Published: Fresh U. July 11, 2016. Viewable here.
In the timespan of about one month, Chance Fletcher, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, walked 900 miles of the Trail of Tears trek.
An undergraduate student at Princeton, Fletcher applied for and received the Martin A. Dale ‘53 Summer Award from the university. After the initial application and interview, Fletcher was chosen for the monetary award which, according to their website, provides $5,000 for those chosen to “pursue worthy projects that provide important opportunities for personal growth, foster independence, creativity and leadership skills and broaden or deepen some area of special interest.”
For his project, Fletcher chose to walk a portion of the Trail of Tears alone.
“Deciding to hike the Trail of Tears was a little bit on a whim,” Fletcher told Fresh U. “I was just cooking up ideas … (and) I hadn’t ever heard of anyone hiking the Trail of Tears, so I thought I could pave the way for other young Cherokees to do the same.”
In 1823, the Supreme Court issued a decision which stated that the five Indian nations could live on but not claim ownership of the lands they inhabited. In 1831, the Supreme Court affirmed the Cherokee nation’s right to self-govern, but this ruling was later ignored by President Andrew Jackson. In 1831, the Indian Removal Act gave the president the ability to make treaties with Indian tribes east of the Mississippi in efforts to relocate them.
For the Cherokee nation, after having been tricked into signing an invalid treaty, two years were allotted for them to migrate peacefully. After the two years, 16,000 Cherokee people remained on their native land, at which point 7,000 U.S. troops were sent in to forcefully remove those that remained onto the trek to the west later known as the Trail of Tears, which, for the Cherokee nation, resulted in the death of over 4,000.
Fletcher’s own trip took him from Red Clay State Park in Tennessee to the Cherokee Courthouse in Oklahoma.
Buying his gear was the only preparatory work Fletcher said he did to prepare himself for the trip. And although past experience may have aided him, 900 miles is no easy feat.
“I’m an Eagle Scout, so I have done some hiking in the past,” Fletcher said. “Of course it was difficult, but I constantly reminded myself that my ancestors had it much worse.”
While the path may have been the same in some respects for both Fletcher and the Cherokee people, the circumstances around the journey isolates the two.
“A lot of folks have been asking me if I feel as if I better understand what my ancestors were forced to do (and) the answer is no,” Fletcher said. “My experience is not comparable to that of my ancestors. They did not have agency in being forced from their homelands. Walking the Trail of Tears was my voluntary decision. They were leaving their home and everything they know. I was walking towards my home. I was met with incredible hospitality. They were met with hostility.”
When asked if his hike might have any foreseeable impacts on his life or if he had learned from it, Fletcher gave a very realist response.
“I think a lot of people have been asking me similar questions about if I found myself (and) I don’t know what they want me to say,” he said. “An elder recently put it nicely to me by saying that the thing I need to be telling people is ‘the Trail of Tears is not a story – it happened, it was real.’”