By Tom Ehrich
TAHLEQUAH, OK -- I can write anywhere. But I do love sitting in a coffee shop with a fresh cup of joe and a window on the world.
Today I am sitting in Morgan's Bakery on Muskogee Ave, the main drag of Tahlequah, and looking out at a hardware store and a parade of pickup trucks.
The sign on the window is in two languages: English and Cherokee. So are street signs outside. The Cherokee use a syllabary invented around 1810 by a Cherokee named Sequoyah, in which symbols represent syllables. Some of Sequoyah's symbols look vaguely Cyrillic.
Today I want to look closely at the Trail of Tears in 1838, when natives of the Southeast were forced off their ancestral land and onto an 800-mile journey to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.
At the Cherokee Heritage Center, there is a harrowing exhibit recounting the Trail of Tears. The cruelty and avarice of whites are shameful. After legal machinations to void Cherokee ownership of land in Georgia, whites held a lottery to see who got the Cherokee houses and land. Even as the Cherokee were walking away, the "winners" swooped in and pillaged everything, even Cherokee graves.
On the removal trail, US Army soldiers sometimes were gracious to their prisoners, some even remorseful, but other times they raped the women, bayoneted women in labor, forced them to keep moving despite hunger and disease. Of the 16,000 Cherokee forced into removal, at least 2,000 died along the way, and perhaps as many as 4,000.
White people in Tennessee and Kentucky who saw the Cherokee and other native tribes moving by -- in total silence except for their weeping -- couldn't believe that their own people were doing this.
Those who made it to Indian Territory alive arrived destitute, demoralized, stripped of their identities and traditional relationships, and forced to find new ways to establish their families in a strange land.
The Cherokee set about creating a new society. They started a newspaper, the first by any race west of the Mississippi. They started a school for females, the first by any race west of the Mississippi, as well as an extensive public school system. They built homes and villages, as well as a judicial building that is the oldest building still standing in Oklahoma.
These were hardly the "savages" of white propaganda. In some ways they were more civilized than their tormentors.
What I learned moved me deeply. It left me angry and ashamed. Now what? When you have seen evil up close, what do you do? Even seeing it from a safe distance leaves me gasping.
I remember having a similar reaction when I covered a wildcat strike in West Virginia coal country and heard firsthand about the cruelty of mine owners. I read about Rockefeller's massacre of miners at Ludlow, CO. And about Carnegie's use of thugs to break steelworker strikes.
The stories of brutality go on and on. At some point, a decent person has to ask, What are we doing? Or what is being done in our name?
Faith isn't a safe stroll. Faith asks these questions. Faith takes some responsibility. Faith asks, How could my ancestors do such things?
Faith is appalled. And that is where repentance can start. For faith doesn't seek to be lulled into pleasure. Faith wants to know reality, to see evil and one's own participation in evil, to imagine a God who is deeply enmeshed in reality, not waiting sweetly beside the holy flame.
Faith is horrified by humanity's behavior. Out of that dismay and disgust will come new humanity.