This weekend, the 18th annual Trail of Tears Remembrance Ride roared down Highway 41A, not so far from my house. As we do every year, my family and I walked up to the Sewanee Market to watch with our neighbors as thousands of motorcycles passed through town to commemorate the forced expulsion of the Cherokees from their homeland in 1838. The occasion summons up somber reflections about the Trail’s tragic history, but it’s also true that we enjoy the parade atmosphere, too. Some motorcycles carry the Cherokee banner, some the US flag, some the Stars and Bars, and at least one had all three flying proudly behind it. As the last bikes thunder along, we make our way over to the farmer’s market to buy okra and eggs, and even some shrimp brought up from the Gulf, a special treat.
Part of the original route of the Removal passed over the Sewanee campus, and I have often taken my dog for a walk along it. In recent years, my interest in the Cherokee has grown. When I teach classical mythology, I have been made comparisons to Native American stories, if only to show that such stories are not just an ancient, European phenomenon but something that takes place right under our feet. There is a very fine record of Cherokee mythology to draw on, in fact, meticulously gathered in the nineteenth century by James Mooney and which can be found on-line here. One of Mooney’s primary informants had been A’yû’iñĭ, or Swimmer, a highly-respected Cherokee elder who had also fought in the Confederate cavalry. “To a happy descriptive style,” Mooney wrote of him, “he added a musical voice for the songs and a peculiar faculty for imitating the characteristic cry of bird or beast, so that to listen to one of his recitals was often a pleasure in itself, even to one who understood not a word of the language.”
When I think of classical parallels to the Cherokee story, however, it is not a Greek myth that comes to mind but rather Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid. Many of you will know the outline of the story, how it tells of Aeneas, the Trojan warrior, who led a band of exiles to Italy after the destruction of their city. The opening lines are famous:
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto …
Arms and the man I sing, who first came from the shores of Troy to Italy and the Lavinian coast, a fugitive of fate, tossed much on land and sea …
It is particularly Virgil’s description of his hero as fato profugus, “a fugitive of fate,” that makes me think of the Cherokee Removal. The Roman epic tells in stark detail the desperate story of a people forced from their homes into an unknown wilderness. Virgil, who was writing at the end of a century’s worth of civil wars, knew well the pain of displaced peoples. In another work, the Eclogues, he give voice to the suffering of Meliboeus, a shepherd who is forced into banishment when his ancestral home is seized as booty for the conquering army.
En umquam patrios longo post tempore finis
pauperis et tuguri congestum caespite culmen,
Post aliquot, mea regna, videns mirabor aristas?
impius haec tam culta novalia miles habebit,
barbarus has segetes? En quo discordia civis
produxit miseros; his nos conservimus agros?
Ah, years from now, will I gaze again on the land of my fathers? Will I ever see this hut with its grassy roof, or look with pleasure at those ears of wheat, my little kingdom? Will some godless soldier take control of this land I’ve tilled, some barbarian have these crops of mine? Ah, see what wretched citizens civil war has produced. Was it for these that we kept our fields?
The topics Virgil treats in his heart-rending poetry never seem far so from stories in the daily news, I find. It occurred to me yesterday that, after the Trail of Tears riders left Sewanee, their procession would wend its way past South Middle School in Cowan, where the name of the team, the Trojans, is painted in large letters on the side of the gym.
I am not the first one to have considered other diasporas while reading the Aeneid. Longfellow’s Evangeline recounts the Acadians’ forced wandering with a distinctly classical cast; he even uses Virgil’s meter, the dactylic hexameter, to do so. In the 1800’s, of course, reading Virgil in Latin was a standard matter, and Longfellow’s oblique reference would have made sense to many. One person with such a classical education was John Ridge, also known as Skah-tle-loh-skee or “Yellow Bird,” who had studied as a youth at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. While there, he studied “Geography extensively, Rhetoric, Surveying, Ecclesiastical and Common History, [and] three books in the Aeneid.”
Ridge was one of the Cherokee leaders who, believing the Removal was inevitable, signed the Treaty of New Echota which ceded Cherokee lands to the U.S. government. While he maintained that he had done so in hopes of securing tribal lands in the western territories, few were persuaded. Ridge was deemed a traitor and, within a few years, was murdered. The Treaty party understood what lay in store for themselves and the Cherokee people even as they put their names to it. Ridge knew he had signed his own death warrant at New Echota, and to the son who was born just about that time, he gave the name Aeneas.