A Trail of Tears and Polluted Waters for the Cherokee


By Michael Brunger:

During the unforgiving winter of 1838-1839, over 15,000 Cherokee Indians were forced out of their homes in the Smokey Mountains into areas of Oklahoma designated by the U.S. government (U.S. Forest Service, 2017). At the end of the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee reached their destination in Eastern Oklahoma and said, “this will do” or “Tahlequah” as this was a beautiful area along the Illinois river that would provide a source of water and food for the tribe’s survival. Over a span of less than 100 years, the pollution contaminated the Illinois River. The polluted waters of the Illinois river had a damaging effect on the Cherokee’s homeland, culture, safety, and way of life (Illinois State Museum, 2016).

Poor treatment of the Illinois River at the hands of White America, capitalists, and farmers dates back to the late 1800s. There have been many sources of pollution. Alterations to the river by deepening sections, resulting in flow reversal, introduced Chicago based sewage into the Illinois river (Illinois State Museum, 2016). Increased human population along the river in numbers above and beyond 7 million resulted in the development of farmlands utilizing fertilizer that polluted the river from the runoff that included water contaminating nitrates (Mercer, 2016). Lead was introduced into the food chain from lead shot being used for waterfowl hunting along the river that landed in the river bed and was eaten by the wildlife (Illinois State Museum, 2016). However, the most dangerous and widespread of the pollutants found in the Illinois River is the phosphorous created from the litter produced by large-scale poultry operations in Arkansas. Phosphorous encourages algae growth that degrades the water quality and reduces the oxygen that fish and other life forms need for survival (Krehbiel, 2015).

Along with the Cherokee, there were more than 100,000 other Native Americans pushed off their homeland east of the Mississippi into Oklahoma, forced to rely on the Illinois River as a main source of water and wildlife, who dealt with similar experiences. These tribes include Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, Quapaw, Osage, and Miami Indians. Miami dealt with vast amounts of pollution from lead, cadmium, and zinc from surrounding mining operations from about 1900 to the 1960’s that contaminated area water sources including Miami’s Tar Creek. The mines closed leaving 500 million tons of waste severely impacting water quality and contributed to elevated blood lead concentration in as high as 43% of the children in this community (Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, 2015). Tar Creek was added to the National Priorities (Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, 2015) list in 1983 beginning their cleanup history (Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, 2015).

Through legislation, legal action, and increased awareness water quality along the Illinois River has slowly gotten better enhancing the community’s experiences. In the 1920’s water treatment programs were implemented to reduce pollution. In 1930, the Supreme Court reduced the amount of water that could be diverted to the Illinois River from Lake Michigan. One year later, Peoria became the first city on the Illinois River to have a water sewage treatment plant. The Clean Water Act in 1972 led to improvements in water quality (Illinois State Museum, 2016). Recently and most important to the Cherokee Nation, the State of Oklahoma has fought an ongoing legal battle against Arkansas to increase controls on chicken waste that the poultry industry is using for fertilizer (Robinson, 2008). This legal action has changed this community’s experience as the poultry industry has started hauling waste away instead of using it as fertilizer resulting in lowering phosphorous levels in the water (Krehbiel, 2015).

The Cherokee Nation is a fierce protector of our natural resources and will not simply allow a river, one of our most precious resources, to be polluted. Although they must fight continued struggles against White America they continue to gain ground in protecting their rights to live safely on their homeland and for the rights of their future generations and locals, like myself, enabling us to enjoy a beautiful environment free of pollution for years to come. Through their fight, the Cherokee Nation will always have the Illinois River to enjoy as a means of survival as well as an excellent source for recreational fun!



Illinois State Museum. (2016). Illinois River Timeline, 1673 to the Present [PDF document].

Retrieved from

http://museum.state state.il.us/exhibits/changes/pdfs/Illinois_river_timeline.pdf

Krehbiel, Randy. “The Illinois River is Cleaner, but the Hard Work has Just Begun.” Tulsa

World, 20 October, 2015.

Mercer, David. “Pollution of the Illinois River in Decline.” Pekin Daily Times, 16 May, 2016.  Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. Last update March 16, 2017



(Accessed April 1, 2017).

Robinson, Kurt. “Poultry Legal Motion is Just Another Ploy.” News OK, 8 November, 2008. U.S. Forest Service. 2017.


(Accessed April 1, 2017).

Vargo, Samuel. 2017. “A’ho, Cherokee Nation and Way to Go!”



(Accessed April 1, 2017).

About the author: Brian King

Brian D. King lives in Oklahoma and is a writer and blogger who studies and teaches English. He earned his bachelor's degree in Political Science from Brigham Young University, and he is currently working on his graduate degree in English in Oklahoma.

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