Trail of Tears

Ruth Smith set out to enshrine a Cherokee battleground and started a war of her own

A gray granite marker put up by the Texas Historical Society stands in a weed-choked field a dozen miles west of Tyler. It is the only reminder of what happened here.

If Ruth Smith had her way, the world would know about the betrayal and murder of the legendary Cherokee Chief John Bowles. On July 16, 1839, Texas troops slaughtered Bowles and many of his followers as they tried in vain to defend the land that first Mexican, then Texan, leaders had promised them.

This tragic and usually overlooked event in Texas history led to a second Trail of Tears, the first being the expulsion of Cherokees from North Carolina that resulted in a death march to Oklahoma. With the defeat of Bowles and his followers in East Texas, the remaining Texas Cherokees, as well as other bands of Native Americans, were forced to flee the state, where they had lived peacefully for 20 years.

For the past several summers, Smith, who founded the Dallas-based American Indian Heritage Center of Texas (AIHC), has led center members and supporters on a pilgrimage to the battleground on the July 16 anniversary of Bowles' death to honor the spirit and memory of the famous Cherokee chief and his people.

In a ritual of remembrance, Smith and her entourage would form a circle around the marker on this sacred plot of prairie land on the banks of the Neches River. They would burn cedar to help release the spirits of those who fell there. An invited guest--a tribal elder, perhaps--would bless the land upon which the Cherokees once stood. Then, one by one, each man and woman would bear witness, sharing with their brethren what the land meant to them, even though few had more than a smattering of Indian blood. But this year on the anniversary, no one visited the marker to burn cedar; no one prayed for the spirits in the melodic language of the Cherokee people. Instead, Ruth Smith held the ceremony in Dallas' Old City Park, fearful that protesters would have opposed her at the Bowles site.

Though there is no evidence that anyone planned to disrupt the ceremony--Smith's critics say that paranoia is one of her many shortfalls--Ruth Smith has made her share of adversaries. In her attempt to preserve the history of Chief Bowles' betrayal by the white man, Ruth Smith, her foes say, has betrayed them.

Three years ago, Ruth Smith decided the best way to preserve the Bowles site was to buy and enshrine it. To that end, the AIHC launched Renew the Dream, a campaign to purchase the 66-acre parcel from the owners, an elderly Dallas couple, for $175,000.

From the outset, Smith envisioned building an elaborate "heritage center" on the site, with a museum and library, an education center, arts and crafts barn, and a re-creation of an Indian village complete with grazing buffalo. In this grandiose scheme, Smith hoped to unite Native Americans with their past--and with each other.

"This is a sacred site, and we want to preserve it for now and for future generations," Smith told Texas Highways magazine in an October 1995 interview. "We need a place where we can work together more and communicate more."

Ironically, the opposite has occurred. In the past three years, Ruth Smith's dream of preserving the sacred land as a place of unity and peace has disintegrated into discord and acrimony. The historic battleground where Chief Bowles died has become a battleground once again.

Over the years, Smith angered and alienated many of her staunchest supporters and hardest-working volunteers by evading their questions about the project's finances--among other things, they claim she is offering to pay five times what the property is worth--rejecting any effort to involve professional fund raisers and well-connected benefactors and, perhaps most significantly, ignoring their concerns about the propriety of building on a sacred burial ground.

When a group of about a dozen disgruntled members--residents of towns from Dallas to Tyler--pressed Smith for answers, they say she responded belligerently. They also claim Smith got the property owner to evict a full-blooded Cherokee man, his wife, and six children from a house on the Bowles site when the man dared question her operation.

This group also had other concerns, particularly about what they saw as Smith's lack of cultural sensitivity and knowledge. They claim she was crassly peddling Indian spiritualism by promising to give donors Indian names and medicine bags as an inducement to contribute. They say she hurt the center's credibility by associating with a Dallas man who claims to be the emperor of the Cherokee people, but whom Cherokee Nation leaders dismiss as "a joke."

But most offensive of all, say her detractors, is that Ruth Smith has told people that she believes she is the reincarnation of Chief Bowles. Such a statement, they say, is a reflection of her ego and her ignorance. Native Americans in general, and Cherokees in particular, they say, do not hold reincarnation as part of their traditional belief system.

"She has taken more than our money," says Darla Hair, a former supporter of Smith's project whose family lived on the Bowles site for a year until they were evicted last fall. "She took our trust, and the dignity away from the site."

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