This book is a wonderful look at the Trail of Tears! It’s told in little vignettes from multiple points of view, and it follows one group of Cherokee from the moment the soldiers show up at their small village to remove them. We hear most often from Maritole, but we also get little snippets from some of the other community members, family members, their hired guide, religious leaders, elders, and even occasionally from the soldiers and from Chief John Ross and other leaders of the Cherokee Nation who fought the removal in Washington, D.C.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. This is our last book for North Carolina. At the time when I read it, it was not available as an e-book.

Because it covers the group’s entire journey, it spans several states, from their village in western North Carolina to their final arrival in Oklahoma (or Indian Territory). And since North Carolina is the first state–and this particular tale begins in the western part of the state–not much of the story takes place in North Carolina. Usually, I would disqualify a book for this reading challenge based on this. But it’s such an important piece of history that I really wanted to include it–especially since I wasn’t really able to find other books that told the story of the Native Americans in the state.

I mentioned, in my review of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, that the opening pieces of Pushing the Bear seemed as though they could have been set in the same small Cherokee community as the one that Cold Mountain ends in. However, the community in Cold Mountain is abandoned. In Pushing the Bear, we follow Maritole as she and the others are herded out of their community on a moment’s notice. They aren’t allowed to take anything with them–not even food and clothing, let alone crop seeds or tools or a musket. Then, when she and some of the other women are allowed to briefly return to collect some of these items, she walks into her own home to find a family of white folk who have already taken possession! They chase her out, refusing to let her take her own family heirlooms, clothing, or, of course, the musket. All she escapes with is her family’s cook pot, half full of the white family’s dinner.

I was struck by the cruelty of making these people leave their homes totally unprepared for such a lengthy journey–900 miles, much of it on foot–in the fall and winter. I was reminded of course, of the story of the Navajo Long Walk, which we discussed in several of our New Mexico books. That journey was also a forced march of hundreds of miles with little warning or preparation. But Pushing the Bear also reminded me of the story behind Judith Miller’s First Dawn–the story of Nicodemus, Kansas. Those pioneer settlers were also, many of them, totally unprepared for the journey or for their life once they arrived. Those pioneers, also racial minorities, were willing settlers, but were lured on their journey and misled about the conditions of their destination. What surprised and appalled me about Pushing the Bear, though, was the idea of white folks commandeering their homes and land so immediately after they were forced out. It speaks to pure greed as the true motivation for the pushing-out of the Cherokee and other native tribes of the Southeastern United States, despite all the protestations by white folk to the contrary.

As I noted before, the village in Cold Mountain was completely abandoned. Of course, that was the type of setting that was needed for that storyline–an abandoned village where characters could shelter and recover. And the characters do reminisce about the Cherokee who lived there. They muse about their forced removal, and even mention Cherokee who hid in the mountains to avoid removal. But the stark greed of Maritole’s home being so quickly occupied by a white family… it’s a much uglier scene. In Cold Mountain, the local white folks don’t bear any of the blame for the removal, but in Pushing the Bear they are, at the very least, complicit.

However Glancy doesn’t put 100% of the responsibility on the white man. Several of her Cherokee characters reflect that they had warning that they would have to leave their homes and move to Indian Territory. Many of them seem to have been aware of the treaty that required their removal, and of the general timeline by which they were supposed to have left. She also makes clear that they had reasons to be displeased with the agreement–there were rumors of Cherokee who had tried to go earlier and were unable to find buyers for their farms–and, of course, the US government had a history of breaking its word to the Indians.

“Why didn’t we go earlier when we had a chance?” Mrs. Young Turkey asked, chewing on her rations. “We could have sold our cabins and started again in Indian Territory.” “You heard rumors of the men who returned from the West. Some of them didn’t get paid for their land. It was just another empty agreement.” … “But we could have taken what we had,” Mrs. Young Turkey insisted, chewing her ration of jerky. “We could have sold our cabins and started again in Indian Territory.” “If they hadn’t burned our cabins,” Kee-un-e-ca cried.

Diane Glancy in Pushing the Bear

Pushing the Bear gives us a much broader view of their experience and their reactions to the removal–from the separation of families, to the stresses something like this puts on relationships, to the physical and emotional hardships endured, to anger at Chief John Ross for his inability to stop the removal and even at his (and other leaders) not being present to experience it with them, to the obvious anger at the white man for taking their land in the first place, to grief at leaving their homes and history behind.

There is also the paradox of how their reactions to the removal are seen by the white man:

The council determined again we would endure our hardships and not fight the removal any longer. They determined we would keep our constitution and laws both on the trail and in the new territory where the soldiers were leading us. Otherwise we’d become the uncivilized men they called us. Otherwise we’d become like them.

Diane Glancy in Pushing the Bear

If they fight, then the white man is “justified” in killing the “savages” in revenge, but if they don’t fight, they are seen as “weak.” So men like Chief John Ross tried to fight in the white man’s way, in the halls of government in Washington, DC, but they seldom received much respect there either.

Another incredible aspect of the Trail of Tears was the sheer numbers of people involved. Maritole’s group very soon becomes part of the larger migration, and she says that as they scaled the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee, she turned back to see the long line of Cherokee stretched out behind them. “Ten miles long,” her father said. Ten miles long?! The epigraph says ten to thirteen thousand Cherokee walked that 900 mile-long trail. It’s mind boggling.

And the physical hardships… many of the youngest and oldest died. When I heard the title–Pushing the Bear–my assumption was that the bear was the Cherokee being pushed off their land. But it’s actually a very different metaphor.

Sometimes I didn’t know if it was really happening or not. Maybe it was a ghost dream. But I knew we pushed against the bear that resisted us. It stood before us each step we took on the trail. We were marching west toward darkness, toward death. … I felt there was a dark presence over us. The bear we pushed would not move away. Each day I felt his ragged fur. Sometimes I could smell his breath.

Diane Glancy in Pushing the Bear

As Maritole’s story progresses, at times the bear is a symbol not just of the trail itself, but of her impending madness from the impossibilities of the trail–in fact a number of the characters have mental breakdowns, and begin hooting like owls or in other ways retreat into their own minds to escape their horrific situation.

There were other issues that aren’t obvious to us today, such as the issue of supplies. Glancy includes a letter from Reverend Bushyhead detailing the problem–they are not able to purchase supplies often enough. They have a very large number of people, which means they need large amounts of goods, and they have a finite number of wagons to transport it. And they need daily fodder for the animals pulling those wagons. There is also the issue of wagons needing to be used for people who are sick, and the challenge of burying those who die along the way–that takes time, and it’s winter, so the ground is frozen.

There are also cultural issues–the Cherokee belief system prevents them from wearing clothing worn by the dead, but they left with only the clothes on their backs, heading into the mountains in winter, so they desperately need the extra clothing. Maritole is forced to wear some of that clothing by one of the white soldiers–and is shunned, in part because of that.

A hand covered my mouth. It was the soldier. “What do you want?” Tanner asked. He had clothes for us, he said, because we wrapped the boys in our blankets. I wouldn’t take them. No! I fought against him in the dark. He had to hold me down. … My father had told me it was wrong to bury the dead without their clothes. But the soldier took my foot to pull up some trousers. I jerked my foot up and down so he couldn’t get ahold of it. … For once, the shivering stopped and I lay quietly against him.

Diane Glancy in Pushing the Bear

The deterioration of Maritole’s relationship with her husband, Knobowtee, is something that I feel is often overlooked in these kinds of historical records. A disruption this immense puts an enormous amount of stress on a relationship. I think we tend to assume that hardship brings people together, but it often pulls people apart as well, and Glancy does a very good job of showing this. It’s also shown in the choice by Quaty’s white husband to stay on their farm while she walked the Trail.

When I was looking at Ties That Bind by Tiya Miles, I read in the introduction that Miles encountered a lot of resistance to telling her story. She found that many Cherokee didn’t want to admit that in their past their people had owned black slaves. Glancy mentions this fact several times, though it isn’t a large part of this story.

How can the soldiers drive us from our land? Maybe it was because we worshiped the earth instead of God, Reverend Mackenzie preached. Maybe it was because some of us had black slaves, Reverend Bushyhead said. Maybe it was because of gold and our cornfields, the men said.

Diane Glancy in Pushing the Bear

Or, in a piece told in Lacey Woodard’s voice:

Who were these white men who only saw things in their own way? Didn’t they know the land was not bought and sold? Would they be arguing over the sun next? The stars? Didn’t they know they belonged with the earth and animals to the Great Spirit? But didn’t even the Cherokee own people? Some of the prosperous farmers had bought the black man to help with the work of farming.

Diane Glancy in Pushing the Bear

Overall, this is an important part of North Carolina (and American) history, and a good choice for our reading challenge for North Carolina, despite not being set in North Carolina for long. I was disappointed that I was unable to find more options for books that told the Native American and black experiences in North Carolina, but I’m glad I read this one. This was our last book for North Carolina. We’ll be moving on to Texas soon.

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Books, Midwest (Eastern), Midwest (Western), South (Atlantic), South (Central)


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