Trail of Tears: this land is your land


Holly Garner, Volunteer Writer

As I began my journey to the memorial of our indigenous peoples forced removal from their land, I knew the day would be loaded with emotion.

Saturday, Sept. 18, began with glorious sunshine and blue skies. The Trail of Tears ends in Waterloo, Ala. I was especially interested in the memorial walk, a solemn expression of honor and pride. As I approached the end of the path, I found myself in an alluring scene of land, water and sky. Here at the crest of Waterloo landing, flags stand tall waving to all who will see and acknowledge their presence. 

The ceremony began with the music of a lyrical flute whispering through the trees of love and loss. Janet Long, wife of recently departed Chief Stan Long, was presented with an Alabama red clay eagle memorial, which was crafted by Carl’s Clay. Long warmly received the token of love. As she persevered through her emotions, she read the message engraved upon the plaque, “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,” Isaiah 40:31. Chief Long served his people in many capacities. He was a minister, professor and behavioral therapist, all while serving his tribe. His life was one of celebration, honor, healing, fellowship and faith. 

 After the walk, everyone gathered to begin the “opening ceremonies.” This portion of the celebration is sacred and is for attendees only. I had anticipated capturing video of the drumming and dance segments of the day’s events. After being informed that photos and videos were not permitted, I was freed to just be present and fully engage in the event. This hallowed time seemed to stand still while our modern technology took a back seat to protect the integrity of their culture. 

As a four-man team of drummers set the tempo, the tribal dancers entered “the ring” two-by-two. An ancestral rhythm led their steps as they shared a creative expression of tribe and faith. As a dancer, I have dreamed of dancing with native peoples in a ceremony. After a few songs, the master of ceremonies gave an open invitation for all to join in their inter-tribal dance. I was so excited. It definitely wasn’t like my dreams, but it was a glimpse! Adults and children joined in their dance of freedom and true fellowship. “Our nation” was founded on their nation, one that opens the door to brotherhood and honors the world around them, all while preserving what they have already been given.

The reigning Miss Indian Alabama, Reagan Bonner, as well as the 2010 winner and current Vice Chairperson of Alabama Indian Affairs Commission, Paige Berry, proudly represented their people and state. Bonner is a Junior at the University of South Alabama studying mechanical engineering and occupies the role of section leader of marching band. This young woman amazed me with her internal strength and beauty.

“Despite what you may have learned in school about the Trail of Tears, there is so much more than you have ever known. I encourage you to research the truth, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. No matter who you are or what your ancestry is, your recognition of history is important and appreciated,” Bonner said.

In like manner, I observed Leah Martine Fain, a naturopathic doctor, musician and artist. I asked her for a message concerning “Trail of Tears.” Without hesitation she wrote her response with a pen.

 “My prayer for our world as we learn from COVID-19 times and re-integrate into our world, is that we honor the wisdom from our ancestors and bring peace, healing and unity to humanity.” 

In honor of our native peoples, we walk and dance to demonstrate our respect. As we honor our ancestors, we also celebrate the promise of future generations to come.