SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – He’s voluntarily traveling down a path that Native Americans were once forced to walk. Ron Cooper, Comanche, is retracing the Trail of Tears and with every step he thinks back on the past and looks forward to the future.
“Even though we are all different tribes, we have the same story in our tribes of the struggles back in the 1800s and before. We all suffered through that time period, being confined to reservations … but we also have the same stories of coming through it,” Cooper said. “For the most part a lot of the tribes are still here in the 21st Century. We’ve pretty much redefined ourselves.”
Cooper said despite what tribes endured throughout history, they are still maintaining their culture and overall have the same type of stories even though each tribe is unique. He said there are too many times in Native communities when he hears, “Oh, that’s not my tribe,” and he wishes “we would stop thinking like that.”
“Comanches are so different than Cherokees, but I see the same stories in that tribe as I do in my tribe. I just kind of want to pass that along to the Native people,” Cooper said. “To other people, I’d like to keep the Trail of Tears and stories like that (part) of America’s history. I don’t think the stories like Trail of Tears are necessarily Native American history as it is America’s history.”
Cooper began walking on one of the Trail of Tears routes Feb. 17 in Charleston, Tenn. He said he began his journey there because that’s where a lot of Cherokees were gathered in an internment camp before they were marched west. The date itself turned out to be Martin Luther King, Jr. day, and this made Cooper study the history of the Trail even more, he said.
“African Americans were on the trail too; there either as slaves or as Freedman or adopted in the tribe. They were right along with us, so I thought that was kind of poetic that I chose that day because you don’t want to forget anybody that went on those trails. They were certainly a part of it,” Cooper said.
The idea for the hike began when Cooper decided he wanted to champion a long distance walk. He was inspired by other people’s hiking adventures and wanted his walk to be personal; a reflection of who he is.
“I thought of the Trail of Tears. I kind of went from there. It started out just for me, but after I learned more of the story and I realized how much of the Cherokees story relates to all Native stories, and so it kind of became more than just a walk,” Cooper said. “It became more of tribal unity, hoping that other tribes would understand that we were all there together … we all had to have the same resiliency.”
From Tennessee, Cooper went northwest towards Nashville, then to Kentucky, Southern Illinois and into Missouri. He visited historical landmarks such as the Trail of Tears State Park near Girardeau, Mo., the burial site of Cherokee Chief Whitepath and Clan leader Fly Smith in Hopkinsville, Ky., and Berry’s Ferry, where Native Americans crossed the Ohio River into Illinois and were charged $1 to cross when the fee was 12 cents.
Many people have shared their family stories with him, greeted him and cheered him on during his time on the road. Some people even drove around looking for him after they saw him on the local news. “It’s become more talking with people than getting the miles,” he said.
Yet, he has also received criticism for not walking exactly on the Trail taken in 1838. Today, parts of the Trail are now public highways, private property or hold structures.
Cooper said when he is walking on an isolated part of the original trail he can feel the history and have a sense of exactly what happened.
“You can kind of feel the old people walking with you,” he said. “Sometimes on the trail you have fun; you’re seeing sights, you’re thinking of how pretty everything is, but always in the back of your mind you have a bit a sadness because you know what happened and why you’re walking. That’s always in the back of your mind.”
Cooper is hoping to finish his trek during the third week in April. He will either stop in Westville or Tahlequah, Okla. So far he doesn’t have anything special planned for the end of his trail except a lot of whooping and hollering.
His wife, Kristal, said he doesn’t expect a lot of fanfare when he finishes, but she wishes there would be because he deserves it. She said she hopes people come out and greet him when he finishes.
“It’s been an awesome experience for both of us … It’s a huge undertaking. It’s just huge; it’s 835 miles and he had never been out (backpacking) for more than two nights in a row,” she said. “It’s something he can have for the rest of his life.”
The husband and wife team maintain a Web site and Facebook page at www.RonHikesTrailofTears.com. They encourage people to write in and read the blog to share in the journey. Ron said he wants all the moral support he can get, especially since everyones well wishes have carried him this far.
Kristal Cooper has been traveling the Trail in their RV and helps her husband document his walk. She said she is grateful to have the opportunity to support her husband.
“We are such a great partnership, it’s awesome,” she said. “It’s been really fun to be able to support him through this. I wish every couple can have the opportunity to let one of them live out a victory.”