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The Trail of Tears in Poetry, Art and Prose
with Native American Poems and Prayers

This page contains the best Native American poems, prayers and quotations related to the Trail of Tears that we have been able to find, to date.

Cherokee Travelers' Blessing
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I will extract the thorns from your feet.
For a little while, we will walk life's sunlit paths together.
I will love you like my own brother, my own blood.
When you are disconsolate, I will wipe the tears from your eyes.
And when you are too sad to live, I will put your aching heart to rest.

The Trail of Tears was not a single event, but a long-term pogrom of ethnic cleansing and genocide of Native Americans at the hands of European invaders, most of whom claimed to be "Christians" while raping the land and robbing their darker-skinned sisters and brothers of their freedom, human rights and dignity. (Is that something Jesus Christ would have endorsed, really?)

A brave man dies but once, a coward many times.

The conditions of Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, Muskogees, Seminoles and other Native Americans who walked the Trail of Tears were similar to those of Jews and Gypsies during the Nazi Holocaust. But at terrible as the Holocaust was, many more Native Americans died: experts have estimated that 50 to 100 million natives perished after Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. This massive population loss was due to a number of factors: wars, massacres and other acts of violence; loss of land; removal/displacement of natives; exploitation; rape and intermarriage with a resulting loss or dilution of culture; and the introduction of communicable diseases to which indigenous populations lacked immunity.

Native American Proverb
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Before you judge
a man for his sins
be sure to trudge
many moons in his moccasins.

Trail of Jeers?

Donald Trump apparently finds the Trail of Tears joke-worthy, since he signed off his latest Pocahontas tweet with "See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!" The significance of the capital letters seems obvious. The ghastly Trail of Tears was engineered by Trump's hero, Andrew Jackson, whose portrait hangs prominently above his Oval Office desk. Thousands of innocent, defenseless Native Americans died on the Trail of Tears—many of them babies, toddlers, children and their mothers. It was one of the most shameful acts in American history. But what does any of that mean to a man willing to rip babies from their mothers' breasts and separate them forever? Donald Trump Jr. was fully on board, tweeting "Savage!!! Love my president." More mockery. Like racist father, like racist son. "Trump jokes about genocide ... His son laughs ... There is no limit to the immorality and indecency of these people," tweeted Andrew Stroelheim of Human Rights Watch.

compiled by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry

Related pages: Darfur Poems, Gaza Poems, Haiti Poems, Hiroshima Poems, Holocaust Poems, Nakba Poems, 911 Poems, Parkland Poems, Sandy Hook Poems, Aurora Poems, Columbine Poems

Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds,
Whose breath gives life to the world, hear me!
I come to you as one of your many children ...
―"A Sioux Prayer," translated by Chief Yellow Lark

While white supremacists portrayed Native Americans as "savages" in order to excuse the theft of their land, the simple truth is that untold numbers of Native Americans, including multitudes of completely innocent men, women and children, bore the brunt of white savagery. As one of the wiser, sager and more honest white Americans noted:

There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.Mark Twain

It is difficult and exceedingly painful to imagine how it must have felt to walk the Trail of Tears, for mothers who were unable to provide for their children, and for proud men who had to watch their loved ones suffer and die like animals being led to slaughter. Many Native Americans may have offered up prayers like this one:

As I walk life's trails
imperiled by the raging wind and rain,
grant, O Great Spirit,
that yet I may always
walk like a man.
―"Cherokee Prayer," loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Today we know that Native Americans were not mindless savages, but simply men, women and children who had a very different vision of life than most people of European stock.

Sioux Vision Quest
by Crazy Horse, Oglala Lakota Sioux, circa 1840-1877
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A man must pursue his Vision
as the eagle explores
the sky's deepest blues.

Native Americans understood the "circle of life" better than their white oppressors ...

When we sit in the Circle of the People,
we must be responsible because all Creation is related
and the suffering of one is the suffering of all
and the joy of one is the joy of all
and whatever we do affects everything in the universe.
"Lakota Instructions for Living" by White Buffalo Calf Woman, translated by Michael R. Burch

The poem below by a two-time American Poet Laureate conjures an image of what Native Americans who walked the Trail of Tears might have seen and felt:

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
―Stanley Kunitz, from "The Layers"

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson―a white supremacist who loathed Native Americans―encouraged Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, claiming the measure would "separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions" and "retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the government and through the influences of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community." Apparently Stonewall Jackson believed that brutalizing and murdering multitudes of completely innocent women and children would make them more "interesting," more "civilized" and more "Christian." (Or was he just a bigot fabricating excuses to steal vast tracts of highly valuable land?)

If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning.Catherine the Great

To be frank, "Stonewall" Jackson was a racist fascist who rationalized the terrible crimes of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide against Native Americans, just as Hitler was a racist fascist who rationalized the same terrible crimes against Jews, Gypsies and other "inferior" people.

Bigotry is the sacred disease.Heraclitus

Like the much-lauded founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Stonewall Jackson was a slaveowner. Like many other self-avowed "Christians," he did terrible things to people of other races that Jesus Christ would surely never have done himself, nor have ever condoned. In other words, Washington, Jefferson and Jackson were raging hypocrites. They claimed to believe in "democracy" and "equal rights" for "all human beings," but when their own economic interests were at stake, they were willing to consign Native Americans and African Americans to hell on earth, even women and children.

I like your Christ, but not Christianity. You Christians are so unlike your Christ.—Mohandas Gandhi

Whenever we hear the holy names of "liberty" and "democracy" being used by men who inflict horrors on women and children, we should be deeply suspicious of their motives and intentions:

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?—Mohandas Gandhi

While Americans are taught to praise men like Washington, Jefferson and Jackson as if they were "heroes," and to laud the United States as if it has always been a paragon of virtues, the real truth is obstinate and refuses to be ignored. Do "heroes" trample women and children underfoot? Does a "great nation" ignore the human rights of innocents, or their terrible suffering at the callous hands of rich, powerful robber barons? And what are Americans doing today, in Afghanistan and Iraq, really? Why are they causing millions of Muslim women and children to walk a new Trail of Tears? Perhaps it's time, or past time, to reconsider the words of one of American's wisest men, and a fierce opponent of racism, intolerance and hypocrisy:

There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.—
Mark Twain

To this day the U.S government unfortunately and unconscionably continues to participate in the terrible crimes of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide, while hypocritically preaching "equal rights" and "democracy" to the rest of the world, by funding and supporting the Nakba ("Catastrophe") of the Palestinian people. The Nakba is very similar to what happened to Native Americans, and has been ongoing and steadily worsening for more than 60 years, since 1948. The root problems are very much the same: as those of the Trail of Tears: racism, religious intolerance and wild hypocrisy on the part of the self-proclaimed "superior" and "more civilized" people (i.e., Jews and Christians) who disregard the human rights of millions of completely innocent women and children while rich, powerful robber barons use the Bible to trample innocents underfoot in a mad dash to steal their land and natural resources. Today most Americans are willing to admit that what happened to Native Americans and African Americans was wrong, and yet the majority of Americans either ignorantly or willfully disregard the human rights of Palestinians. This was the main cause of 9-11 and the subsequent wars, just as the Trail of Tears was the main cause of the massacres on both sides that followed ...

Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.—George Santayana (paraphrased)

In the same year, 1830, that Stonewall Jackson consigned Native Americans to the ash-heap of history, Georgia Governor George Gilmer said, "Treaties are expedients by which ignorant, intractable, and savage people are induced ... to yield up what civilized people have the right to possess." By "civilized" he apparently meant people willing to brutally dispossess and kill women and children in order to derive economic benefits for themselves.

These nights bring dreams of Cherokee shamans
whose names are bright verbs and impacted dark nouns,
whose memories are indictments of my pallid flesh . . .
and I hear, as from a great distance,
the cries tortured from their guileless lips, proclaiming
the nature of my mutation.
―Michael R. Burch, from "Mongrel Dreams" (my family is part Cherokee, English and Scottish)

After Jackson was re-elected with an overwhelming majority in 1832, he strenuously pursued his policy of removing Native Americans, even refusing to accept a Supreme Court ruling which invalidated Georgia's planned annexation of Cherokee land. But in the double-dealing logic of the white supremacists, they had to make the illegal resettlement of the Indians appear to be "legal," so a small group of Cherokees were persuaded to sign the "Treaty of New Echota," which swapped Cherokee land for land in the Oklahoma territory. The Cherokee ringleaders of this infamous plot were later assassinated as traitors. (Hitler was similarly obsessed with the "legalities" of the Nazi Holocaust; isn't it strange how mass murderers of women and children can seek to justify their crimes?)

I know the truth – give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look , it is nearly night:
What do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.
―Marina Tsvetaeva, Russian poet, translated by Elaine Feinstein

In the summer of 1838, the United States Army rounded up around 16,000 Cherokees, then confined them for months to disease-infested camps where they were treated abysmally by self-proclaimed "civilized Christians." One wonders what Jesus Christ would have made of them, Hitler and George W. Bush ...

A Cherokee official named Major Ridge protested to Jackson, "The lowest classes of the white people are flogging the Cherokees with cowhides, hickories, and clubs. We are not safe in our houses ― our people are assailed day and night by the rabble . . . This barbarous treatment is not confined to men, but the women are stripped also and whipped without law or mercy . . . We shall carry off nothing but the scars on our backs."

No desire to open my mouth
What should I sing of...?
I, who am hated by life.
No difference to sing or not to sing.
Why should I talk of sweetness,
When I feel bitterness?
Oh, the oppressor's feast
Knocked my mouth.
I have no companion in life
Who can I be sweet for?

―Nadia Anjuman, Afghani poet, translated by Mahnaz Badihian

General John E. Wool confirmed Ridge's statements, saying, "The whole scene since I have been in this country has been nothing but a heart-rendering one . . . The white men . . . like vultures are watching, ready to pounce upon their prey and strip them of everything they have. Wool also confirmed that the Cherokees were "almost universally opposed to the treaty."

Oh my heart, you know it is spring
And time to celebrate.
What should I do with a trapped wing,
Which does not let me fly?
I have been silent too long,
But I never forget the melody,
Since every moment I whisper
The songs from my heart,
Reminding myself of
The day I will break this cage,
Fly from this solitude
And sing like a melancholic.
―Nadia Anjuman, Afghani poet, translated by Mahnaz Badihian

In October 1838 the Cherokees began to walk the "Trail of Tears." Most of them made the thousand mile journey west to Oklahoma on foot. An estimated 4,000 people, or a quarter of the tribe, died en route. The soldiers "escorting" the Cherokees at bayonet point refused permission for the dead to be buried, threatening to shoot anyone who disobeyed. So the living were forced to carry the corpses of the dead until camp was made for the night.

When Pigs Fly
by Michael R. Burch

On the Trail of Tears,
my Cherokee brothers,
why hang your heads?
Why shame your mothers?
Laugh wildly instead!
We will soon be dead.

When we lie in our graves,
let the white-eyes take
the woodlands we loved
for the hoe and the rake.
It is better to die
than to live out a lie
in so narrow a sty.

Years after the Cherokees had been rounded up and driven down the Trail of Tears, John G. Burnett reflected on what he and his fellow soldiers had done, saying, "Schoolchildren of today do not know that we are living on lands that were taken from a helpless race at the bayonet point, to satisfy the white man's greed ... Murder is murder and somebody must answer, somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country ... Somebody must explain the four thousand silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile."

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world.

There watched I for the Dead; but no ghost woke.
Each one whom Life exiled I named and called.
But they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled,
And never one fared back to me or spoke.

Then peered the indefinite unshapen dawn
With vacant gloaming, sad as half-lit minds,
The weak-limned hour when sick men's sighs are drained.
And while I wondered on their being withdrawn,
Gagged by the smothering Wing which none unbinds,
I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.
―Wilfred Owen, "The Unreturning"

Another Georgia volunteer remarked in 1870: "I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever done."

Poetry is with us from the start.
Like loving,
like hunger, like the plague, like war.
At times my verses were embarrassingly foolish.
But I make no excuse.
I believe that seeking beautiful words
is better
than killing and murdering.
―Iaroslav Seifert, Czech poet

Despite the testimony of so many eyewitnesses, Martin Van Buren, the white supremacist who replaced Andrew Jackson as president, told Congress that "The measures of the Removal have had the happiest effect . . . the Cherokee moved without apparent reluctance." Obviously, he lied.

I am an incurable romantic
I believe in hope, dreams and decency
     I believe in love,
     Tenderness and kindness.
I believe in mankind.
     I believe in goodness,
     Mercy and charity
     I believe in a universal spirit
     I believe in casting bread
     Upon the waters.
          I am awed by the snow-capped mountains
          By the vastness of oceans.
              I am moved by a couple
              Of any age – holding hands
              As they walk through city streets.
     A living creature in pain
     Makes me shudder with sorrow
     A seagull’s cry fills me
     With a sense of mystery.
          A river or stream
          Can move me to tears
          A lake nestling in a valley
          Can bring me peace.
     I wish for all mankind
     The sweet simple joy
     That we have found together.
I know that it will be.
And we shall celebrate
We shall taste the wine
And the fruit.
          Celebrate the sunset and the sunrise
         the cold and the warmth
         the sounds and the silences
         the voices of the children.
     Celebrate the dreams and hopes
     Which have filled the souls of
     All decent men and women.
We shall lift our glasses and toast
With tears of joy.
―Leonard Nimoy

The links below are to associated pages. We encourage our readers to familiarize themselves with similar atrocities, which continue to this day. In this case, familiarity should breed contempt. For instance, the Nakba ("Catastrophe") of the Palestinians is very similar in many respects to what happened to Native Americans, and has been ongoing and steadily worsening for more than 60 years, since 1948. The root problems seem to be very much the same: racism, religious intolerance, wild hypocrisy on the part of the "more civilized" people, and blatant land-grabbing as rich, powerful robber barons proclaim their "Manifest Destiny" to trample innocents underfoot. We just read the words of presidents and governors above, which made it sound as if what was done to Native Americans was "necessary" and "for their own good." Obviously, this was just a pack of lies. So today we must be very careful not to buy into the convenient, prevailing fictions. Whenever we see completely innocent women and children suffering and dying en masse, we know something is terribly wrong. So something is obviously terribly wrong today, in Gaza and Occupied Palestine. What makes a horrific problem even worse for citizens of the United States and United Kingdom is that our governments have aided and abetted this new Holocaust of the Palestinians. The 9-11 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were direct consequences of our governments' denial of equal rights, human dignity and self-determination to Palestinians. When our governments decided to become global bullies and pay lip service to "equal rights" and "democracy" in the Middle East, while playing favorites to such an extent that millions of Palestinians became destitute, all hell broke loose. Being honest about what what went wrong, and amending our mistakes and not repeating them will save multitudes of lives on both sides. Killing even more women and children because we refuse to admit our past mistakes is to continue down the path that led from the Trail of Tears to the massacres at Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. Surely it is past time for Americans to learn from the past, rather than repeat the same terrible errors over and over again. What happened to the Jews during the Holocaust was a horror. But one injustice does not excuse another, and it was Nazi Germany that created the Holocaust, not the Palestinians. If someone else beats his wife and children, that in no way excuses me beating my wife and children. Now is the time to end the abuses being heaped on innocent Palestinian women and children, before such abuses lead to World War III.

The Nakba ("Catastrophe"): The Holocaust of the Palestinians
Holocaust Poetry
Hiroshima Poetry, Prose and Art
For Darfur: Poetry about the Holocaust and Genocide in Darfur
The Holocaust of the Homeless
Poems for Haiti
Nadia Anjuman: the story of the individual Holocaust of an Afghani Poet
In Peace's Arms, Not War's: the Poets speak for Peace, not War
Parkland Poems
Sandy Hook Poems
Aurora Poems
Columbine Poems

The HyperTexts