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Stone Songs on the Trail of Tears
By Pat Musick with Jerry Carr and Bill Woodiel, University of Arkansas Press, cloth, $24.95.
What Pat Musick did — haul oak timbers and steel bars and hefty Arkansas rocks to 23 spots on the Trail of Tears — was remarkable in both idea and execution. She set out to create installation art that would represent, in dimension and location, the Indians who rode, walked and wept on North Arkansas’s old Military Road in the winter of 1838-39.
Now a book about what could be described as performance art adds another layer to what initially was called the “Stone Songs on the Trail of Tears” project. (The sculpture, five pairs of timbers that support the rocks from a bar that joins each pair, is now called “Yokes on the Trail of Tears” and is located at Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale.) It is the photographic chronicle of the putting up and taking down of the sculptures, accompanied by Musick’s notes she took during the process and a poem she wrote. Pictured are unaltered Ozark terraces and woods streams, for the most part on private property, beautiful in their own right. They are as much a part of the installation as the timbers, and alone make this a book worth buying.
Musick, her husband, Jerry Carr, who took the photographs, and historian Bill Woodiel used 19th century survey maps to find as best they could a way to access the Military Road from today’s routes, and did much preparatory stomping in the woods and talking to landowners looking for what remains of the trail. They found ruts and roadbeds and, they say, wagon wheel imprints in sandstone left not just during the removal but the life of the road. With a host of volunteers, the Musicks and Woodiel spent the month of March 2002 erecting, photographing and meditating on the installation at sites in eight Arkansas counties, starting at Pitman Ferry in Randolph County, and into Oklahoma.
The timber pairs range from a little over three feet to five feet, apparently, although the dimensions aren’t given in the book. Tear-shaped rocks are suspended from their connecting steel bars. The rocks stand for the burden and sorrow of the government-ordered Indian removal from lands in the Southeast. Their sorrow is our shame, and to commemorate their journey, Congress designated two routes followed by the Cherokees, including the Benge Route across North Arkansas, as the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. (The Cherokees were not the only displaced Indian people. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 also routed Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles and Choctaws from their lands.)
During the 200-mile installation procession, Musick writes, she and her companions felt a connection to the people making what was a cold, difficult and grim trip to a new life in Indian Territory. The timbers tramp through slush-filled ruts on the dirt Pitman Ferry Road, along creek banks and leaf-carpeted uplands, on high meadows. They ford creeks and climb rocky hills. Musick’s notes range from the spiritual to the practical. She muses in her notes at Catalpa Spring that Steve Saunders, vice president of the Arkansas Trail of Tears Association, was sure the Cherokees must have camped there; at Mount Pleasant she writes about distracting visiting dogs from the photo shoot with biscuits. Her poem, about a Cherokee mother carrying a child on the trail, is not half-bad. It opens, “Your first steps onto a new land / Cherokee woman / Whose left foot follows the right / to hope ahead? / Your tread breaks ice / and freezes the heart.”
The timbers themselves, as art objects, are somewhat clunky and the steel bars are more practical than suggestive of the strength it took to make the journey. But the whole of the project was significant, and now, with the book, has secured its place in history — art history — too.