unable to cross the Mississippi because of floating ice. We cross it in under a minute.

I know we're going fast, but it doesn't feel fast. We plod through most of Missouri stopping at yet another Trail of Tears State Park. There's actually a name for what we're doing, it's called heritage tourism, which sounds so grand, like it's going to be one freaking epiphany after another. But, after a while, we just read the signs without even getting out of the car. At the end of every day we fall into our motel beds, wrecked.

Day four, in the morning, we plow through Arkansas. We get to Fayetteville in the afternoon. We have lunch with two old roommates of mine, Brad and Leilani, who take us to a little Trail of Tears marker next to a high school parking lot.

Sarah Vowell

That looks plaque-like, huh? "On this site, in the summer of 1839, there camped 1,000 Cherokees, men women and children en route to their new home."

The sign's facing a semicircular arrangement of boulders. Anyone who's ever been to high school would recognize it immediately as the place students go to sneak cigarettes or get stoned. And, once again, it's striking how the two American tendencies exist side by side, to remember our past and to completely ignore it and have fun.

Look at how we treat all our national holidays. Don't we mourn the dead on Memorial Day with volleyball and sunscreen? Don't we, the people, commemorate the Fourth of July by setting meat and bottle rockets on fire? Which makes a lot of sense when you remember that a phrase as weird and whimsical as "the pursuit of happiness" sits right there in the second sentence of the founding document of the country.

The most happiness I find on the trip is when we're in the car and I can blare the Chuck Berry tape I brought. We drive the trail where thousands died, and I listen to the music and think what are we supposed to do with the grisly past? I feel a righteous anger and bitterness about every historical fact of what the American nation did to the Cherokee. But, at the same time, I'm an entirely American creature. I'm in love with this song and the country that gave birth to it.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "BACK IN THE USA" BY CHUCK BERRY]

Listening to "Back in the USA" while driving the Trail of Tears, I turn it over and over in my head. It's a good country. It's a bad country. Good country, bad country. And, of course, it's both. When I think about my relationship with America, I feel like a battered wife. Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy he sure can dance.

Amy Vowell

"Welco to Oklahoma, Native America." Huh, I don't remember the signs used to say that. Do you?

Sarah Vowell

No. I think, didn't they used to say, "Oklahoma's OK?"

Amy Vowell

Well--

Sarah Vowell

I think that's about right too. Eh, it's OK.

[LAUGHTER]

Across the state line, we're in the Western Cherokee Nation. And the maddening thing, the heartbreaking, cruel, sad, cold fact is that Northeastern Oklahoma looks exactly like Northwestern Georgia. Same old trees. Same old grassy farmland. The Cherokee walked all this way, crossed rivers, suffered blizzards, buried their dead, and all for what? The same old land they left.

We breeze through Tahlequah, the Cherokee capital. Even though the Trail of Tears officially stops there, our trail won't be over until we get to our hometown, Braggs. It's about 20 minutes away, and we plan on spending the evening with our aunts and uncles there.

[KNOCKS ]

Aunt Lil

Come inside girls.

Woman

Hi.

Sarah Vowell

Hi. [LAUGHS]

Aunt Lil

Oh, hi. Oh, it's so good to see you. Hi, Amy.

Amy Vowell

How you doing?

Aunt Lil

Oh.

Sarah Vowell

Hi uncle.

I wanted to talk to my uncle, John A, my mother's brother. At 74, he's my oldest living relative. I asked him about his great grandfather, Peter Parson, who came to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.

John A

He was 12 years old, and he grew up here from 12 years old. And he was a stone mason, and some of his work is still around Tahlequah. If you're going up to the village tomorrow, you'll see two big columns.

Sarah Vowell

He built those?

John A

He helped build those two columns. See, they built that right after they came up here.

Sarah Vowell

I didn't know that. The columns he's talking about, and there are actually three instead of two, are the great symbols of the Cherokee nation in the West. For years, I've had an old photograph of them stuck on my refrigerator door. They're all that's left of the remains of the Cherokee Female Seminary, the very first public school for girls west of the Mississippi, which my great-grandmother attended.

Everything about the journey until now has been a little world-historical. Hearing that our ancestor helped build the columns is the first time I felt an actual familial connection to the story. I asked John A about our family and the Cherokee presence in Oklahoma. I ask him a lot of off-topic questions about his service in World War II, mainly because I was dying to. I was never allowed to ask him about it when I was a kid.

And then I asked him a mundane, reporterly question about whether he thinks the state of Oklahoma has done a good job educating its students about American Indian history. He says yes, then jumps into a non sequitur about his own education that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since.

John A

I just wish that I could've, maybe, went to school a lot more. Yeah, I didn't get no education, and that was one of my big faults. But, when I was growing up, it took everybody to make a living, so I had to work. There's Hoy, he's got a Master's Degree in Education, and I got to third grade. [LAUGHS] Did you know that?

Sarah Vowell

No, third grade?

John A

That's all I went, to the third grade. Duke was about third or fourth grade. We didn't get no education. So what you learn you can't afford to forget, you know?

Sarah Vowell

On this trip, I've been so wrapped up in all the stories of all the deaths on the Trail of Tears, sitting there listening to my uncle ask what if, I realized that there are lots of ways that lives are pummeled by history. If the Trail of Tears is a glacier that inched its way west my uncle is one of the boulders it deposited when it stopped. He had to work the farm, and the farm he worked was what was left of his grandfather's Indian allotment.

And then came the Dust Bowl, and then came the war. All these historical forces bore down on him, but he did not break. Compared to him, compared to the people we descend from, I am free of history. I'm so free of history I have to get in a car and drive seven states to find it.

John A

It's good to know where you're from, to know where your beginning is. It really, probably, don't amount to all that much, only just to one's self, you know? It has nothing to do with you getting out here doing what you're going to do tomorrow or a week or two from now. But, at least, if you want to look back, you can look back, maybe on this trip, and say well, I was down in the area there where some of my ancestors originated from, you know?

Sarah Vowell

Day five, Tsa-La-Gi.

Sarah Vowell

Do you remember this, Amy?

Amy Vowell

What?

Sarah Vowell

Do you remember this?

Amy Vowell

Yeah, don't you?

Sarah Vowell

Yeah.

Amy Vowell

I mean, we came here once a year.

Sarah Vowell

Those columns are a lot smaller than I remembered. I remember them just being these arrows into the sky, and they can't be more than, what? 20 feet tall?

Amy Vowell

Oh, I think they're taller than that.

Sarah Vowell

Oh, look. Now we're at-- this is the amphitheater entrance. [SIGHS] Oh, here's where you'd get your program. Walk up here, and there's the statue of Sequoyah.

Amy Vowell

Over there's where the Phoenix would rise again.

Sarah Vowell

Over there, isn't that-- oh, down there, on the right, that's where I remember Stand Watie was always throwing a fit. [LAUGHS]

Amy Vowell

I always thought he was over there.

Sarah Vowell

Oh, really?

Amy Vowell

Mm-hm.

Sarah Vowell

Unfortunately, due to loss of funding, the drama here at Tsa-La-Gi won't be performed this summer. Amy and I sit in the chairs where we first learned about the Trail of Tears and talk about our trip. Our experiences were different. She minored in Native American studies in college. She not only owns a copy of Black Elk Speaks, she could quote from it. And, for her, the trip was about empathy.

Amy Vowell

You know, I've been pretty close to tears sometimes just thinking about the pain, or whatever, like what the kids must have been thinking. When we were driving, I just kept imagining the kids saying, "Where are we going? Where are we going?" You know, like, "What is happening?" I guess I've been thinking about what it really must have been like.

Sarah Vowell

I've been thinking about those kids too. But the person I identify with most in this history is John Ross, the principal chief during the Trail of Tears, because he was caught between the two nations. He believed in the possibilities of the American constitution enough to make sure the Cherokee had one too. He believed in the liberties, the Declaration of Independence's promises, and the civil rights the constitution ensures.

And, when the US betrayed not only the Cherokee but its own creed, I would guess that John Ross was not only angry, not only outraged, not only confused, I would guess that John Ross was a little brokenhearted because that's how I feel. I've been experiencing the Trail of Tears not as a Cherokee, but as an American.

John Ridge, one of the signers of the treaty of New Echota, once prophesied, "Cherokee blood, if not destroyed, will wind its courses in beings of fair complexions, who will read that their ancestors became civilized under the frowns of misfortunes and the causes of their enemies." He was talking about people like my sister and me. The story of the Trail of Tears, like the story of America, is as complicated as our Cherokee-Swedish-Scottish-English-French-Seminole family tree. Just as our blood will never be pure, the Trail of Tears will never make sense.

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell, she's put a version of her story about the Trail of Tears into her book, Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Nancy Updike and Alix Spiegel. Senior editor for this show, Paul Tough. Contributing editors, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere, Sarah Vowell. Production help from Pat Hannah, Laura Doggit and Sylvia Lemus.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our shows for free or buy tapes. Or, you know, you can download audio of our show at audible.com/thisamericanlife where they have public radio programs, bestselling books, even The New York Times all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatea, who today is hearing our program from Chattanooga and asks.

Sarah Vowell

Is it just me, or is this show even better in the Choo Choo?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.