7 Ideas for Educators to Consider Before Teaching the Trail of Tears

7 Ideas for Educators to Consider Before Teaching the Trail of Tears
Photo of Andrea Rogers

Andrea Rogers

7 Ideas for Educators to Consider Before Teaching the Trail of Tears

November 19, 2020

Osiyo! That’s hello in Cherokee.

When I started writing Mary and the Trail of Tears, I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. A lot of research, along with the help and knowledge from other Cherokees, went into helping me tell a story my ancestors would be proud of.

I hope these ideas will help you and your students learn about the living descendants of the many Native American people impacted by Indian Removal. Questions will come up that you can’t answer. Be open and ready to say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” Please guide students to credible resources. As teachers know, the Internet can be both a fabulous resource for students and a wealth of misinformation. Stereotypes, inaccuracies, and harmful depictions of Native Americans abound.

Here are a few areas educators can explore as they guide students in learning about the Trail of Tears:

1. Question everything you think you know about the Trail of Tears

When I began researching, I had little understanding of the logistics of moving the entire Cherokee Nation equaling about 16,000 people. I didn’t know about the internment camps. I didn’t know that many Cherokees died from preventable deaths because of their imprisonment. I didn’t know it was a time of drought and I hadn’t thought about how access to water would impact people being marched across a continent. In my book, I tried to distill years of historic information into a story that was accurate and that children could understand. In doing this work, I had to unlearn some things I grew up believing.

2. Research all the Indigenous nations impacted by the Trail of Tears and choose a specific one to focus on

The removal of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles are all sometimes referred to as the Trail of Tears. But, I recently learned that the Cherokee word for the removal translates into “When they were driven.” The Indian Removal Act impacted all Indigenous people within the borders of the country that is currently called the United States in a variety of ways. Focusing on a specific tribe makes teaching new material more manageable.

3. Learn about the many routes Indigenous people took on the Trail of Tears

Check out one of the National Park Service’s printable maps of the Trail. According to their website, “The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail passes through the present-day states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.” Also, from the National Parks Service’s website, “[The] National Historic Trail commemorates the removal of the Cherokee and the paths that 17 Cherokee detachments followed westward. Today the trail encompasses about 2,200 miles of land and water routes, and traverses portions of nine states.” Is there a portion of the trail in your state?

4. Research the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes

According to the Cherokee Nation website there are 370,000 tribal citizens worldwide, with 141,000 of those citizens residing within the fourteen counties that make up Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. The United Keetoowah Band (also with offices in Oklahoma) has more than 14,000 enrolled members, as does the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.

5. Don’t assume you do or don’t have an indigenous student in your classroom

You can’t tell who is and isn’t Cherokee by looking at them. Being Cherokee is based on citizenship with a federally recognized Cherokee tribe. On that note, don’t ask or expect a child or parent to represent either Cherokees or all Native Americans. As my tribe’s website states, “There is no universally agreed upon way to express Cherokee culture.”

6. Consider how Indigenous people are represented in your classroom

Would a Native person feel welcome in your space? Are Native people shown as contemporary members of society or portrayed as an extinct people? The National Congress of American Indians and many Native Nations have long advocated for no Native people or culture to be used as mascots. Those requests should be honored.

7. Look for good lessons created with input from Indigenous tribes

Examples are the Teaching For Change Native American resources or the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Teaching 360 site. Whatever resources you use, be aware of who is creating the curriculum and question their connection to and consultation with Cherokee people.

One additional word of caution. I would suggest we not ask students to “play” as if they are an oppressed child. Whether it’s pretending to be a person forced onto the Trail of Tears, a person surviving the Holocaust, or an enslaved person treated as property, children shouldn’t be asked by adults to do this as a class exercise.

For some children this book is, what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop referred to as, a window. This is the story of a world neither they, nor their ancestors have experienced. For Native American children, it might mirror the past of their ancestors. For many children, it may reflect some of their greatest fears, the loss of family and social stability, the sadness of losing the place you call home. The most important part of the story, however, is that the Cherokee people survived and now they thrive.

Thank you for sharing Mary and the Trail of Tears with your students. Though the book is historical fiction, the history and traumatic events are real. I applaud your willingness to learn more.

For all you do for our children,

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