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Rev. Dr. Randy S. Woodley Headshot

The Truth About the Trail of Tears and Christianity

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CHRISTIANITY AND TRAIL OF TEARS
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Recently, Indian Country Today Media Network ran the headline, "Bible-Based Curriculum Says the Trail of Tears Was a Path to Christ." The story was borrowed from a well-deserved negative critique of "Wacky Facts" by Mother Jones concerning the Bob Jones University Press' "Bible-based," A Beka homeschool curriculum. The story reports that these historical deceptions will soon be accepted in Louisiana's private education voucher system. I found other blogs from months prior with similar criticism quoting some of the crazy things found in the A Beka curriculum. While I find the historical materials in this curriculum to be exceedingly irresponsible and politically distorted to favor the extreme right's vision of the American Myth, I also made an inadvertent discovery of how little those commenting on the subject from all perspectives really know about the Trail of Tears.

Though space is limited here, I have listed a few things you may not know about the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Cherokees encounter with Christianity:

  • There were many "trails of tears." Most Indian tribes had one or even several tragic removals that resulted in widespread destruction and death among their members.
  • The Cherokee Trail of Tears was remarkable because they had actually won the right to stay in their homeland via a United States Supreme Court decision in Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Indian Removal also occurred at a time when the Eastern press was sympathetic to such causes, especially since they viewed the Cherokees as a "model Indian nation." Eastern sentiment for the Cherokee was high but the Western colonial expansionist vision prevailed.
  • Passing by only one vote, Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act was signed into law on May 28, 1830. One unlikely appeal for opposition came in the form of an impassioned speech by Tennessee Congressman, and former Indian fighter, David "Davy" Crockett. Crockett was, by this time, friends with many Cherokees and he was no fan of President Jackson. Jackson had actually begun making "back room" deals for removal and awarded contracts for removal route roads and stockades prior to the bill's passing (Think Halliburton).
  • Many Cherokees were imprisoned in stockades months prior to embarking on the journey to Indian Territory. The conditions were inhumane with little shelter from the elements; being given limited and spoiled food; and having inadequate clothing and blankets, hundreds of Cherokees died in the squalor of those concentration camps prior to final removal.
  • As early as 1823, Baptist missionary to Indians in the Mid-west, Isaac McCoy, was pushing his vision for Indian removal into the areas of present day Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma that he dubbed, "An Indian Canaan." McCoy wanted to preserve the Indians by removing them from corrupting White settler influence. Though well intentioned, he failed to imagine the rapid rate of Western expansion or the money and political capital to be gained by diminishing Indian rights.
  • Christianity had been established in the Cherokee Nation for two decades prior to the removal. Beginning in about 1818 various denominations began sending in their missionaries to the Cherokee Nation. By the time of the first removal detachment in 1838, Native Christians numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands, including many Cherokee preachers and lay workers.
  • The Methodist and American Baptist were the most effective denominations in terms of numbers of converts and church plants. By all indications, Baptist missionary Evan Jones and his Cherokee colleague, a pastor and friend, Jesse Bushyhead, had ensured indigenous ownership of a uniquely Cherokee expression of the Christian faith.
  • Although the decision of the concerned denominations to support removal ran contrary to most individual missionary feelings, the American Baptist are the only group on record who condemned the removal. Though first convinced by McCoy to support the removal, the Baptist changed their mind after Evan Jones rode from North Carolina to Boston in record time to convince them to rescind their original decision.
  • At least three White missionaries, Evan Jones (Baptist), Dr. Eliza Butler and Daniel S. Buttrick (both of the American Board of Foreign Missions) accompanied the Cherokee on the 800 mile journey called the Trail of Tears.
  • The third and fourth removal detachments, which included many of Jones and Bushyhead's converts, met up together on the trail and experienced religious renewal. By the time they reached present day Breadtown, Okla., most, if not all of those in their care were Cherokee followers of Christ. The Baptist in particular, because of their support of the Cherokee Nation against removal and Jones' unique respect for Cherokee religious beliefs, continued to grow almost exponentially in their new Western home.
  • Out of the approximate 15,000 Cherokees who made the journey west, estimates usually cite one-fourth of the people having died along the way. Including those who died in concentration camps before removal, and those who died in the territory from sickness after removal, the numbers are surely much higher.
  • Today, in Oklahoma, North Carolina and scattered through all parts in between, many Cherokees have their own expression of the Christian faith that has been with them for almost 200 years. There are also a number Cherokees who have negotiated their Christianity and their ancient Cherokee religion, finding remarkable similarities, integrating the two and finding peace by embracing both.

There is no doubt that when it comes to America's Indigenous peoples, Christianity has done much wrong to which it must still answer. At no time should anyone have been making decisions for people in sovereign aboriginal nations. Likewise, Indigenous followers of the Jesus Way who lay claim to their own faith should not be presumed upon by saying they have all been brainwashed. One presupposition is as bad as the other. The A Beka curriculum is incorrect, and I would add, immoral in its reporting of the "facts." The Cherokee Trail of Tears was no "path to Christ." It is apparent that those who express such an irresponsible and superficial view of history do so for their ideological agenda. But likewise, those among the Cherokee who have embraced their own understanding of the Christian faith should also be included in the story.