Interview by Cara Forbes
Remember the Removal is an annual, 7-state-wide, 950-mile bicycle ride commemorating the forced removal of the Cherokee people from their homelands during the winter of 1838-39. The tour takes enrolled members of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes (Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, and the United Keetoowah Band) along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail that their ancestors traveled across during the Removal Era. There are opportunities for the riders to learn about their history and heritage, conduct community outreach and media events, and grow as individuals as well as a team. I interviewed Elias Huskey, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians from the Wolfetown Community in Cherokee, North Carolina who completed the ride in 2013 about his incredible journey.
NIA: What made you interested in applying for the Remember the Removal Bike Ride?
EH: What got me interested was the intense calling to experience the trials and tribulations of my ancestors who were removed, and to understand the privilege of being a part of one of the families who were able to escape and hide, eventually reclaiming our ancestral lands. To know this journey personally seemed like a rite of passage – to earn the respect of my ancestors and to carry my share of the burden cast upon us – to never forget.
NIA: What was the application and interview process like?
EH: The application consisted of outlining why I wanted to participate, my ties and services to our community and our willingness to train, prepare, and basically live together for the duration of the trip. There were two essays in addition to the questions I just mentioned. I believe there were over thirty or so applicants. That number was halved after the application. During the interview portion, folks on the board for the ride questioned us. They wanted to test our knowledge, dedication, and ability to handle such a heavy load of responsibility. They then chose six main “first choice” riders with a few backups just in case. I was fortunate to be chosen as a main rider and it is still a point of pride for me to this day considering the intense selection process.
NIA: That definitely sounds like a rigorous process! Could you tell me about the training leading up to the bike ride?
EH: Absolutely! I will add that you had to be an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to be considered for the ride. Training consisted of one session of professional instruction at a world class road bike “school” in Brevard, North Carolina to help us learn the basics of bike care, nutrition, actually clipping into our bikes and balance. We then would participate in weekly team rides – sometimes organized, sometimes impromptu – and trained our signals and communication so we would be ready for whatever situations were put in front of us on the road.
NIA: How did you feel on the first day of the ride? What was that experience like?
EH: It was exciting, tense, exhausting, and rewarding to say the least. We started in New Echota, Georgia. We met with Cherokee Nation’s riders and promptly got underway early in the morning. The fog was dense and it was still cool. Eerily enough, it was as if we were beginning in a dream. The fog shrouded us to the point of barely being able to see only the small, blinking lights some of us wore on our bikes. We were riding in a dream, or between time where nothing seemed to exist except the road, our bikes, and our thoughts. There was an intense silence for a while, most of us in our thoughts, somewhat unaware that we had just began the 950 mile journey our ancestors had began before at the same place. The fog may have been normal, but to me, it felt like one of the blankets our ancestors carried with them on the trail – shrouding us, dulling our realities with the plain comfort a good blanket could provide in any situation regardless of circumstance. Strange as well was the lack of cars or people. We seemed to be totally alone for some time, yet I could feel eyes on me, intentions or emotions being leaked into the air like gas – from where, I’m not sure. But I knew I was being blessed and encouraged by those who are still walking there to this day.
NIA: That sounds like such a spiritual journey. Did you face any challenges during the bike ride? If so, what happened and how did you overcome them?
EH: I faced many challenges. First of all, I was going to attend Mars Hill University to play defense tackle in football, so I was riding at about 350 pounds or so. Being this large meant I struggled with endurance for some time. I actually had to get a bigger seat installed after the first week and they had to special order my shoes because I wear a size 15. The shoes I got were racing shoes, so the bottoms were hard plastic. Everyone else had rubber bottomed “trail” bike shoes, so on the segments of trail that were gravel, walking was a true pain. [laughs] I struggled mightily on some of the uphill segments, but as the trip wore on, I became stronger as a result. Also, the mental strain was difficult to handle. At times I would ride alone between the fastest and slowest riders and just be in my own mind. I will admit I cried on occasion. I prayed and communicated with the dead who remained on the trail. They watched and oversaw me, giving me support when I needed it. On more than one occasion, a strange wind would fill me with air and I could feel myself being propelled along the road, flying up and over hills with an unnatural speed and ease despite my obvious physical shortcomings. At other times, I could literally feel a wave of dread and despair wash over me, as if I had just peddled over a particularly nasty spot of history. It was as if the atrocities were still present and had tainted that segment of trail with the stains of death and hopelessness and my ancestors were shouting at me to leave as soon as possible. During those times, I would just have to wipe my eyes and peddle the heck out of there before I freaked out – hair standing stiff as a board as the weight of that link to the past lessened with the distance. One time, every EBCI member had to be picked up by our support crew because of the intense heat and humidity that had sprung up on us in Missouri. Cherokee Nation was used to it, but we were simply not ready for it at that time. Another time, we rode through a severe thunderstorm. Actually, there were several. My friend, Noah Collins from the Cherokee Nation, and me were riding along, just us two, when we suddenly noticed that this huge, red barn out in the field to the left was suddenly not visible. And there was a literal wall of clouds that had simply shrouded it. We did nothing until we realized the wall was actually heading right for us. We decided to keep riding and were soon engulfed in the cloud. It was so thick, we couldn’t even hear or see each other even though we were mere feet apart. The rain felt like a literal waterfall. It was like God had turned a personal water hose and was holding it over our heads. Luckily, we punched through in about thirty seconds and looked back. Behind us was a wall of clouds that was from the ground all the way up to the heavens. We shuddered, laughed, and nervously pushed on as if nothing happened. The cloud was black, by the way. I was so scared. And that first day on the ride ended in an awful way. We took a wrong turn for twenty miles. We rode, like, seventy-seven miles or something and it killed me.
NIA: Goodness! What a wild ride. What was it like to connect with and get to know the other riders from Cherokee Nation?
EH: It was amazing. I made many friends and it was most interesting when I first saw them and thought, “These guys could easily come back home to Cherokee and get lost, no one would know they were not from around there until they spoke.” We were also fortunate to have a United Keetoowah Band member on the trip as well. It was my first time ever meeting other Cherokees [from the other tribes], and while it may have been strange at first, considering there were twenty-three or so of them (they were all young, too), we all bonded and got to spend a ton of time together. On another note, it was awesome to see us all getting along. We three tribes have not quite gotten along the best over the years, especially United Keetoowah Band and Cherokee Nation, but for a small time, we were just one people again.
NIA: That’s wonderful that you all came together in unity like that. Could you tell me about some of your favorite memories from the ride?
EH: One of the most powerful moments was the day we climbed Cumberland Gap in Tennessee. It was brutal – like ten or so miles . . . maybe more . . . I can’t remember – up a mountain. Imagine biking up to Newfound Gap towards Pigeon Forge, except taller and steeper. Not to mention there were a load of potholes and logging trucks just barreling up and down the mountain. Well, it was easily the toughest day of the bike ride, and I had to call upon the strength of my ancestors. As I was struggling up the mountain, I became desperate. In the beginning, it was just me in my mind, and as I became more and more broken physically, my mental strength began to break. I always knew Creator was with me, and I always knew about our stories and the importance of medicine, but that day, I was taken to the max of my mental, physical, and spiritual endurance. As my mind began to slip towards literal insanity, I began to notice there were beings around me. I felt their eyes, could hear their cries amongst mine – spirits, voices. My ancestors were not only walking around me, but were aiding me. Some were watching. Some I knew were at the end of their journey. Others, I could see walking beyond. And, still, some never moved as if they had predated us on the trail. At the top, I cried. It was the most humbling experience of my life. Never had I been broken down to the point of quitting – to where I wanted to lay on the road. Where I felt like I was literally going to pass out – past the point of “something’s gotta give”. As I cried, we flew down the other side of the mountain reaching speeds of almost fifty miles per hour. I was easily the heaviest, so I was hauling it. Dodging potholes, almost getting blown off this tiny two-lane stretch of road by the behemoths carrying timber. And the only thing I could think of was how I had just gotten a glimpse into the realm beyond life. I saw, for a moment, how we are intertwined – how being broken can let in this medicine when you need it – the sorrow they felt – those doomed to walk the trail for eternity. That night, I cried again and had trouble understanding it all. And, to this day, I still go back to those moments in awe. Maybe this is how our ancestors found the will to survive – to complete that journey with even less strength than I had. With no bike, no rest, and no water. I realized that I had earned their respect in a way.
NIA: Oh wow. That’s incredible. Could you tell me about some of the new things you learned about Cherokee culture and history during the ride that you didn’t know before you made the trip?
EH: I learned a lot more about the condition of our folks along the Trail of Tears. I didn’t realize that they had so many internment camps, or that folks would wait for days or weeks (sometimes months) just to cross a river by ferry. I also learned that there are some towns that still commemorate the Trail of Tears despite having no Natives there. Some towns actually have Native communities from some of the original families that escaped the Trail of Tears. I also learned that there were some soldiers who did pity or care for us, helping aid people with water, food, blankets, and sometimes even escape. Some of those soldiers were killed for that. A lot of these soldiers were actively scrubbed from history, but firsthand accounts and journals have brought them to light in recent years.
NIA: I didn’t realize any of that. How did it feel to learn all of this?
EH: It felt unreal. To be completely honest, overwhelming. I felt like I was taking a yearlong journey and cramming it into three weeks. When it was over, all I could do was just sit and watch as my brothers and sisters shuffled off towards their respective homes. We had a big barbeque at the Alsenay house, and I left the next morning. I am literally still processing it and sometimes wish I were a tad bit more social because, overall, it was so overwhelming. I found myself alone, just chilling. Or I would just go out and meeting random people to chat up or chill with. I always met new people everywhere we went, and, somehow, they knew me before I had ever had a chance to say anything. It wasn’t usually by name, but so many towns did news stories on us, and I was interviewed several times, so I did have some real nice fans.
NIA: What would you say to future Remember The Removal bike riders?
EH: Be prepared to devote yourself. This is no small deal. If you get chosen, it is a blessing and a testament to what others believe about you. You have basically been chosen to endure a part of the weight we all endure. You have been chosen to represent us to our brothers and sisters out west. To take it all lightly is a disgrace to those who walked the Trail of Tears before us. There are less than one hundred folks worldwide who have ever been given this opportunity, so don’t squander it.
NIA: Do you have any final words?
EH: Remember the removal. Never forget.