Adding my tears at Cherokee: “Unto These Hills”

– The Trail of Tears

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth. – Psalm 121:1-2

– in Bryson City

This time last week I found myself genuinely surprised at my emotional response when Rebekah and I attended the Unto These Hills historical drama at the Mountainside Theater in Cherokee.

We planned a date night, stopping in Bryson City on the way for dinner and then making our way to the imposing amphitheater to experience the story in the best possible setting – outside and under the stars.

I already knew the essential outline of the story.

– Mountainside Theater, Cherokee

However – from the way I was first taught the history of European settlement in the Americas, to the racist “Cowboys and Indians” stories I was raised on, to the barely muted bigotry that still exists today – there is a lot of noise and falsehood and prejudice still obscuring a clear-eyed view of the systematic cultural genocide that almost eradicated an entire people and their unique history.

Unto These Hills did a great job of weaving all these truths into a compelling narrative that spanned several centuries, while putting a clear spotlight on the years leading up to the tragic Trail of Tears. The characters were real and believable, human beings living in caring families, people of faith who loved one another and the land they had always known.

It is a story that – sadly – is still repeated in various forms every time people with power suppress the essential human rights of those without power, in order to take what they want at the expense of the powerless.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice. – Proverbs 31:8-9

What disturbs me the most (and I am not limiting this conversation to the shameful way Native American people have been – and are – treated) is when those in power use religion – and especially Christianity – to manipulate their victims and justify their behavior.

– excellent performance by all involved

This is why I was glad to see the Unto These Hills drama make a clear distinction between clergy who loved them and gave up everything to travel with them on the Trail of Tears (primarily Presbyterian and Methodist pastors), and those who came in to try and sell the government’s manipulative lies and duplicity.

The imposition and perpetuation of injustice at the hands of so-called Christian leaders is so completely at odds with the message of Jesus it is hard to comprehend. Yet oppression and exclusion are tactics still widely practiced under the banner of religion even today.

Still, God speaks clearly, saying, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, to embrace faithful love (to love mercy), and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

– Rebekah and Derek Maul

So, back to where we started. At one point, as the people were being forced to leave their ancestral homelands and die alongside the road to Oklahoma, one of the characters turned his eyes toward the mountains and quoted Psalm 121, acknowledging that – even in the darkness of betrayal and cultural genocide – their help still comes from the Lord.

And I couldn’t help myself – I cried too. – DEREK


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