Recently, President Trump faced backlash for a tweet which some read as making light of the Trail of Tears. He did this as an extension of his history of using the moniker “Pocahontas” to make Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s nebulous claim of Native American heritage. If, in fact, Trump did mean to use the Trail of Tears to mock Warren (which, given his previous demonstration of a questionable grasp on history, including a present-tense reference to Frederick Douglass and an apparent ignorance of Congressman John Lewis’s history at the forefront of the civil rights movement, is by no means certain), then perhaps it is time for a refresher course on the history of the Trail of Tears.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to negotiate removal of Native American nations living in the southeastern United States, especially Georgia. President Andrew Jackson and his successor President Martin Van Buren took that law and ran with it, forcing members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Ponca nations off their ancestral homes and pushing them westward. Despite court decisions and armed resistance, over a roughly 20-year period, the United States government forced at least 50,000 Native Americans off their land and into the newly-established Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Over the course of a journey that for many of its participants neared 1,000 miles on foot, thousands died of exposure, starvation and diseases including cholera and dysentery. This was due largely to the inadequate supplies provided by the United States government on the forced migration as well as the timing of it, as many made the trip in the middle of winter. Interviews with survivors emphasized the hunger, the cold, the desperate thirst, and the deep exhaustion caused by walking miles upon miles.
I’m a fan of comedy; stand-up specials and nostalgia-inducing comedy movies from the 1990s and 2000s dominate my Netflix history. But the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the United States government upon the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Ponca nations which we refer to as the Trail of Tears is no laughing matter. Although President Trump compares himself to Andrew Jackson (something which makes historians pull their collective hair out), his ignorance of the blood-soaked history of white American westward expansion in which Jackson was an enthusiastic participant is unsurprising but still disappointing. Trump’s dearth of historical knowledge doubtless stems from his aversion to reading, something which is antithetical to having a grasp of history and is ironic considering the number of books he has sold over the course of his life.
If there is one positive outcome from Trump’s ahistorical and deeply offensive joke, I hope that it is a renewed understanding of the horrors endured by Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. Unfortunately, ignorance of history is endemic in our country. We have a responsibility, though, to remember those who came before us and tell their stories, no matter how hard those stories might be to tell.
This column was submitted for consideration in The Forum's search for "the next great columnist."