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Missouri man walks Trail of Tears to preserve native history

Friday, April 29, 2011 | 12:20 p.m. CDT

PARK HILLS — He is a Comanche and a Kiowa, recreating a trail of Cherokee tears, but the names of the tribes are not the important thing, Ron Cooper says. The tears all had the same salt and copper tang, no matter which tribe shed them.

"The Trail of Tears is all part of the same story," Cooper says. "The Cherokee were not the only tribe to walk — and die — along the trail of tears. Many tribes were forced to take this way: Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaws and Cherokees."

The Trail of Tears is the story of Native American removal. And it is, in its way, also the story of  Ron Cooper, a descendant of Kiowa and Comanche tribes, born and raised in Lawton, Oklahoma. He is 1/8 Kiowa and 3/8 Comanche. "French is about the only thing I'm not," he said. "Comanches were notorious for raiding in Mexico for food and women. The nomadic lifestyle was very difficult on the women. So who knows how much Indian I really am. But I always say being Indian is a state of mind, not blood."

Cooper went to public school in Lawton and was raised by his grandparents. It was a time when there was still lingering shame about Native American roots, so he was not raised in any type of distinctly native setting.

But he was aware of his Native American heritage. It was there in the background, in the dishes of boiled meat and potatoes,Native American corn and a soup he likes called Boat — an Native American form of Menudo. It was all there, waiting to be rediscovered and appreciated.

When he was 17, Cooper read the book "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee," and that was the beginning of a lifelong journey for him, a rediscovery of who his ancestors were and where he himself has come from.

"That book changed my life," Cooper said. "You can go one of two ways with that book: become an angry person out of it, looking at what happened to us and what we lost, or you could do like I did."

Cooper focused on what his ancestors were fighting for, what they fought nearly to the death to save. Every step on his recreation of the Trail of Tears journey has been about that — preserving the history and heritage of all Native Americans.

"Ever since reading that book, I have been learning whatever I can about all the different tribes, not just Comanche. And just relating it to why I'm walking this, I can relate to all the other tribes who struggled to keep their way of life alive. It didn't matter what part of the country they were in, what tribe they were. We had the same struggle. And so you have a Comanche walking the Cherokee Trail of Tears."

The northern route of the Trail of Tears went through Libertyville, Farmington and Doe Run, then meandered a little bit south of Bismarck on its way to Steelville. The northern route that Cooper is walking covers 835 miles in all.

Because there were so many people and so many ill among them, the tribes had to travel slowly and might go only five to six miles a day. By comparison, Cooper has been able to go 12 to 15 miles a day at his fastest pace.

He started at Fort Cass, the starting point for many other tribes that took the trail. Farmington was about the halfway point for his re-creation of the trail. He began walking Jan. 17 and entered the St. Francois County area about mid-March. He has since passed on to Springfield and finished his walk in the lower quarter of southeastern Oklahoma — the end of the trail, but not necessarily the end of his journey. He is writing a book about the experience.

He started his march in winter, but the Indian tribes always began their marches in the fall, after harvest. The idea was that they would have the fall harvest then arrive in the Indian territory that had been reserved for them in time to plant new fields in the spring.

"This journey has taught me that I can't really recreate the Trail of Tears," Cooper said. "I've had some pains and some aches and I've been in some weather — a quarter of the people who were on the trail died — but I have a lot of modern technology backing me up here. I have fast-drying clothes that they didn't have, I have gel supports in my shoes and many of them had rags tied to their feet. I can get out of the cold, they could only build fires. I can't imagine they were warm any time on this hike."

While the Cherokee are the tribe most people associate with the Trail of Tears, they were not the first to take the long trail west to present day Oklahoma. Nor were they the first to describe it as a trail of tears.

The first were actually the Choctaw, one of the five "civilized" tribes, so-called because they had adopted and integrated so many of the customs and practices of their European-American colonial neighbors. At the time of their removal, the Choctaw were farmers and blacksmiths, merchants and carpenters, missionaries and scoundrels, weavers and craftsmen, innkeepers and statesmen. They had schools, churches, jails, workshops, orchards and cornfields.

And they had land that white settlers wanted for their own.

The leaders of the Choctaw nation believed it was futile to fight against what was coming. Removal was inevitable. Fighting and war would only extend their casualties and weaken their nation. They instead decided to negotiate the best recompense they could for their lands and go voluntarily, in hope of sparing as many lives as possible and having the best possible start in their new territory.

But like all the tribes that took the journey west to the promised Indian lands, they found the promises of the European fathers lacking and ultimately empty. Supplies were not always where they were supposed be and when the supplies finally did arrive, they were often infested and spoiled.

President Andrew Jackson would call the Choctaw exodus a model for Native American removal. If it was a model, it was one of starvation, misery and death.

Wrote one Choctaw missionary on the trail, "Two hundred fifty head of horses have died on the road. We have had very bad weather. Since we landed at this place about 20 have died and still they are continuing to die. We are about 200 miles from Red River. It will be some time in February before we get to where we want to settle. We are compelled to travel slow, as there are so many sick people I am afraid that a great many will die before we get home."

A white citizen observing the procession wrote there were "two large deep streams that must be crossed in a boat or on a raft, and one other nearly impassable in any way. This they had to perform or perish, there being no provision made for them on the way. This, too, was to be done in the worst time of weather I have ever seen in any country — a heavy sleet having broken and bowed down all the small and much of the large timber. And this was to be performed under the pressure of hunger, by old women and young children, without any covering for their feet, legs or body except a cotton underdress In passing, before they reached the place of getting rations here, I gave a party leave to enter a small field in which pumpkins were. They would not enter without leave, though starving. These they ate raw with the greatest avidity."

At this point, cholera had not yet struck, but this trial, too, was coming. The Choctaw left in three waves. More than 2,500 of them died along the way.

One Choctaw chief was quoted in the Arkansas Gazette as saying the removal was "a trail of tears and death."

In Oklahoma, the Choctaw faced a land of wiry post oaks, tough grasses and tangled roots. Many planted the first corn and built houses near the river because that was where the fertile farmland was. But the nearby Arkansas river swept away everything they'd built, and on top of that, cholera struck again.

There are actually several routes that comprise the Trail of Tears, the northern route passing through St. Francois County being only one of several.

The details of removal vary from tribe to tribe. All but 13 young and 19 old men of the Mandans died in a smallpox epidemic, not a shot fired. But the Seminoles of Florida refused to go down the Trail of Tears without a fight. Their chief, Osceola, cut a distinctive figure in American history before finally being captured and perishing of malaria. Some of the Seminoles successfully retreated into the swamps and never signed any treaties. Their descendants may yet remain in its shadows.

Regardless of the specific tribe, be it the Osage, Delawares, Onandagas, the Wyandots, Senecas, Miamis or the Illini, Oneidas, Hidatsas and the Weas, Piankeshaws or the Pheasant People. Whether Creek, Cayuga, Chippewa, Sac or Fox, Iroquois, Mohawk, Mingoes, Kiowa or Comanche — the overall thrust of the tale is the same. America would be won by the European settlers. The Indian Nation would pass into the west and fade away into legend.

Cooper and his wife Kristal work in the national park system and are full-time RVers. As a bonafide outdoorsman, an epic journey through nature — a walk of major proportions — was something Ron had been wanting to do for quite some time.

As he learned more about the history of his people, he realized recreating the Trail of Tears was not only the journey he wanted to make, but something he needed to complete.

There was no actual foot path worked out for the trail.

"I was taken aback at first that there wasn't actually a single trail," he said. "One of the landscape architects is watching this, so I am going to try to give him a map when this is over."

Cooper has had to adjust his actual route to respect private property rights and skirt various manmade or natural obstacles, but he's keeping the route as close to history as possible.

More important than plotting an actual trail people can walk to recreate the journey though, Cooper said he hopes people will think about his journey and reflect on all the history behind it.

"For my fellow native people, I want to promote tribal unity. Just because the northern route was mainly walked by Cherokees doesn't mean that's not a Comanche story or a Navajo story. Every struggle on the trail was the same, no matter which tribe did it. You still had that same despair when you lost everything you had, and you still had that same resilience to keep going and survive," he said.

One of the things that destroyed Native Americans in the past, he pointed out, was the disunity of the tribes. They couldn't work together.

"They couldn't get past the tradition of 'my tribe is the enemy of your tribe, so if I get with these white people, I can finally beat you,'" Cooper said. "I get tired of hearing our tribes only think about their own tribe. It's important no matter what tribe it was or is. As powerful as the white people were, with their technology and all this to conquer the natives, one of the main tools they used above all else was other natives."

To those who are not Native Americans, he wants to point out that not all the European settlers were bad guys.

"The treaty was passed by one vote, which means lots of others voted against it, one of them being Davy Crocket," Cooper said. "He was one of the ones who spoke out against it. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a great letter to president Van Buren begging him not to go on with the removal. Of course it was ignored. But the point is, there were heroes in the white world too. They were not all bad guys."

Last but not least, Cooper said, is simply to remember.

"It needs to be remembered so it won't happen again," he said.


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