Story of the
Cherokee performance artist, writer and activist DeLanna Studi dreamed of one day following the footsteps her ancestors were forced to travel along The Trail of Tears; and then finding a way to share their tragic yet triumphant legacy with audiences around the country. Now Studi has realized that dream, with key support from The Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and other cultural partners.
In the summer of 2015, Studi embarked on a six-week journey to retrace the path her great-great-grandparents took during the forced relocation of more than 17,000 Cherokee from their homelands in the 1830s. As many as 6,000 perished along the way.
Accompanied by a documentarian and her father Thomas, a full-blooded Cherokee who speaks the language, Studi began the modern-day journey at her ancestral homestead in Murphy, North Carolina, which she discovered while doing research for the creative project a year earlier. Working in partnership with dozens of community organizations, they hosted workshops and storytelling circles at significant sites along the trail.
Working alongside the Kenan Institute's Executive Director Corey Madden, Studi began shaping the stories she documented into an original dramatic work, titled AND SO WE WALKED: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears.
“We sat on the ground where they walked,” Studi says of the experience. “And in some cases, we walked on the ground where they died. I thought I would need Dad to lift me up. But just by having my father there, I was a lot stronger than I would have been.”
"The feeling was mutual," says Thomas Studie, a retired machinist. “She kept me going. It was just heartbreaking to see where they went, coming down this way. You could still see the wagon tracks.”
Madden, an award-winning writer and director with 25 years of experience in new play development, is directing Studi’s performance.
“I found myself standing next to someone who is a living example of a decision that wasn’t under their control,” recalls Madden, who joined Studi and her team on parts of the trail. “DeLanna’s ancestors were imprisoned, held all winter, not fed, then forced to walk to Oklahoma. It’s a piece of art making, but it also is a piece of civic engagement.”
Growing up, far from home Studi grew up in rural Oklahoma, where she did projects about the Trail of Tears as a child. “For me, our lives began in Oklahoma,” she says. “But I was always fascinated with knowing where we came from before the trail...”