Each year the Giles County Trail of Tears Interpretive Center hosts a commemorative walk to remember and honor the Native Americans who passed through Giles County while walking the Trail of Tears. This year’s walk was held Nov. 5, coinciding with both Native American Heritage Month and the week in which the two detachments on the Benge and Bell Routes of the Trail passed through Pulaski in 1838.

“Pulaski has the historical distinction of being the only place in the entire nation where two trails crossed and ran concurrent for six miles before splitting and one going North and the other West,” Board Chairman Peggy Tatum shared.

The Trail of Tears is the name given to the forced relocation of nearly 20,000 Cherokee (and later tens of thousands more Native Americans) as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Giles County’s Memorial pays tribute to the sacrifices made during this dark chapter in our nation’s history during which 4,000 individuals died, many of whom were children, on their walk from their ancestral homes to lands in the American west.

This year’s commemorative walk departed from the museum and headed to the overlook at Richland Creek where a bridge once stood that both routes used. 

“The stones from the original bridge abutment which are embedded in the bank of the Richland creek remain today and can be seen from the ‘overlook’ deck constructed for viewing this part of the original trail,” Tatum said. 

After sprinkling ceremonial tobacco in the waterway and listening to a Native American song honoring water, the walkers returned to the Interpretive Center. The walk took less than an hour, which Tatum reminded the guests was far less arduous than the 770 miles over four months that the displaced people endured to reach the land in what is now Oklahoma. 

As a part of this year’s event, the Interpretive Center received a donation of a ceremonial drum to display in the museum. The drum belonged to the late Petty Officer First Class (Ret.) William Lee Southard Jr., U.S. Navy, a proud citizen of Deer Clan Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama. Southard served as Deer Clan representative on tribal council and on the Honor Guard during his lifetime. 

The drum was made of a hollowed out tree, with an animal skin (typically deer, elk or buffalo) used for the drum head. Drums are considered the heartbeat of the soul in the Native tradition, and lightning and thunder live in the drum. The drumkeeper is traditionally the eldest son.

“The drum retires when the drumkeeper’s heart stops beating,” William Southard’s brother Foy (White Wolf) Southard explained. 

Ceremonial pow wow drums are traditionally either burned or donated after the drummer dies, so Southard’s family made the decision to donate the drum to the Interpretive Center. It was presented to the museum by Foy Southard, who described the pride his brother had in their shared Cherokee heritage. He invited the guests in attendance to sprinkle ceremonial tobacco on the top of the drum, which was then covered with a blanket before being relocated to the museum’s interior. 

William Southard died May 19, 2021, at 70 years of age. He grew up in Athens and Limestone counties in Alabama, and attended Athens High School and John C. Calhoun Technical school. 

He served 21 years of service in Naval Reserve NMCB 24, including two deployments to combat during Desert Shield/Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In both the military and his civilian life, Southard worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker.

The drum was made by James (Blackhawk) Chambers for Southard more than 30 years ago. Chambers was an accomplished artist and craftsman who was known for the instruments he crafted, including guitars, banjos and fiddles. Southard’s drum is numbered 003.

Visitors are invited to view the drum, along with the rest of the collection at the Giles County Trail of Tears Interpretive Center. 

“It is our intention to educate and let others know that this town is a special place, and we strive for excellence in preserving the rich history that was before us as well as creating the future that lies ahead of us,” Tatum said.

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