How The Treaty Of New Echota Led to the Trail of Tears : Code Switch The Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation told his people to stay strong during this pandemic, and to remember how much they've endured over a long history that includes the Trail of Tears. This episode takes a look at the treaty, signed almost 200 years ago, that caused that suffering, and how it's being used now as a call to action.
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A Treacherous Choice And A Treaty Right

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A Treacherous Choice And A Treaty Right

A Treacherous Choice And A Treaty Right

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I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.


I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH.



DELANNA STUDI: I didn't know who I was exactly. I didn't know where we started.

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE: You are Cherokee. Your grandfathers fought and gave their lives to save Cherokee Nation.


KIMBERLY TEEHEE: My family history is riddled with federal policy, congressional actions. Right? I mean, I see it. It's a story that I tell.


MERAJI: Gene, the idea for this week's episode started here.


MARY LOUISE KELLY: The Cherokee Nation has named a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time ever.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A 200-year-old treaty with the U.S. promises the Cherokee people a representative in Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Cherokee Nation would be allowed to appoint one member to the House.

DEMBY: I remember this being all over the news a few months ago. The Cherokee Nation, as you just heard, was appointing its first ever delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

MERAJI: And it was a huge deal because this was a treaty - right? - Cherokees had for more than 180 years but didn't claim until this past fall.


CHUCK HOSKIN JR: Americans ought to know that just because it's been 180 years doesn't mean we've sat back for 180 years. It means we have been suppressed and ripped apart during most of that time.


DEMBY: All month long on CODE SWITCH, we are telling stories about who we are and who counts in 2020.

MERAJI: You can think of it as COVID counterprogramming, but we think now's the perfect time to get acquainted because we're all going to have to pick up the pieces together.

DEMBY: Yep. This week, our story is about the right to representation...

MERAJI: An almost 200-year-old family feud...

DEMBY: And what both those things have to do with the Trail of Tears.


MERAJI: Here's the principal chief of Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin, Jr.

HOSKIN JR: Now, as we gain our strength - now, as we hit our stride - now, as we look back at that document that ripped us apart, marched our people across the United States, now you better believe it's the supreme law of the land. And we're here to make sure the United States upholds its end of the bargain.

MERAJI: The document that Chief Hoskin told me ripped the Cherokee Nation apart is the same one that says Cherokees can have a delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. It's called the Treaty of New Echota.

DEMBY: That treaty led to the forced removal of Cherokees from their homes in the South to Oklahoma. And it also led to the death of one-fourth of all the Cherokee people.

MERAJI: And today, as the entire nation - the world, really - faces a new crisis, Chief Hoskin took time to remind his people that they've endured and survived so much already. He wrote an op-ed asking Cherokees to draw on that resiliency to get through these times. And to really know what he's getting at, it helps to understand the Treaty of New Echota because it's the linchpin to what Cherokees have had to endure over nearly two centuries.

STUDI: Twenty Cherokee traders signed the Treaty of New Echota going behind the backs of Chief John Ross, his second chief George Lowery (ph) - my fourth great-grand uncle - the Cherokee National Council and basically the whole tribe, selling all of our land to the U.S. government for $5 million. This treaty is why there was a Trail of Tears, why we lost everything we knew, why we buried a fourth of our people in hostile territory, why we live in Oklahoma in tribal housing, eat commodity cheese and have diabetes. This is why my father was ripped from his family and sent to a boarding school, why he never talks about our life before we got to Oklahoma and why I feel like a traitor - because we keep betraying each other and we're not supposed to talk about it.


MERAJI: DeLanna Studi's not only talking about it, that's her reading from her one-woman play. Her play unearths a decades-long grudge within Cherokee Nation between two families, the Rosses and the Ridges, over the Treaty of New Echota.

STUDI: I always joke that the Ridges and (laughter) the Rosses are like the Montagues and the Capulets. We've been fighting for so long that people don't really know why. But in Cherokee, we know why.

MERAJI: Mary Kathryn Nagle is also a playwright - one with a different vantage point.

NAGLE: When I grew up, I didn't tell anyone I was a Ridge. And when I first started telling people I was a Ridge, you know, I got a lot of shocked reactions. I mean, it was almost like people would look at me and say, wow - I thought you were a good person.


MERAJI: After the break, a new generation of Cherokee re-examine an old story they've been told about who they are.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. Part 1 - History.

OK. So the Treaty of New Echota grants Cherokees a delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, as you heard. But it's also the same treaty that led to the Trail of Tears.

MERAJI: It pit Cherokee against Cherokee - the few Cherokees who reluctantly consented to removal against the majority who were adamantly against it.

DEMBY: We're going to get to why that break happened and why it still has not healed all these years later.

MERAJI: But first, let's get our bearings with Julie Reed, a historian...

JULIE REED: At Penn State University - and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

MERAJI: Julie told me Cherokees did everything they could to stay on their land in the South - what's now Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama.

REED: The bulk of Cherokee people are unified against removal, basically through 1832.

DEMBY: What went down in 1832?

MERAJI: A Supreme Court decision.

REED: The Worcester v. Georgia decision comes down, which essentially maintains the rights of the Cherokee Nation and says that the Cherokee Nation can maintain itself on its lands and it has the right to govern itself.

MERAJI: This is a big moment for Cherokees. The Supreme Court rules that they have sovereignty - Cherokees can have their own government and live on their own land. Mary Kathryn Nagle, a playwright and attorney specializing in sovereign rights of tribal governments, calls this decision miraculous.

NAGLE: It's almost like I carry that moment with me still somehow in my DNA. Even Hollywood couldn't make up something more miraculous. You've got a president who just won a national campaign on a platform of obliterating your people, and somehow you find solace in the court.

DEMBY: OK. So if this Supreme Court victory was such a miracle, why did it lead to a fissure in Cherokee Nation?

MERAJI: Well, historian Julie Reed told me that has almost everything to do with who was president at the time - Andrew Jackson.

DEMBY: Ah, President Trump's favorite.

MERAJI: Mm hmm.

REED: He sends the signal that he has no intention of actually enforcing the Supreme Court decision. There's this famed quote of him saying...

MERAJI: Allegedly saying something like, Chief Justice John Marshall made his decision; let him enforce it. So basically, the only way this ruling counts is if I back it up - and I'm not going to.


MERAJI: This is all happening at a time when Native Americans are being forced off their lands by white settlers - white settlers who have the backing of local governments. Cherokees have fertile farmland in the South. They have land abundant with gold and land the Supreme Court says belongs to them.

DEMBY: And President Andrew Jackson and his administration, as you just heard, don't do a damn thing about it.

REED: So essentially, there's a lawlessness playing out on the ground that everyday people are experiencing - that Cherokees can be robbed, they can be raped, they can be assaulted.


REED: And they have no recourse if they choose to remain in the Southern states that they're residing. And so at that point, Cherokee people are under mounting pressure.


MERAJI: Three of the big names in Cherokee leadership fighting to stay on their land are the chief at the time, John Ross; Major Ridge, a well-respected Cherokee warrior and statesman and his son John Ridge. These men are wealthy landowners. They're well-educated. They have connections in Washington, D.C. And they did everything in their power to get the U.S. government to recognize them as, quote-unquote, "civilized." They were also slave owners.

DEMBY: Which is definitely an episode unto itself - it's just not this episode (laughter).

MERAJI: But the reason why I'm bringing all this up is because I'm trying to illustrate how the Rosses and the Ridges were positioned before they got that huge Supreme Court win.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: They were fairly well-positioned. But things begin to unravel when the Ridges start asking themselves a version of this question.

REED: Do we stay in the South - in an increasingly racialized South and become second-class citizens? Or do we move West and maintain our sovereign integrity?


MERAJI: Major Ridge and John Ridge made the really difficult decision to move West. And they did it behind the back of Cherokee Chief John Ross. The Ridges signed a removal treaty that President Andrew Jackson then signed into law.

DEMBY: That's the Treaty of New Echota.

MERAJI: And that moment of betrayal - that moment right there is still fraught within Cherokee Nation.

DEMBY: Because thousands of Cherokees died after that treaty was signed.

MERAJI: Cherokees died after they were forced from their homes and into prison camps to wait for removal, and then more died on the death march over hundreds of miles from the South to Tahlequah, Okla.

REED: Pregnancies are not happening that should have happened. Added to that, you've lost your elders. You've lost the people who can help put your history in perspective and help mediate and remind you of times that were hard before. And those are the people that were lost in removal - your babies and your elders.

DEMBY: So Shereen, John Ridge, Major Ridge - the two people who signed the treaty without the chief's approval - what happened to them?

MERAJI: They also died - but not on the Trail of Tears. They were shot and stabbed in Oklahoma by other Cherokees.

REED: It's not difficult to imagine Cherokee people needing something to happen to make amends for this catastrophe. And you can't act out toward the federal government. I mean - so in many ways, this kind of internal violence is not just about being angry at each other; it's about being angry writ large but not being able to express yourself to the people that you're really angry at. Right? (Laughter). So you turn on those you love.


MERAJI: Part 2 - The Feud.


NAGLE: I think my generation is maybe the first that has really, truly been able to have an actual conversation about healing some of those divides within Cherokee Nation.


MERAJI: That's Mary Kathryn Nagle again.

DEMBY: She's the attorney and playwright we heard from earlier.

MERAJI: That's right. She's the one that called Worcester v. Georgia a miraculous decision. And she's a direct descendant of Major Ridge and John Ridge, her great-great-grandmother watched as her father was shot and stabbed.

NAGLE: Forty times, when she was a little girl - so that grief, that anger, that resentment, that bitterness, that trauma doesn't go away overnight or even in a couple of generations. And I grew up with my grandmother saying things like, don't go back to Tahlequah; they'll kill you.


STUDI: My father is a full-blood Cherokee and an old speaker, which means his first language is Cherokee. I always was curious about the Trail of Tears. It was part of our history my family never talked about.

MERAJI: Delanna Studi's an actor and also a playwright whose ancestor was one of Chief John Ross' right hands. She told me, growing up, she wasn't told the entire Trail of Tears story.

STUDI: I didn't know who I was exactly. I didn't know where we started. You know, you grow up in Oklahoma and you hear all these stories about our creation. But none of our creation sites are in Oklahoma. They're in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, which is where the Cherokee Nation was before the removal.

DEMBY: When did DeLanna learn that there was more to the story?

MERAJI: She was in high school. She went to a small country school in Oklahoma.

STUDI: And we were very lucky that Coach Parkins (ph) was also our history teacher, and he was also Cherokee. He was the first person that opened my eyes that something had gone down. You know, we knew how we had gotten to Oklahoma. We knew about President Jackson. But we didn't really know about the treaty party and that ultimate betrayal and deceit. And so when I learned this, I was just - I was floored, honestly. It was one of those moments where I felt so betrayed.

MERAJI: DeLanna told me she felt betrayed and lost.

STUDI: And so to be able to go back and find out where we were and who we were before we got to Oklahoma, it was something that I felt I needed to do in order to understand myself and my father.

DEMBY: So she went back to the South?

MERAJI: DeLanna and her dad traveled for six weeks from where their family was originally from in what's now Murphy, N.C., along the Trail of Tears to where they ended up in Oklahoma. And they walked a lot of it.

DEMBY: But like you said, that's hundreds of miles.

MERAJI: Well, she wrote a one-woman show about the experience called "And So We Walked." And I had her read a part of it where they make friends with this guy named Sam (ph). Sam's Cherokee but not enrolled, and he's trying to learn more about who he is and where he's from. He's been studying in Tennessee, and he offers to give DeLanna and her dad a tour of Red Clay, Tenn., where Cherokee leaders were going back and forth with the U.S. government to try and stop removal. Here's DeLanna playing Sam.


STUDI: (As Sam) So the U.S. government secretly moved the negotiations from Red Clay to New Echota, and they didn't notify Chief Ross. Now, after Ross discovered this treachery, oh, he went home to home, traveling thousands of miles, collecting signatures for a petition denouncing the fraudulent treaty. Ross collected 15,565 signatures. The whole tribe rejected the Treaty of New Echota, but the U.S. government was determined to remove our people.

(As self) This is the first time my father's hearing the Cherokee version of history, not alternative facts, from a young person of Cherokee descent in an official capacity. When my father was Sam's age, he had just graduated from boarding school and enlisted in the Army, where there were only two boxes for ethnicity - white or black. The government rendered him invisible and told him he had no voice. Survival meant not talking about anything that happened. And watching my dad light up as Sam speaks, I understand now why this trip is not about academic research or petty tribal politics. It's not about my insecurities, either. It's about blood memory.


MERAJI: DeLanna told me that trip made her rethink what it meant to be Cherokee.

STUDI: To see my father go to North Carolina and sit with the elders and have a conversation in his first language, I got to see him as he truly is and in what's been denied him all these years. And I always joked that along the trail, my father found home and I lost home. My father was able to reconnect with everything that he had lost, and I was able to recognize what was lost.


NAGLE: It would start something like this - Mary Kathryn, it's very important for you to remember that you are Cherokee. Your grandfathers fought and gave their lives to save Cherokee Nation.

MERAJI: That's Mary Kathryn Nagle telling one of the many stories her grandma would share about their ancestors John Ridge and Major Ridge.

DEMBY: And remember - the Ridges were the people who supposedly sold out the Cherokees.

MERAJI: That's right.

NAGLE: And this may not have been her exact words 'cause I'm - you know, I'm an attorney now, so I put things in attorney speak. But even if these weren't her exact words, as a kid, I learned to respect and revere the Supreme Court because she would talk about how they took a case to the Supreme Court and they won. And then she would always talk about how Andrew Jackson refused to enforce it and that's why the Trail of Tears happened.

DEMBY: So Mary Kathryn Nagle had been hearing a very different version of this story from a young age - that her grandfathers, the Ridges, were the ones who saved her people, not the ones who sold them out.

MERAJI: Yeah, she heard stories about how they were heroes, not traitors, and how the real villain was President Andrew Jackson. Growing up, her family would take road trips to Georgia and Tennessee, often making a pit stop at his grave.

NAGLE: Yeah. I think everyone in my family has (laughter) spit or done some other gesture towards that grave except me - you know, maybe just because I have chosen to write a play that says who he is instead of that sort of a gesture. And I don't judge anyone who does that, and I know plenty of Cherokees who have.

DEMBY: Hold up. Hold up. Hold up. She also wrote a play about the Trail of Tears?

MERAJI: She also wrote a play, but it's more focused on the Worcester v. Georgia decision. It's called "Sovereignty." And it's about a Ridge descendant who goes back to Oklahoma and ends up working for a Ross descendant.

DEMBY: OK. So both of these women are playwrights. They're both writing about Cherokee identity and Cherokee history. I'm going to guess that they probably know each other.

MERAJI: They do, actually...


MERAJI: ...Through their theater work. And a few years ago, Mary Kathryn asked DeLanna to be in one of her plays.


MERAJI: Here's DeLanna

STUDI: She apologized to me for being a Ridge descendant. She was very upfront that this is who I am and I can understand if you don't work with me and I'm sorry. And I think that first impression of her made me understand that we can't keep holding grudges.


NAGLE: A lot of Ridge descendants would say - and my grandma would certainly say - never apologize; you know, we didn't do anything wrong. But - right? - at the end of the day, the reality is is the treaty was signed and the Trail of Tears happened. And I think there are a lot of people to blame for that, but my grandfather signed that treaty. And for the descendants of the folks who walked that trail, that trauma is immeasurable. So when I apologize, it's in recognition of what happened.

STUDI: I'm glad I didn't have to make that decision. It's easy for me to judge it, but I'm very grateful that I wasn't in that place to make that decision 'cause I don't know what I would've done. You know, that was our land, but it's also our people. And we always have to think about - at what cost?

NAGLE: At the end of the day, whether or not you agree with what the Ridges did - let's just put that aside for a second focus on the fact that we have a document that was signed by the president, ratified by the Senate. Again, I know Chief Ross tried to fight it, but it was ratified in the Senate. And that means it's the supreme law of the land. And in that treaty, we're guaranteed things like a delegate in Congress. My grandfathers negotiated that provision. They were visionary and saw a day when Cherokee Nation would be sending a delegate to Congress.

STUDI: It's about time. It's about time. We need this.


DEMBY: The principal chief of Cherokee Nation is asking the U.S. government to make good on that 185-year-old promise of a congressional delegate.

MERAJI: And we're going to meet the woman he appointed to do the job after this quick break.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. Stay with us.


DEMBY: Part 3 - The Treaty Right.


MERAJI: When Chuck Hoskin Jr. took his oath of office this past August as the 18th elected principal chief of Cherokee Nation...

TEEHEE: One of the very first actions that he wanted to take was to appoint a delegate to the House and then to rely on me as government relations director to move that forward.

MERAJI: That's Kimberly Teehee. She's the executive director of government relations for Cherokee Nation.

TEEHEE: And so I'm jotting notes down and such and thinking about all that he's saying and what it would take to get this accomplished.


TEEHEE: And then he says, and I want to appoint you to be the delegate.

DEMBY: So the person (laughter) who's supposed to be working all this out with Congress is also being asked to be the delegate.

MERAJI: Did you say, hold on, Chief - I have to think this over a little bit? Or...


MERAJI: ...Were you - OK.

DEMBY: She was like nah, I got this. I got you.

MERAJI: That was, like, the fastest answer I've ever gotten to a question. She is very qualified, Gene. She was a staffer on the first desk the Democrats created to reach out to Native Americans. She was the first senior adviser to the Congressional Native American Caucus. She was a senior policy adviser on Native issues for President Obama.

DEMBY: Wow. OK. So Kim has all the bona fides - all of them.

MERAJI: She does. She really does. But she told me a high school guidance counselor in Oklahoma told her to skip college because, quote, "Indians drop out."

TEEHEE: Yikes.

MERAJI: She obviously didn't take that advice. Her parents are really proud of everything she's accomplished.

TEEHEE: We don't really know what she does, but we're proud of her (laughter). You know, it's hard to explain policy work to people who just live their lives and don't recognize that their life is riddled with federal policy. Right? I mean, I see it. It's a story that I tell.

My family history is riddled with federal policy, congressional actions, from removal to the land allotment that my dad grew up on as part of the federal government's way of breaking up communal landholdings of tribes. And that was part of a policy. And then boarding school that my mom - where my mom and dad went to school, that's part of a policy to assimilate, acculturate, to discourage the speaking of the native language. Both my parents are Cherokee first-language speakers, and the boarding school experience is federal policy, too.

DEMBY: Since we're on the topic of federal policy, Kim is set to be a member of the House. So I mean, did she tell you what you want to do once she gets there?

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. She was prepared. She wants to make sure the federal government meets its obligations to Cherokee Nation. And a lot of that involves federal funding that has been set aside and negotiated through treaties and various agreements. And this money is really important in times of crisis like the one we're in right now. Appropriations is the dull policy term for this, but Chief Hoskin told me it's anything but dull.

HOSKIN JR: Cherokee people deserve a tribal government that believes that is a high priority and that we ought to make efforts to reach the goal of accountability on the part of the federal government.

MERAJI: To be clear, Gene, Kim Teehee will not have a vote in Congress.

DEMBY: OK. I was just about to ask you this. OK. So she doesn't have a vote, so she's like the nonvoting Congress members from American Samoa and Guam and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and D.C., where I live.


DEMBY: Yeah. So it seems like lots of places with brown people with representatives in Congress who cannot vote - that's just very curious.

MERAJI: Mm hmm - except all those delegates of other places full of brown people, they're elected. And Kim Teehee, she's been appointed, which is something Chief Hoskin told me worried House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

HOSKIN JR: She made the point that, look - all of our members are elected. Now, the treaty is, as I explained to Madam Speaker, is an agreement between two sovereigns. We, as a sovereign, ought to be able to choose the manner and method in which we seat our delegate. It's a unique seat. It's not even completely comparable with other delegates to Congress who are elected by individual voters.


MERAJI: So to bring this full circle to the theme of all our stories this month - who we are and who counts in 2020 - I just want to stop and think about what Chief Hoskin is saying here. He's saying Cherokee Nation is just that - a nation. It has its own government, its own citizens, and it negotiated for representation in Congress almost 200 years ago so somebody would make sure those citizens counted.

DEMBY: Shereen, they've been waiting all this time, right? So when do they finally hope to have Kim seated in Congress?

MERAJI: Well, nobody wanted to give me a timeline.

DEMBY: Mm hmm, right.

MERAJI: But they were hoping by around this time next year, after the dust settles from the election, they would have her seated. But now we have, you know, the coronavirus pandemic, too.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: So you know, we shall see. But Kim Teehee told me it would be a historic move for the United States to honor this agreement it made with Cherokees in the Treaty of New Echota.

TEEHEE: We had so many citizens perish and a forced march from the east to the west. And to have the United States step up and to fulfill its end of that agreement would be a small measure of justice.


MERAJI: And that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. And please, wash your hands.

DEMBY: And after you wash your hands, you can follow Shereen @radiomirage on Twitter and me @geedee215. We want to hear from you. Our email is Subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. You should absolutely do that.


DEMBY: Just go to

MERAJI: The artwork for this episode is by Weshoyot Alvitre. And nearly all the music you heard throughout the episode was provided by Laura Ortman. You can check out Weshoyot on Instagram or on her website. Search for Weshoyot - W-E-S-H-O-Y-O-T. You can hear and follow Laura's work on Bandcamp. Her last name is spelled O-R-T-M-A-N, and her music has been giving us life this week.


DEMBY: Thanks to Graham Lee Brewer for his notes and feedback on this episode. Also, a big thank you to Rebecca Nagle, Raymond Orr (ph), Ezra Rosser, Simon Moya-Smith and Stacy Leeds for background.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Jess Kung with help from Kumari Devarajan, you - Shereen - Leah Donnella and our interns Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario. It was edited by Leah and Steve Drummond. And of course, we have to shout out the rest of our CODE SWITCH family - Karen Grigsby Bates, Natalie Escobar and LA Johnson. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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