As a student of history, especially Cherokee history, there is no better education and leadership skills development than Cherokee Nation’s annual Remember the Removal Bike Ride. Every summer a team of young riders along with mentor riders and support staff from Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee team up and retrace our ancestors’ route from our homelands in the East to modern-day Oklahoma. We are so proud of these Cherokee men and women. They have accomplished something very personal and special and, at the same time, allowed all of us as Cherokee Nation citizens to once again reflect on our history.

The Trail of Tears is a very important part of Cherokee history. Participation in Remember the Removal enables the riders to better understand the trials and tribulations our people faced during their journey to Indian Territory. Riders began following the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears at the former capital of the Cherokee Nation in New Echota, Georgia, then made stops at museums, gravesites, national parks, churches and other historic locations along the way. With every mile traveled, they are more versed about the Cherokee experience and the true history of our people.

Before they left, I challenged each participant to share as much as they can with as many people as they can. Not only did they do that along the way, but I know they’ll take their experience and share it with others for the rest of their lives.

When the mind and body are stretched to their limit, spiritual and personal experiences can be profound and life changing. This journey offers cyclists a chance to share something sacred with our ancestors, and this group of riders is blessed to share all of those transformative moments together, as one amazing group. The participants returned with a greater understanding not just of the hardships our people endured more than 180 years ago, but also with a better grasp of the inner and collective strength it takes to survive as a tribe, and as an individual.

They have spurred each other to great heights across the seven states and the 950-mile trek. It is a hard journey, but they know the struggles they encountered are only a small taste of what Cherokees experienced and collectively overcame many years ago.

When the inaugural bike ride took place in 1984, we set a precedent for tribes doing this kind of living classroom and experience-based learning. It was an outside-the-box concept, and now others have started similar endeavors. That is wonderful, because these experiences shape and mature a young person.

I know every rider had to dig deep and find reservoirs of strength, perseverance and fortitude. Their perspective of what our Cherokee ancestors encountered along the trail is forever changed. But their perspective is sharper and they are more empathetic to the sacrifices our ancestors were forced to make on their journey when more than one quarter of our tribal population perished from exposure, starvation and disease.

Our cyclists will carry the memories and bonding moments they had with fellow cyclists forever. This bond they have formed is like family, and through it, I see true Cherokee values.

The 2019 Cherokee Nation Remember the Removal riders are:

· Brooke Bailey, 23, Lost City

· Joshua Chavez, 24, Tahlequah

· Marie Eubanks, 55, Rocky Mountain

· Kayli Gonzales, 23, Welling

· Shadow Hardbarger, 24, Marble City

· Elizabeth Hummingbird, 21, Peavine

· Ashley Hunnicutt, 25, Tahlequah

· Destiny Matthews, 21, Watts

· Sydnie Pierce, 23, Locust Grove

· Steven Shade, 24, Briggs

· Kevin Stretch, 58, Tahlequah

Bill John Baker is the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.