Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, tucked a dip of tobacco behind his lip and offered the can to Alva Crowe of the Eastern Band of Cherokee as the two stood near the banks of the Tennessee River.
"It's like I said earlier," Baker said. "We're not here as victims."
Baker drove 900 miles from Tahlequah, Okla., to be in Chattanooga on Saturday when the Brown's Ferry Federal Road Trail at Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District opened at 10 a.m.
It's the road that thousands of Cherokee walked before U.S. soldiers loaded them onto barges and sent them away to Indian Territory in the forced removal known as the Trail of Tears.
The Cherokee lived at Moccasin Bend for thousands of years before the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
"It literally went from Cherokee land to not Cherokee land," Baker said.
Saturday morning's trail opening ceremony was cold before the sun came over Stringer's Ridge. Cherokee Nation and National Park Service officials exchanged greetings and acknowlegments beneath a tent off Moccasin Bend Road, before taking off on a walking tour of the old federal road.
Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp sat in the audience. Wamp was one of the figures who put the wheels in motion a decade ago to preserve the 98-acre tract of land, park officials said Saturday.
"It met the test of historical significance as much as any land in the United States," Wamp said. "I have a lot of Cherokee blood in my veins, so this is personal to me."
He called the forced removal of American Indians "one of the two seminal injustices in American history," alongside slavery.
Baker said the Cherokee Nation holds no grudges and seeks no sympathy.
"The Cherokee way is to forgive," he said. "And we've moved on."
He said Saturday, though, that it's a frustration how time has convoluted some of the facts about the removal, giving in to the depiction of all Cherokee as poor and destitute when they were rounded up and shipped west.
"Will Rogers said it best," Baker said. "'History ain't what it is. It's what some writer wanted it to be.'"
Civil War role
The Brown's Ferry Federal Road also played an integral role in the occupation of Chattanooga by Union troops during the Civil War.
Jim Ogden, historian with the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, believes the Union "cracker line," which used the federal road to supply soldiers when all other access was blocked, may have made a difference in the war's overall result.
"I think you can say that," he said.
It was the beefing up of Union troops in Chattanooga that led to Gen. William T. Sherman's successful campaign to the coast, a campaign that arguably broke the Confederate states' backs.
And it's all thanks to a risky, middle-of-the-night shot Union leaders took to cross the river and travel across Moccasin Bend on the federal road.
"This gives us an opportunity to tell this story to people on the ground where it actually happened," Ogden said.
Preserving multicultural history
The federal road's layered history gives it a value to both Cherokee and non-Cherokee Americans.
Wamp said preserving the site is clearly important, but he said it's also "another block in making the Trail of Tears right over time."
"It's a process. It's not a one-time, everything's OK," he said.
Baker said it was "almost like a religious experience" to be back at Moccasin Bend, which was the last glimpse of home many Cherokees saw.
"If you come to Oklahoma, you can see our people stopped at what looked like home," he said.
Out on the old road, he pointed out the landscape's similar traits: "It looks like this."
Contact staff writer Alex Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731.
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