Cherokee cyclists retracing ancestors’ steps with bike ride

A group of about 20 Cherokee Indians are following the path of their ancestors along the Trail of Tears, but whereas their family traveled by foot, these members of Cherokee Nation are traveling by bicycle.
The group passed through Rolla Friday, June 13, on their 950-mile bicycle ride from Georgia to Oklahoma to commemorate the forced removal of Cherokees from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma.
The trip is known as the "Remember the Removal" ride.
For Richard Sneed, of Cherokee, North Carolina, this was his first time taking part in the approximate three-week ride that crosses seven states.
His reason for riding is two-fold.
First, he wants to bring awareness to that fact that a forced removal of thousands of Cherokee Indians from their homelands took place during the winter of 1838-39. Sneed said when you think of a democratic-republic, you wouldn’t think such a thing would happen.
Second, Sneed liked the physical challenge of the ride. While he normally is used to doing crossfit, he doesn’t often ride a bicycle.
“I don’t normally go into anything with any expectations,” Sneed said. “I like to just see how things unfold ... and enjoy the experience.”
Sneed called the ride a powerful and emotional experience. Most of the riders did not know each other before they began their journey May 31. He said the ride has helped him learn to be more compassionate.
During the trip, Sneed said he has encountered many people who have shown the riders kindness and that has been inspiring to him.
Liz Burns, of Claremore, Oklahoma, also is a first-time rider participating in this year’s event.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “You never know how much strength you have until you ride.”
The riders learn about their specific ancestors through a genealogy class, and Burns said each rider gets to learn about the experiences of their specific relatives.
Joseph Erb, who coordinated this year’s ride and is riding with this year’s group, said it helps make the journey more personal for the riders. “A lot of them have shared ancestors,” he said.
In addition to learning about their genealogy and the history of the Trail of Tears, riders also take part in physical training. Interested riders have to submit essays to apply.
Burns said along the route, when a rider is having a tough day, the other riders help them to keep pushing on. “No one is left behind,” she said.
Burns said she does not normally ride a bicycle, so she was shocked to learn how physically demanding cycling can be.
Traveling with the cyclists is a support team, which Burns complimented.
The ride began in New Echota, Georgia, and is set to end June 19 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. The group is retracing the northern route of the Trail of Tears through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
On Friday, the group traveled about 60 miles from Rolla to Waynesville.
Thirteen of the riders are from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and six are from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the North Carolina area.
Erb said the group travels through all types of weather from rain to heat. They only stop if lightning is nearby, he said. “But even on bicycles, it doesn’t equate to what they (ancestors) went through,” he said.
An estimated 4,000 of the approximately 16,000 Cherokees died of exposure, starvation and disease during the removal, known as the Trail of Tears, tribal officials said.