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World's biggest motorcycle ride set to honor Trail of Tears

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WHITWELL, Tenn. - Bikers and Indians often feel like kindred spirits, says Bill Cason, co-founder and organizer of the Trail of Tears Commemorative Ride, and his group will prove it this Sept. 20 when it takes an expected 100,000 riders on the world's largest organized motorcycle ride.

The 230-mile route from Chattanooga, Tenn. to Waterloo, Ala. will retrace a portion of the forced removal of the Cherokee nation from its homeland in 1838. Eight motorcycles started the first annual ride in 1994 along present-day Highway 72. At the end of the 2001 event, an estimated 90,000 riders pulled into Waterloo.

"We've tried to give everyone, not just motorcycle riders, a history lesson in the Trail of Tears," Cason told Indian Country Today. He said his group has grown into a non-profit organization that puts up historic markers along the route, provides scholarships for native students and makes a significant impact on the local economy.

This year a smaller group of riders will continue the journey Sept. 21-22 to Tahlequa, Okla., the capitol of the relocated Cherokee nation.

The idea for the ride, said Cason, came out of conversations with his friend Jerry Davis of Scottsboro, Ala. In 1993, Davis was researching the Native American history of his area and learned that the Trail of Tears removal followed the general route of Highway 72. They felt the route should be officially recognized and historically marked. Cason, a Harley rider, said the best way he knew to get people's attention was to have a bike ride.

On Oct. 8, 1994, eight motorcycles began the ride at Ross' Landing in Chattanooga. By ride's end the number had increased to approximately 100. By 2001, the 8th Annual Trail of Tears Commemorative Motorcycle Ride? began with 40,000 motorcycles and ended with a reported 90,000 motorcycles pulling into Waterloo, the largest organized motorcycle ride in history.

With huge numbers from around the country and overseas expected in Chattanooga, organizers have added a day of pre-ride events. An American Indian Day at Aquarium Plaza will present music, dance and story telling. Separate concerts will feature Merle Haggard and native flutist Robert Mirabal, in his "Music from a Painted Cave" performance.

The ride itself will have a police escort all the way to Oklahoma. Cason said that he and his wife had ridden the entire route twice, meeting with mayors and police departments along the way. "We have a lot of cooperation from everybody," he said.

Cason said his group added the Oklahoma route last year, reaching the first Choctaw settlement, Eagletown where it dedicated a historical marker. This year will be the first to trace the entire route to Tahlequa. "Everybody wanted to go there," he said. Because the ride to Tahlequa ends on a Monday, cutting into the workweek, Cason said he expected only 200 riders for the supplemental route. But he still expected to make an impact. "In Tahlequa people will be able to tell the difference," he said.