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Trail of Tears totem pole

The Trail of Tears

The scent of sage filled the night air as the Cherokee Indian tribe conducted their spiritual cleansing routine known as smudging. As darkness descended, the light from their campfire could be seen, the light casting eerie shadows on the dancers, keeping beat to the rhythmic beat of the drum.

This was the scene in Vienna, Ill., as the Cherokee gathered to celebrate the full moon and pray for a successful planting season.

I had the opportunity to talk to the tribe’s chief, Little White Eagle, and one of the tribe’s elders, and they explained their rituals, traditions and culture. I learned the purpose of the smudging ceremony and that the individual dances all had a different meaning.

What an opportunity to learn first-hand what my elementary teachers couldn’t make me understand.

The location of the Cherokee’s Pow Wow did not go unnoticed by me. The park has several totem poles and a memorial commemorating the Trail of Tears. In 1838, the federal government drove 15,000 Cherokees on a forced march from their homeland in the southeastern states to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma.

The trek turned into a 1,000-mile death march. The most devastating part of the journey was here, across the tip of Illinois, trapped between the frozen Ohio and Mississippi rivers where thousands of starving Cherokees huddled against the onslaught of winter. As freezing winds howled and snow piled into 4-foot drifts, the Cherokee had no shelter and very little food.

The Cherokee first called this time in history “The Trail of Tears.” It was here in the land between the rivers, where the suffering was greatest and the tears flowed heaviest.

The faces on the totem pole, carved by Archie Russ, represent the seven different clans of the Cherokee Nation. At sunset each day, one can almost see the pain and fear increase as shadows fall across the hand carved faces, changing them into human forms. The flags circling the totem pole represent eight states the trail crossed through.

I find it amazing that here, where their ancestors suffered most, this generation of Cherokee can put their past behind them and celebrate a good planting season. This march of death is a plight on our government; a period of time shoved under the rug and barely acknowledged.

I learned more through my conversations and witnessing of the pow wow than I did in my many years of schooling. The Cherokee will be back in Vienna, Ill., during the harvest moon in the fall to celebrate their good crop.

They will continue to praise their spiritual god for their good life, despite what the federal government did to their ancestors. If only we could all move forward as the Cherokee have done.

Trail of Tears pow wow

About Cathy Duesterhoeft

Cathy and her husband, Norm, travel throughout the United States in their Brave Winnebago working for Mainly Marathons. When home in Westfield, Wis., their RV is parked on a gravel pad while they finish construction on their new home. Cathy documents their many adventures on her website at

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