2007 DEADCENTER DOCUMENTARY FEATURE! A depressing reminder of the human cost at which whitey conquered the continental United States, “Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy” is about just that: the forced resettlement of some 15,000 Cherokee from their ancestral lands in the southeastern U.S. to territory a fraction that size in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Using interviews and dramatic reenactments, director Chip Richie presents a heavily detailed account of the events leading up to the removal.
The travails of the Cherokee people began with the American Revolution, as victorious colonists took revenge upon Native Americans for their role is aiding the British during the war. Even so, George Washington and others gave lip service to preserving Indian sovreignty, even as they enacted policies designed to “whiten” native populations. Indians like the Cherokee were encouraged to take on more traditonal gender roles (meaning – for example – that men should take up farming, previously the duty of womenfolk), and to de-emphasize hunting and warfare. Some Cherokee excelled under these programs, including Elias Boudinot and John Ridge, who helped draft the new constitution of the Cherokee nation.
Things continued pleasantly for a time, but then two things happened: gold was discovered in northern Georgia, leading to a massive influx of white prospectors with no intention of honoring the Cherokee’s rights; and more importantly, Andrew Jackson was elected President.
Jackson enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1830, effectively telling the Cherokee to get lost and give up their lands to the federal government. Some native leaders, like Boudinot and Ridge, tried to come to terms with Jackson by signing a treaty with him. While others like Chief John Ross urged his people not to respect the treaty. In the end, it didn’t matter, as American troops marched in Cherokee lands in 1838 to round up those Cherokee who hadn’t already “removed” themselves. In August of that year, following months of imprisonment in squalid stockades, the march begins. When all was said and done, between 2,000 and 5,000 Cherokee died as a result of removal.
In the words of Eric “Otter” Stratton, “You f****d up! You trusted us!” I’ve seen too many of these kinds of films and read too much history to be shocked anymore at our nation’s capacity for bastardry, though I am more surprised that anyone who came to the negotiating table with our country ever believed a word we said after the 19th century. When all is said and done, “Trail of Tears” is stirring in spots, but the heavy-handed leveling of guilt and some rather shoddy reenactment work (alleged Cherokee who are practically white and a notable lack of squalor in the stockade scenes) keep it from being truly affecting.