A Story of the Trail of Tears

by Karen Wills

A culture, like a human heart, can be broken with breathtaking speed. But both can take a long time to mend. Some never heal completely. After all, a culture is language, spirituality, history, tradition, food, and physical home.

Diane Glancy’s novel, Pushing the Bear, recounts the forced removal between September, 1838 to February of 1839 of Cherokees in North Carolina and Georgia from their communities to Indian Country in Oklahoma. The U.S. government uprooted people who had been productive and stable farmers. Armed soldiers forced the Cherokee to walk more than 900 miles through rough country and winter conditions. Many died of exposure and despair.

Glancy tells her story via several characters making the trek. Maritole, a wife, mother, daughter, and aunt, describes her experience as Pushing the Bear, a Cherokee expression for doing the impossible. she and her angry, disillusioned husband, experience the upending of traditional gender roles, family, the means of survival itself during the horrors of the trail. When one of the soldiers begins to bond with Maritole and show some kindness, he is reassigned.

The basket weaver is a storyteller who sees the need to regroup the disintegrating community through oral history, making new stories to keep the Cherokee cohesive. In the end, Glancy’s story is a tribute to  those who managed to survive and keep their cultural cohesion while having to adapt to a harsher world.

I taught this novel to Lakota Sioux teenagers some years ago. Its not an easy read, but the kids got it. Indigenous populations understand what it means to be deprived of human rights and what it means to survive and reclaim them. Books like Pushing the Bear help to clarify this for us all.

Trail of Tears" oil painting by Max D. Standley

Happy New Year, Siberia

By Karen Wills
My husband and I spent four years teaching Inupiaq Eskimo children in Wales, Alaska. Wales is a subsistence village of 150 people located on the tip of the Seward Peninsula. On a clear day, we could see Russia, some 56 miles away, specifically the low, somber mountains of Siberia where the infamous gulags once threatened political dissidents and others.
In between us lay the Diomedes, Little Diomede owned by the United States and home to Inupiaq relatives of those living in Wales. A couple miles from it lies Big Diomede which houses a Russian military base. Our villagers used to have relatives in Big Diomede, too, but they were relocated to Siberia when the base was established. Now there is no communication between these native families of our two nations.
I’m amazed that any human beings survived the brutality of those prison labor camps. The weather alone could kill you. I viewed the forbidding lands across the Bering Strait and wondered about those living there now, dealing with a climate that’s both politically and meteorologically oppressive. We could do nothing for them, but every New Years Eve, we all went to a high point at the end of the village and set off spectacular fireworks. We hoped that distant relatives in Siberia could see them. I felt the difference between us those nights. A little of the Fourth of July entered my heart. Our freedoms should be celebrated at home and communicated to places where human rights are still a distant dream, seen from afar.

Happy New Year Fireworks