Teaching Activities (Free)

The Cherokee/Seminole Removal Role Play

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. What led up to the Trail of Tears? In this lesson, students learn about the decision to remove the Cherokee and Seminole people from their lands.
Time Periods: 19th Century, Early 19th Century: 1800 - 1849
Themes: Democracy & Citizenship, Native American, Racism & Racial Identity
Trail of Tears 1839

Trail of Tears 1839. Painting: “Forced Move” by Max Standley courtesy R. Michelson Galleries.

In her book A Century of Dishonor, published in 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson wrote, “There will come a time in the remote future when, to the student of American history [the Cherokee removal] will seem well-nigh incredible.”

The events leading up to the infamous Trail of Tears, when U.S. soldiers marched Cherokee Indians at bayonet-point almost a thousand miles from Georgia to Oklahoma, offer a window into the nature of U.S. expansion—in the early 19th century, but also throughout this country’s history.

The story of the Cherokees’ uprooting may seem “well-nigh incredible” today, but it shares important characteristics with much of U.S. foreign policy: economic interests paramount, race as a key factor, legality flaunted, the use of violence to enforce U.S. will, a language of justification thick with democratic and humanitarian platitudes. The U.S. war with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, Vietnam, support of the Contras in Nicaragua, the Gulf War, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq come readily to mind. These are my conclusions; they needn’t be my students’. Our task as teachers is not to tell young people what to think but to equip them to search for patterns throughout history, patterns that continue into our own time.

The Cherokees were not the only indigenous people affected by the Indian Removal law and the decade of dispossession that followed.

The Seminoles, living in Florida, were another group targeted for resettlement. For years, they had lived side by side with people of African ancestry, most of whom were escaped slaves or descendants of escaped slaves. Indeed, the Seminoles and Africans living with each other were not two distinct peoples. Their inclusion in this role play allows students to explore further causes for Indian removal, to see ways in which slavery was an important consideration motivating the U.S. government’s hoped-for final solution to the supposed Indian problem.

Originally published by Teaching for Change in Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Multicultural, Anti-Racist Education and Staff Development.


8 comments on “The Cherokee/Seminole Removal Role Play

  1. danielp on

    How about something on the Nez Perce Trail ‘of tears’? It’s also known as the Nez Perce War. You all know about Chief Joseph and his famous speech, “I will fight no more forever.” Well that’s where it comes from.

  2. Charles Duthu on

    This lesson enabled my students to put themselves in the shoes of the oppressed (Cherokees and Seminoles) and to demonstrate and defend their position of maintaining their homeland despite broken government treaties. It pitted minority groups against government bigwigs in a courtroom setting. It tested a biased, “democratic” process we still face today. The results were awesome! Never, and I mean NEVER before have I witnessed such engagement in students during my 18 years in the classroom. The visiting principal and our own principal each spoke to the class. They were in awe! They invited us to their school to demonstrate the ability of complete student interaction. It was a very proud day for all. —Charles Duthu, middle school social studies teacher, Long Island City, NY

  3. Cori Longstreet on

    I have used the Role play of the Indian Removal Act…it is so powerful! 100 times better than History Alive which barely addresses the affects on Native Americans. Students went deep into comparing our watered down textbooks to the dynamic social justice perspective of the Zinn curriculum. They are very critical thinkers – they wondered why our textbook doesn’t go in depth on the affects this had on Native Americans, or how the decisions of rich white men have affected the development of our country. —Cori Longstreet, interdisciplinary (social studies, language arts, science) middle school teacher, Portland, OR

  4. Venessa Urioste on

    With the Indian Removal Act I guided the students through understanding their role, read primary sources, then students created questions, using evidence from the role cards and primary sources, in order to ask the other groups. We then held a mock congressional hearing in which Jackson and his administration were able to ask and answer questions in regards to the Indian Removal Act. All students got into character really well, gave their reasoning on why Natives should be moved or why they should stay. This lesson really allowed students to see the different perspectives concerning this event. They were also able to justify their decisions with evidence. —Venessa Urioste, high school social studies teacher, Albuquerque, NM

  5. Douglas Tyson on

    Students dove into the work with a fervency, really taking the issues to heart. —Douglas Tyson, middle school social studies teacher, Ridley Park, PA

  6. Pate Thomas on

    I have used this lesson for two years now and it has really made the event come to life and has students wanting to learn more. Many of my students begin to ask if we can do more “things like this” after this lesson. The lesson engages students in real life events that can be tied to the present which is difficult but important as a U.S. history teacher. The discourse after the simulation also provides students with a better understanding of other topics in history such as the civil rights movement and civil war. After teaching this lesson I implemented more Zinn Education Project activities which has really helped my students understand complex ideas and has engaged them more in the study of American history.” —Pate Thomas, high school social studies teacher, Las Vegas, NV

  7. Eric Kipling on

    I modified the trial into a larger unit of historical thinking. Students were given the role of investigative journalists or detectives building a case for/against Andrew Jackson or the United States in general (this wasn’t only Jackson that railed against Indians).

    We used primary sources including:
    1. Elias Boudinot’s letter to Cherokee in 1837 (Stanford’s Reading Like a Historian lesson on Indian Removal)
    2. Jackson’s speeches in 1830 (January & December) to congress.
    3. Worcester vs Georgia Supreme Court case
    4. Supporting and Opposing viewpoints from congressmen of the time (Lewis Cass, Sec of War for Jackson, Theodore Frelinghuysen,
    5. Propaganda – Andrew Jackson as “The Great Father” painting, “Hunting Indians in Florida with Bloodhounds”
    6. Past/Future president’s remarks about Native American removal – Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Taylor, etc

    Then congress had their hearings (instead of the trial) in 1840 so the different interest groups could have hindsight to all the events as they presented their case for/against removal. Congress also had to look up actual congressmen from the 26th congress (1840) and take on that role during the hearings.

  8. Kate Harrigan on

    I’d love any additional resources people have found regarding primary sources and the 5 roles used in this simulation. I’d like to give students the option of additional sources to use and have found some good sources (text on treaties, some speeches by Congressmen both for/against, etc). I’m really needing some additional sources for Black Seminoles, Missionaries, and Southern Planters. If anyone has any sources (particularly online!) I’d be very grateful! Kate Harrigan (8th Grade teacher)

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