Driving cross-country, the varied topography of our country unfolds before you. Flora, fauna, landscape change before your eyes. Yesterday we began the day in unbelievably flat Kansas and ended it in the Rockies of Colorado.
Most of the sites we visited on our justice tour were human creations where significant events took place: internment camps, bridges, motels, churches, city squares, schools. Plus all the museums, memorials, and monuments created to remember and retell the story of these events.
But geography can also tell a justice story, as we learned when we visited Trail of Tears State Park near Jackson, MO, on the shores of the Mississippi. (We had wanted to find a site, and this was the closest one on our route.) It was here that members of the Cherokee nation crossed the river in their forced relocation to Oklahoma from their ancestral lands in what is now Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina. And in visiting the site we were reminded that our country has always carried out injustices against groups of people, even from its very founding with the killing and resettlement of Native Peoples.
The forced relocation of the Cherokee took place in the late 1830s, and in total about 20,000 people were forced from their homes. Many of the injustices we had already learned about on our trip had echos in the Trail of Tears. Before the march, the Cherokee were rounded up and held in stockades, just as slaves were held in warehouses and Japanese citizens would be held in internment camps. Just as the economy of the US was built on slave labor, part of the motivation for moving the Cherokee was for white settlers to claim arable land and mine for gold which was discovered in Georgia. And the undercurrent through all that we witnessed: the indifference and antagonism of white leaders to racial and ethnic minorities.
This is not the only site of the Trail of Tears, and the Cherokee is not the only nation to have been forcibly moved. This one visit on our trip could not do justice to understanding the scope of this terrible episode of our history. But it did provide a glimpse into the hardship endured. The Mississippi, a river that embodies so much of the American imagination, is also a site of injustice. Looking out at the river, recognizing it’s crossing as one of the hardest part of the Trail of Tears, I tried to imagine how one could cross it under such physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing conditions.
And more than just this one fact of history, it was a reminder how land itself is important to Native Peoples. Living in the Pacific NW, I have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of this fact, moreso than I had in other places I’ve lived. And the integration of land and culture is an important teaching of Jewish tradition as well as we recognize, for example, the agricultural and seasonal basis of our major holidays.
For all of its promise of justice, this country was also founded on injustice. It is not only reflected in the people, but the land itself. The interpretive center at the Trail of Tears State Park told how Thomas Jefferson–the author of the Declaration of Independence and the words “all men are created equal–first proposed a policy of Native American removal and resettlement after the completion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. We need to reckon and wrestle with these facts.
And as always, the first step to achieving justice is recognizing past injustice. We must confront our history and tell the stories not just of America’s promise, but also of its persecution. Both of them are true.