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May I Suggest ... ‘The Trail of Tears’ by Steven Heape

DALLAS – One of the more unfathomable periods in U.S. history is examined in great detail in “The Trail of Tears,” the handsomely realized new DVD release produced by the Dallas-based “Native American-owned corporation” Rich-Heape Films Inc.

Executive produced by Steven Heape and directed by his business partner, Chip Richie, the circumstances surrounding the infamous “Trail of Tears” is richly presented, from the Cherokee’s rise in the post-Revolutionary War South through the tragic period of their forced relocation in the late 1830s.

To the uninitiated, the film offers ample backdrop to the Cherokee presence in the South. Though Thomas Jefferson himself had urged co-existence of white settlers and American Indian tribes in a written disposition after the Revolutionary War, peace was tenuous at best. An estimated 250,000 American Indians in 85 different tribes lived in the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River at the time. George Washington had decreed that American Indians owned their land, but by President Andrew Jackson’s time, that hope faded. The film, hosted and presented by well-know Cherokee actor Wes Studi – who speaks in Cherokee with subtitles – and narrated by the formidable James Earl Jones, Black/Irish/Cherokee, portrays the southeastern Cherokees as peaceful farmers whose citizens made attempts at assimilation as early as 1810.

Focusing on prominent Cherokees, including Principal Chief John Ross, who created a Cherokee Constitution in 1827, and statesmen John Ridge and Elias Boudinot – the latter of whom ran the newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix – the film explores the slow inevitable buildup to Southern whites demanding ownership of Cherokee lands in the Southeast territories.

Perhaps the last straw was the discovery of gold in Georgia, which initiated the first true U.S. gold rush; nearly instantaneously, laws were passed against American Indian allowance to pan for gold and own land. This culminated in the 1830 Indian Removal Act, signed by Jackson. It was only a matter of time before the government instituted the forced removal of the Cherokees, despite published protests by Boudinot and white missionaries who lived among American Indians in the area.

In a balanced approach, the film makes mention of whites who attempted to alter government thinking but who instead were arrested. Massachusetts missionary Samuel Worcester and others with goals of Christianizing American Indian populations were steadfastly ignored and often persecuted for their beliefs. By 1835, Ross was arrested without reason and the Treaty of New Echota was signed, setting in motion the government and military intervention in the form of a forced American Indian relocation. In great controversy, Ridge and Boudinot were integral in the signing of the treaty, which for them would have deadly results within just a few years.

Wholly difficult to watch, the second half of the film explores the long, organized and unthinkable processes by which some 13,000 Cherokees were dispatched across 1,000 miles through nearly unlivable conditions. The film provides stunning statistics throughout this section. At the time, the Cherokee occupied 81 million acres of land in nine states. Now, barely 160,000 acres are left. Starting in 1836, Cherokees from Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee were relocated to northeastern Oklahoma. Most concentrated was the horrifying removal period in the summer of 1838. Put into relocation camps before and during the long march – aptly dubbed the “Trail of Tears” – many died both before and during the trek. Even more died from exhaustion and dysentery, among other illnesses, after arriving in Oklahoma in early 1839. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 5,000 people died through the entire ordeal, but what is known is that fully one-fourth of the Cherokee population perished.

Perhaps it is fitting that the film takes an unbiased approach to the march’s aftermath. For one, in Oklahoma, fellow Cherokees subsequently executed both Ridge and Boudinot, ostensibly for their involvement in the Treaty of New Echota which led to the relocation. Were they Cherokee patriots, or did they betray their own people in their acts? The film encourages viewers to decide for themselves. The film also reports – without judgment – that Ross avoided the fate of his comrades, though his wife Quatie died on the journey to Oklahoma.

The film wisely offers an array of history experts to weigh in on the various issues that are brought up throughout the narrative. Moreover, beautifully executed re-enactments of key events add a visual context for many of the most imperative moments in the story. Studi and Jones’ narrations give the film an essential weight and authenticity. Another crucial decision on the part of the filmmakers was to shoot the film in high-definition video. Crisp, colorful and always sumptuous, the video quality of the film is always attractive and engrossing.

For more information, write to Rich-Heape Films Inc., 5952 Royal Lane, Suite 254, Dallas, TX 75230; call (888) 600-2922; or visit www.richheape.com.