The look of determination covered the flushed faces of over 100 young Northern Cheyenne runners as they approached the Oglala Sioux Tribal Building in Pine Ridge, SD. Tribal officials greeted them while they rested and welcomed the crowd.
The event is called Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run. Their stop in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation last week was the halfway point of their journey to honor their ancestors who escaped the Fort Robinson barracks, located south of present-day Chadron, NE, on Jan. 9, 1879. Tanka Bar donated Tanka Buffalo HotDogs for the runners to enjoy that evening. And every year Barbara Dull Knife and the Young Man family sponsors breakfast for them.
U.S. Calvary soldiers killed many of the runners' ancestors after they escaped Fort Robinson but Chief Dull Knife and some of this people made it to South Dakota to seek refuge from Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud on Jan. 16, 1879. Since 1996, Cheyenne youth of all ages pay homage to this history and their people by running 400 miles from the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, MT, to South Dakota and back to Montana. Phillip Whiteman, Jr. and Lynette Two Bulls founded the spiritual run through their non-profit Yellow Bird Inc.
Jennie Seminole has been following the run from the beginning. She is the last direct descendant of a prisoner at Fort Robinson -- Miles Nelson Seminole. She expressed the importance of young people learning about their history and family in order to give them strength and to make the right choices.
"If it wasn't for the ones [ancestors] that survived, we wouldn't be here. And it's very important for the young people to know that and appreciate life," she said. "Because one of the things my father used to tell us, 'You have it easy today. You don't have to be afraid. You don't even understand fear. Fear is when you are being hunted and shot at like an animal and that's how the Calvary and the soldiers treated us.' "
One of the things Ms. Seminole said she witnessed from the run over the years is how the group learns to work together as a team. Their camaraderie was evident with how bonded they seemed to be upon their arrival. After they were greeted and thanked for their dedication, the runners began to make their way to spiritual leader and Oglala Sioux historian Wilmer Mesteth's home located at Cheyenne Creek.
A Lakota drum group welcomed them as they gathered under a large canopy where Mr. Mesteth was waiting to give a presentation. Two fire pits lighted their faces as they warmed themselves from the frigid temperatures. The group listened intently while grabbing hot beverages and snacks as Mr. Mesteth told them about the Cheyenne that were camped in the area so many years ago until 1883. Several of their Cheyenne ancestors are buried on his land in Pine Ridge.
"A total of 28 burials. They belong to your people," he told the runners. "And my relatives lived here and my grandparents ... they took care of these [burials] and made sure nobody disturbed them."
Many Cheyenne of that time stayed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, married Lakota people and began families. Mr. Mesteth told them of the history and their connection to the Lakota saying that "we are all one people" and he encouraged them to listen to their elders.
Mr. Whiteman followed up Mr. Mesteth's speech stating that the Cheyenne and the Lakota are "allies" and "brother and sister tribes." He also expressed the importance of speaking the original languages of the tribes.
"History is owned by the man who writes it. And we are an oral culture. Our oral history is who we are. Without your language and without your land, you're not who you say you are," Mr. Whiteman said. "And today, as we assimilate, we try to do our best to commemorate life and those before us who sacrificed their own lives."
He spoke of how the group prepared the night before and were painted with pipestone. He said even though it's a new day and the paint may no longer be visible, they were still in ceremony.
"What you think and your thoughts is real important because your life will follow it," he said. "You are sacred, holy people. You are great people. Warriors. Leaders. Speak your language. Alter your destiny. Reclaim your greatness. There's hidden codes in the language. You can talk to the wind. You can talk to the fire. You can reclaim your greatness by reconnecting to who you are."
At the end of their time at Cheyenne Creek, the group heard from Lakota historian and artist, Jhon Goes in Center and actress Lily Gladstone (Blackfeet), who was traveling with the runners. Mr. Goes in Center expressed his appreciation of the time the runners took to honor their history and urged the importance of staying out of "victimhood."
"It occurs to me that everything that's happened to us as indigenous people, somehow we get stuck in sorrow," he said. "But I see a greatness happening here as you take the Cheyenne way of life to a higher level by actually honoring your ancestors by living and facing all adversary with strength and unity."