The Trail of Tears in Poetry, Art and Prose
including Native American Poems and Prayers
These are poems and prayers related to the ethnic cleansing and genocide of
Native Americans at the hands of European invaders, most of whom claimed to be
"Christians" while robbing Native Americans of their land and most basic human
compiled and edited by Michael R. Burch, an editor
and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry, whose
Cherokee ancestors walked the Trail of Tears
Sandy Hook Poems, Aurora Poetry,
Courtni Webb's Sandy Hook Poem and Possible Expulsion,
Hiroshima Poems, Holocaust Poems,
Trail of Tears
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 women and children, bore the
brunt of white savagery. As one of the wiser (and more honest) white Americans put it:
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
It is difficult and exceedingly painful today to imagine how it must have felt to walk the Trail of
Tears, for mothers unable to provide for their children, and for proud men who had to watch their loved ones suffer and be degraded,
often only to die.
I can imagine Native American men silently praying prayers like this one:
As I walk life's trails
imperiled by the raging wind and rain,
grant, O Great Spirit,
that I may yet always
like a man.
―"Cherokee Prayer," translated 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
A very great vision is needed
and the man who has it
must follow it, as the eagle
seeks the deepest blue of the sky.
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
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
happened to Native Americans, and has been ongoing and steadily worsening for
more than 60 years, since
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
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 impounded dark nouns,
whose memories are indictments of my pallid flesh . . .
and I hear, as if 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,"
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,
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.
On the Trail of Tears,
O, my Cherokee brothers,
why hang your heads?
Why shame your mothers?
So laugh wildly instead!
We will soon be dead.
When we lie in our graves,
let the white-eyes take
the woodland we loved
for the hoe and the rake.
It is better to die
than to live out a lie
in so narrow a sty.
―Michael R. Burch, "When Pigs Fly"
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
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 hunger, like the plague, like war.
At times my verses were embarrassingly foolish.
But I make no excuse.
I believe that seeking beautiful words
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.
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
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
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