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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Snow covers the statue "Cherokee" along the riverfront on Saturday, March 12, 2022.

Several years ago, when Rod Francis first moved to Chattanooga, he began noticing with fresh eyes those big brown historic signs all around town, marked with three words:

"Trail of Tears."

Francis, a native Australian who'd moved here from London, was confused.

"I had no idea. What did that mean?" Francis recalls.

Francis, 65, is known globally for his work as a developmental leadership coach and teacher. (Visit interactualizer.com.) Deeply kind, intuitive and wise, he's devoted himself to one particular aspect of the human experience:

"Change," he said. "I've always been really interested in what makes people change."

Last year, he began publishing a podcast called "The Story of Change," available online at thestoryofchange.net and bit.ly/WUTC-change.

Early episodes focus on individual change — from the incomparable Joe Jenkins, Tony Oliver and Troy Rogers to local immigrants. (Francis is also a local meditation teacher with Chattanooga Insight and a friend. We talked in person and via email for this interview.)

With those three words — Trail of Tears — still in his mind, Francis began to wonder: What is the indigenous story of this place?

"I turned to those most affected," he said. "The first nations."

Francis has built a podcast around their stories. In a series of episodes, Francis hosts conversations with current leaders of each Oklahoma nation.

The Cherokee.

The Chickasaw.

The Seminole.

The Muscogee Creek.

The Choctaw.

"We're still a living and breathing people," said Ryan Spring of the Choctaw Nation. "It's important that we have very strong roots in our past, and those roots are what guide us to who we are today as indigenous Choctaw people. We rely on our stories and values and our culture as who we are."

With these episodes, Francis is giving Chattanooga a most precious gift: the chance to connect, or reconnect, to the story of this land, its original people and even our own indigenous soul.

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"We have to hear these stories," Francis said. "We have to find the courage to be able to sit and really hear what it's like. Without being crushed by it, without being beaten by it. That is an important part of the process for opening the heart. If we close the heart — 'Oh, it's not my story, I didn't do that, that was someone 200 years ago' — then healing can't take place."

The interviews are expansive: culture, history dating back 14,000 years, matrilineal societies, language, infected blankets and whiskey kegs at treaty signings, trauma, language, botany, boarding school violence and so much more.

"Our people were brave and committed and dedicated to stay alive so that the people today are here," said Sue Folsom of the Choctaw Nation. "All that comes from our heart."

Some spoke of the trail as a holocaust, comparing places like Ross's Landing to a concentration camp. Miles and miles a day, skeletal clothing in difficult weather, little or rancid food. A low estimate, Francis says, is that some 100,000 were removed and 15,000 died.

"May 26, 1838, the soldiers and the Georgia militia ... they just swooped in that day and started pulling people out of their homes and of their fields," said Will Chavez from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

On the trail, the elderly and children were most vulnerable.

"In our society, we relied on our elders to be our community teachers, so you have a whole generation who doesn't make it. Your oldest generations are dying and your younger generations, the ones who are supposed to continue on, are dying, too," Spring said.

Yet, in the face of such violence, these nations not only survived but, in many ways, flourished.

"That's a huge story to talk about. We talk about our values and culture and identity and one of those values is how successful our Choctaw people have become," Folsom said. "Today, we can say that we are proud Choctaw people."

Listening to these podcasts is transformative and humbling; I think of the tireless work of local native American leaders like Tom Kunseh, who once estimated that 99% of all Native American sites had been destroyed in Chattanooga, and other regional voices, who won't let us forget the past and how it affects our present and future.

Francis anchors each episode with one core question: How did your people survive, change and remain resilient?

"To me, the Muscogee way is to never give up," said Melissa Harjo of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma. "To keep looking forward, moving forward. I feel that we had very strong ancestors who really instilled that and endured so much ... When you respect your culture and people that much, you're going to continue it on, no matter what."

"I remember in the boarding school, my grandmother used to say: 'No matter what they do to you, you hang in there and don't forget who you are.' So that was the teaching," said Raeyln Butler of the Muscogee Nation. "You hang in there. No matter what."

The next episode is an interview with the Seminole nation. It broadcasts on May 22 on WUTC and The Story of Change website.

David Cook's column is published on Sundays. Contact him at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6357.

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