Two of the greatest influences in The Bean Trees are the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the geographical trek that the Cherokee Nation was forced to travel when it was moved to the Oklahoma territory from the southeastern United States, and the Sanctuary movement, designed to help Central Americans flee oppressive governmental regimes and relocate — usually secretly and illegally — in the United States. These two influences serve as the background to Kingsolver's The Bean Trees. The Cherokee Trail of Tears informs Taylor and Turtle's journey from Oklahoma to Arizona in the novel, and many of the novel's characters apparently are members of the Sanctuary movement.
The Cherokee Trail of Tears
By the end of the eighteenth century, the Cherokee Nation had settled on land guaranteed to it in a 1791 treaty with the United States. The land was located in northwest Georgia, eastern Tennessee, and southwest North Carolina. The Cherokees established a governmental system similar to that of the United States and adopted a constitution that declared them a sovereign nation, meaning that they were not subject to the laws of any other state or nation. They lived peacefully until gold was discovered on their land in the late 1820s.
Because the United States wanted the gold, in 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which President Andrew Jackson immediately signed into law. The Cherokees fought removal by taking the case to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) against the Cherokees because they were a "domestic dependent nation" and not a sovereign nation. On appeal, the case was heard once again in the Supreme Court, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), and the ruling was for the Cherokees, making the removal laws invalid. To be removed, the Cherokees would have to agree to removal and sign a treaty.
The Cherokee Nation was divided between moving and staying put. Most supported Chief John Ross, who fought against removal; however, about 500 Cherokees supported Major Ridge, who represented the United States government and advocated removal. In 1835, Ridge and members of the Cherokee treaty party signed the Treaty of New Echota. The treaty traded Cherokee land east of the Mississippi River for land in Indian Territory (the area that is now Oklahoma), plus more than five million dollars and other benefits from the federal government. The treaty, which was ratified by the United States Senate, gave the U.S. government and Georgia justification to force almost 17,000 Cherokees from their land.
In 1838, the U.S. Army began evicting the Cherokees from their homeland. Several thousand were taken immediately to Indian Territory. Thousands more were held in makeshift forts, having to make do with minimal food and facilities, until they were forced to march to Indian Territory during the winter of 1938-39. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died during the march. The journey that the Cherokees took across land became known as the Trail of Tears, or the "trail where they cried."
The Sanctuary Movement
Like the underground railroad that was established in the United States during the nineteenth century to assist runaway slaves, the Sanctuary movement was born in response to the plight of political refugees from the troubled Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
The Sanctuary movement is an underground railroad that began in the United States in 1981 to help Central American citizens fleeing their homes to escape the repression, persecution, and violence of their governments. These Central American refugees traveled, often on foot, through Central America, into Mexico, and across the border into the United States. Because the Sanctuary movement can be successful only under complete secrecy, it is difficult to verify whether the movement remains vital today. Certain Central American governments still deny their citizens freedom to elect governmental officials, so odds are that the movement still operates.
The Central American political refugees received aid from religious communities located near the border. Aid took the form of food, shelter, and assistance with legal matters relating to the United States Department of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The goal of these religious communities was to help the Central Americans obtain political asylum, enabling them to remain in the United States legally. The Central Americans could qualify for political asylum if they had proof of persecution. Because the Central Americans fled their homes, often with nothing but the clothing on their backs, they had no proof of persecution and were therefore denied political asylum. They were then deported — returned to their homeland to face persecution or, even worse, death.
The United States could not easily grant political asylum to Central Americans because it would mean openly admitting that Central Americans were being persecuted. It would also mean that the United States government would have to accept responsibility for some of the persecution. Under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. government provided military and economic aid to military juntas (military groups that take control of a government at the conclusion of a revolution) in Central America, thereby sustaining the repression from which the political refugees were fleeing. As a result of friendly relations between the United States and Central America, many Central American political refugees have been declared illegal aliens, and those who are not in sanctuary — hidden from governmental officials, who would force them to return to their native countries, and living secretly in the United States — have been deported.
It became clear to the religious communities that working within the legal system was not helping the political refugees. The refugees needed far more immediate assistance. In 1982, the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, and several churches in California declared themselves public sanctuaries for citizens of Guatemala and El Salvador. The Reverend John Fife, former minister of Southside Presbyterian Church, and Quaker Jim Corbett are credited with starting the underground-railroad form of refugee aid.
During the next two years, the Sanctuary movement grew. The Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America (CRTFCA) became the national coordinator for the underground railroad, and more than 300 churches and synagogues all over the United States became safe havens for political refugees. As many as 100,000 individuals became supporters of the Sanctuary movement despite the fact that they were breaking federal law by aiding illegal aliens and risking imprisonment and a fine of about $2,000. Starting out, the task force of the Sanctuary movement was overly cautious. Members changed cars frequently when transporting refugees from place to place, disguised the refugees, and followed complicated plans. The result resembled slapstick comedy and caused a great deal of confusion. Because the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) knew of the operation anyway, the task force decided to keep everything out in the open, but to be careful. For a while, the Sanctuary movement was protected by media attention, which brought to light the fact that refugees were being persecuted and that the U.S. government was sending these "illegal aliens" home to be murdered.
Finally, in 1984, several church workers were arrested in Texas and were charged with transporting illegal aliens. In 1985, sixteen sanctuary workers were arrested. Despite the efforts by the government to control the Sanctuary movement, the united community of sanctuary workers remains committed to providing aid to Central American political refugees.