Hope and Tears is a song about the Trail of Tears.
This was the trail traveled by the Cherokee and other Native American peoples when they were expelled from their homeland in the 1830s. They were forced to march hundreds of miles and thousands of people died along the way.
Hope and Tears
A song about the Trail of Tears
A song about the Trail of Tears
The song, Hope and Tears, is about the Trail of Tears, which is a tragic story of oppression and cruelty in the history of the United States. The song also expresses a progressive faith perspective about a type of salvation that involves feeling sorrow and compassion for the oppressed, seeking deliverance for the oppressed, and in this way, becoming a people bringing hope for the future of the earth. From this faith perspective, it is important to remember the Trail of Tears, to feel the sadness of the tragedy, and to seek to understand something about what caused it. This gives us the depth of emotion and knowledge to motivate and guide us in addressing issues of oppression.
The setting for the story of the Trail of Tears.
The Trail of Tears took place in the 1830s, and to set the stage, consider what life was like in the United States at that time. This was a time in history when the United States included only 24 states, with all but two being East of the Mississippi River. It was a time when people spent most of their waking hours working, and most work was done on a farm or a plantation; a time when shoes were expensive and many went barefoot; a time when people rarely bathed; a time when it was common during winters for all members of a household to share beds in a single room around a single fire; and it was a time when fatal diseases were common, including yellow fever, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis. At that time, most white people in the United States ascribed to a common ideal in which they believed that the United States should be a nation of “yeomen” farmers. This ideal involved an approach to farming where a man owned his own small plot of land for a farm where he lived with a wife and children, and where he grew his own crops and raised his own animals.
Although the Cherokee people once occupied a large section of present day south-eastern United States, by 1830, their territory had been reduced to a fraction of its original size. At that time, the Cherokee Nation was limited to an area covering the northwestern corner of Georgia, including southern parts of the Appalachian Mountains.
What caused the Trail of Tears?
To understand what caused the trail of tears, it is important to begin by considering and correcting two myths.
Myth #1: The Trail of Tears was primarily caused by a lack of cultural understanding between groups.
While there may have been cultural misunderstandings between white people and Cherokee people, these misunderstands cannot easily explain the Trail of Tears. One reason for this is that the Cherokee people were increasingly adopting more and more of white culture, and the more they assimilated into white culture, the more that white people sought to oppress them.
When George Washington was president, the United States pursued an approach toward Native American peoples called “civilization.” It was intended to encourage Native American people to adopt the culture of the white citizens of the United States with a hope that Native Americans would eventually desire to sell their land and assimilate into the United States. The primary rationale for this policy was that it was expected to prevent the United States from fighting costly wars over territory.
The Cherokee people mostly accepted and embraced this plan. By 1830, many spoke English. Many wore the same styles of clothing as white people. Many were Christians and many gave their children the same Biblical names that were used by white people. Although the Cherokee were traditionally a matrilineal society (where a husband joined the family of his wife, and women owned property), they largely adopted the gender roles of white people. A few owned slaves. To a large extent, they abandoned traditional approaches to hunting and adopted the white “yeomen” approach to farming.
Myth #2: The Trail of Tears was primarily caused because the Cherokee people lacked loyalty and respect for the United States.
It would simply be false to suggest that the Cherokee people lacked loyalty or respect for the United States. They had taken significant steps to prove themselves as faithful, trustworthy allies of the United States, and this was especially evident during the war of 1812. This war began when the United States declared war on Brittan, and during this war, the United States suffered several major military defeats. The situation was especially grave because the United States was also, simultaneously, attempting to fight several Native American tribes. In the south, the United States was at war with a faction of the Creek nation known as the “Red Sticks” (named after their red war clubs), who opposed assimilation of white culture and wanted to stop the United States from taking their land.
The Cherokee, however, sided with the United States and many Cherokee men served in the United States army. A regiment of several hundred Cherokee soldiers served under Andrew Jackson, who at that time was a Colonel in the United States army. When Jackson attacked a Creek fort at a place called “Horseshoe Bend,” on the Tallapoosa River in present day Alabama, his Cherokee regiment made a bold and daring assault across the river. Their assault played a pivotal role in the battle and gave Jackson the advantage he needed to overtake the Creek fort in a decisive victory. Hundreds of Creeks were slaughtered, and subsequently, several Creek leaders offered their unconditional surrender and ceded a majority of Creek territory to the United States. Thus, the Cherokee were faithful allies who risked their lives to help the United States. (For this, Andrew Jackson was promoted to Major General.)
The Trail of Tears is best understood as an act of racism.
By 1830, Andrew Jackson had become president of the United States, and one of Jackson’s primary goals as president was a program of Indian removal. He pursued this program in spite of the fact that a regiment of Cherokee soldiers had given his career a decisive boost. He pursued it in spite of the fact that the Cherokee people had taken many steps to maintain a strong alliance with the United States. Jackson's goal was to remove Native Americans from land that was near the vicinity of the white people and relocate them to land west of the Mississippi. This included removal of the Cherokee people. This policy may be best understood as something driven by racism.
As I discuss in the post for the song "Red Lines," I define racism as something that has two components. The first component is that racism can only occur when there is a disparity or a power difference between two groups. The second component is that racism occurs when people either: (a) deny or remain unaware of the disparity, or (b) believe the disparity is appropriate, deserved, acceptable, just, good, or fair.
This defines racism as something more specific then a situation where someone merely hates people in a group, or is prejudiced against a group, or dehumanizes people in a group, or has negative stereotypes against a group. I define racism as specifically involving a power difference between groups because I have a theory that the power difference is a key component. It is the fuel that drives racism, a key factor that gives it power and sustains it, and it is the agent that preserves racism so that it gets passed down across many generations. When there is a power difference, people with privilege tend to view their privilege as their rightful possession and they tend to view those who challenge their privilege as being disrespectful and insubordinate. Thus, racism is the tool people use to justify their efforts to maintain privilege. Racism is not so much something that causes a power difference, but rather, it is something that arises out of a power difference when members of a group seek to establish their privileged status as something permanent.
In the 1830s, there was clearly a power difference. The white people in the United States had enough power to expel from the land the Native Americans who were living around Georgia, and many white citizens of the United States viewed it as their rightful and justified privilege to do so. They viewed violence against Native Americans as unpreventable, Indian removal as inevitable, and they justified a program of ethnic cleansing by claiming it would be good for the Native Americans who were to be displaced. This situation matches my definition of racism. There was a power disparity between two groups, and members of the privileged group believed it would be just, good, and fair to do whatever was necessary to enforce their privilege.
The strategy Andrew Jackson used for his program of Indian removal had several components.
First, Jackson supported the Indian Removal Act. This was a law passed in 1830 that gave the president power to offer Native Americans money if they would agree to relocate to land West of the Mississippi. The Cherokee Nation repeatedly declined these offers of money, but this was not intended to be an offer that could be refused.
To put pressure on the Cherokee people, Jackson supported the state of Georgia in passing several oppressive laws against the Cherokee Nation. The state of Georgia claimed to hold jurisdiction over Cherokee territory, and the state passed laws that abolished the Cherokee government, disallowed Cherokee people from voting, and disallowed Cherokee people from testifying against a white person in court. Although Georgia was violating terms of treaties that the United States had established with the Cherokee Nation, Andrew Jackson claimed the federal government was unable to intervene because it would violate Georgia’s state rights. Without federal protection, white people from Georgia began moving into Cherokee territory. This put the Cherokee in an impossible situation. They were expected to rely on the United States federal government for protection, but the federal government failed to provide this protection, and when the Cherokee people attempted to protect themselves, they were viewed as hostile and incurred retaliation.
An oppressive treaty can appear just when viewed through the lens of racism.
Despite the pressure, the elected leaders on the Cherokee National Council held fast and refused to give away their territory. However, a small faction of Cherokee people broke from the National Council and questioned the wisdom of this plan. Members of this faction realized that if they did not agree now to take the money and evacuate, eventually, the terms would change, and they would simply be forced to evacuate through acts of violence. Thus, they concluded they should take the best offer they could get and agree to relocate. In 1835, this faction negotiated a treaty in which they agreed to cede all Cherokee territory to the United States and move to land west of the Mississippi in exchange for five million dollars.
This faction, however, did not have authority to represent the Cherokee Nation. Most Cherokee people were opposed to the treaty, and the elected leaders on the Cherokee National Council voted to reject it. Thus, the treaty was not legitimate. Despite this fact, the United States Senate voted to ratify the treaty, and the United States began plans to enforce it. The Cherokee were given notice that they had two years to vacate their property.
To the white people that held privilege and power, the oppressive treaty seemed legitimate. They viewed it as their justified right to take whatever steps were necessary to maintain their privilege and to enforce the treaty.
The tragedy of the Trail of Tears.
Most people in the Cherokee Nation did not heed the order to evacuate and they continued to live in their homes and farm their land. In the spring of 1838, however, the United States army began a process of removing people by force. Troops would surround a house so that no one could escape and then order everyone out with nothing more than the things they could carry. The Cherokee people were rounded up and placed in a series of stockades.
Due to poor planning on how to proceed after the Cherokee people were incarcerated, the Cherokee were held in the stockades for several months over the summer. Because of overcrowding, lack of provisions, and unsanitary conditions, disease was rampant in the stockades, and many people died. The forced march did not begin until the fall, with some groups leaving as late as December. It typically took about three to five months for a group to cross the trail, which was more than a thousand miles long. People lacked supplies for the journey. Many lacked blankets, adequate clothing, and shoes. Many suffered from disease contracted in the stockades. Moreover, the march took place mostly during winter months, and the weather that year was especially cold and harsh.
Best estimates are that about 16 thousand Cherokee were incarcerated in the stockades and that maybe a thousand escaped capture. Of those that were captured, about one fourth (that is, about four thousand) died before reaching Oklahoma territory.
The song Hope and Tears is about the importance of remembering tragic events like the Trail of Tears.
It is valuable to remember these types of events, to experience the sorrow, and to feel compassion for the victims. In this way, we can also learn about human nature, about the things that cause great evil on the earth, and hopefully use this information to make the world a better place. Although we cannot save the people who died on the Trail of Tears, maybe we can make things right in the future. In this way, “maybe we can be the people of hope for tomorrow.”