Native Americans have lived on American ground for tens of thousands of years. They were there before Jesus was born. They were there before Rome rose. They were there before the pyramids were built. They made the land their home and hunted and fished and they did not think of owning anything other than the food they grew or caught. That changed when Europeans landed on these shores. The Native Americans were pushed farther and farther west as more people in the United States wanted to take the land for themselves. The people in the United States needed more and more land and made laws that pushed many Native Americans out. There was only one thing Native Americans could do. They had to look to new laws to try to stop this.
Who owns the land? The people who have lived on it since before humans started to write? Or the people who come in, took it over, and believe they know how to use it best? This was at the heart of a fight that happened in Georgia, where the Cherokee lived and always had lived for a long time before other people came to settle there. The problem was that these "Indians" did not fit with what many people saw as good for the United States. Possession is when someone owns something. Americans said they owned the Georgian land because they knew how to farm it to grow the most crops. They believed God wanted it that way. They wanted to grow cotton on the Cherokee's land, which they had chosen because it was such good land. This meant there was no room for the Cherokees. What could they do?
The Cherokee pointed out that the U.S was breaking their own promises about who owned the land. The Georgians did not seem to think that promises made in the past should stop them from spreading out now. They believed they deserved the land, that God had called them to this country. They did not care if some of their Native American neighbors were nice. They wanted to take the country as their own. They burned Native American buildings and fought them until, at last, the Cherokee leaders took the matter to court. Court is a place where a judge or jury listens to both sides and decides who is in the right. The Cherokees took their case all the way to Supreme Court - the highest court in the U.S. They won. The judge read the past promises made by settlers. He looked at the borders they had drawn on their maps. In the end he decided the Cherokees owned the land. He said the Cherokee land was a place where "the laws of Georgia can have no force." The land it was given back to them. But even with a court ruling like this, justice is not always served.
Judges may make choices about what is against the law and what is not. But at the end of the day, they do not carry out those laws. When Andrew Jackson became president in 1829 C.E., he had this to say about the ruling: "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" He meant that what the judge said may have been right, but that did not mean the judge could stop anyone from doing anything different. The Creeks, a different tribe that lived close by, called Jackson "Sharp Knife." He got this name after he made a treaty that punished the Creeks, even after they helped him to fight off other Native Americans who were attacking people. So much for taking care of your friends! Removal is to take away something that is not wanted. Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which said the United States would try to trade land east of the Mississippi with the Cherokee in exchange for money the land on which they were living. The act said if the they wanted to stay, they could. It was meant to be a good act and said the U.S. government could not make the Cherokee leave their own land. Sadly, it did not work out this way.
Some wanted to stay while others did not. Many people who were moving in from the U.S. did not want any of them to stay. After a few fights broke out, it was decided they should leave no matter what promises had been made. In 1838, the American government sent soldiers into Georgia and made the Cherokee leave their home by pointing guns at them. The Trail of Tears was when around 16,000 Cherokees were made to walk around 1,200 miles from their land in Georgia to less rich land in Oklahoma. Many of them were locked up and held prisoner before they were sent away. Around four thousand of them died before they left or on the way to their new "home." Many more died once they reached land that was not theirs and that they did not know how to live on. This is why one leader called it a "trail of tears and death." Andrew Jackson, many people in the government and many people living in the U.S. thought this was a good idea. It is a shameful part of our history.
What do you if someone takes over your land that you and your family have lived on since before people began to write things down? Americans said they possessed the land, believing it belonged to them. The Cherokee of Georgia knew this not to be true and so they took the matter to court, telling a judge that the land should be theirs. The judge ruled in favor of the Cherokee, but Andrew Jackson and other people in the government ignored this. They took the land away from them and moved them over a thousand miles away. The Trail of Tears is one of the saddest moments in U.S. history, when our army made the Cherokee walk to Oklahoma, causing many to die along the way. This story does not have a happy ending. But it does have a lesson. We should learn to follow our own laws. We should keep our promises. And we should treat all people equally.
U.S. Supreme Court. "Cherokee Nation v. Georgia" Justia.com, 2004. <https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/30/1/case.html>
The History Kids. "Indian Removal Act" thehistorykids.net, 2006. <http://www.thehistorykids.net/archives/ira.htm>
PBS. "The Supreme Court - the First Hundred Years" pbs.org, 2010. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/supremecourt/antebellum/history2.html>
A + E Networks "Trail of Tears" History.com, 2012. <http://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/trail-of-tears>