The Trail of Tears Cherokee Legacy

2006 documentary, Rich-Heape Films, Dallas, Texas, DVD, 1 disc, 115 minutes, $34.95.

The forced removal in 1838 of Cherokees from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) has fittingly been called “The Trail of Tears.” It’s hard not to make the story a tear-jerker, but this documentary doesn’t take the Hollywood approach of manipulating the viewers until they become moist-eyed. By concentrating on the Indian perspective and not featuring an Anglo observer witnessing this historical blemish, the tears flow more naturally. Dallas-based filmmakers Chip Richie and Steven Heape (himself a Cherokee citizen) allow the Cherokee oral tradition to be heard and include spoken Cherokee language segments. The film is presented by the acclaimed Indian actor Wes Studi, who speaks his native Cherokee at various times during the film (with English subtitles); and narrated expertly by James Earl Jones, whose family has Cherokee roots.

The 800-mile journey caused the death of thousands of Cherokees, but further death and destruction occurred in Indian Territory when the newcomers clashed with the “Old Settlers,” the Cherokees who had gone there earlier. The struggle to survive and the tears, as the documentary dramatically shows, did not end at trail’s end. On-camera interviews are conducted with university historians, and such celebrities as actor James Garner, singer Crystal Gayle and former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder read diary and journal excerpts. Still, it doesn’t quite feel like a Ken Burns documentary. Although The Trail of Tears Cherokee Legacy is endorsed by both the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it lacked a broadcast partner at this writing. Rich-Heape Films, a native American–owned company, has also recently come out with Black Indians: An American Story (60 minutes, $24.95). The company’s Web site is


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here