It was nearing 10:30 p.m. on January 9 as nearly 85 Northern Cheyenne runners crowded around a doorway inside the barracks at Fort Robinson, near Crawford, Nebraska. Now a state park, 136 years ago it was a prison for their ancestors. The runners were moments away from embarking on a 7-day, 400-mile journey that would take them across four states to their homeland in Montana.
Entwining the past and present, the door flung open at the moment their forebears—freezing, starving and desperate to get home—broke out under Chief Dull Knife’s leadership on January 9, 1879. With two leaders carrying an eagle-feather staff and the Northern Cheyenne tribal flag, the group was off into freezing cold, 16-degree night.
Earlier that day, everyone gathered for an educational event. Phillip Whiteman Jr., Northern Cheyenne, and Lynette Two Bulls, his Oglala Lakota wife, have put on the Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run through their organization, Yellow Bird Inc., since 1996. The idea behind it is breaking away from rigid contracted thinking and reintroducing an expansive circular awareness, which has always been central to indigenous thinking, and was nearly eradicated by years of government policy. Whiteman and Two Bulls share these concepts through their Medicine Wheel Model in trainings and seminars nationwide.
“Break free of the barracks of your mind,” Whiteman told the group.
“Live the life your ancestors fought for!” said Debra White Plume, an Oglala Lakota activist.
As the sun set the group headed to a snow-filled creek bed the Northern Cheyenne call “The Last Hole.” In 1879, dozens of their ancestors were gunned down there after breaking out of the barracks. Again, two weeks later, 32 men, women, and children, who had survived the initial massacre were hunted down by a force of 150 soldiers, who then surrounded and killed them in this desolate ravine.
The visit to the creek was pivotal. Cinnamon Spear, a public affairs specialist for the Indian Health Service in Washington, D.C., recalled this moment during a run 10 years before. It had been her first run, and she was a high school senior. “Going to where everything happened, you’re standing where the blood of your ancestors was shed. Your feet are where their blood was. You realize you are breathing the air of the land that holds those stories.”
Hearing about the atrocities brings anger and pain to the surface. “You cry for kids your age who were shot,” she said. “But there’s also hope, because you realize their courage allows us to be here and do this. Their sacrifice brought us here.”
Cheyenne culture, language, and prayer keeps the runners grounded, and it keeps them coming back. Most of the runners had participated several times. Spear, who talked about growing up in a home where alcohol and drugs were prevalent, said the run has helped her absorb Cheyenne culture. The lessons stayed with her, even as she left for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where she received two degrees. “Securing my Cheyenne identity before I experienced the world was essential. Ten years later, I’m still doing the run.”
Along the way the group visited historian and culture bearer Wilmer Mesteth, who lived on nearby Cheyenne Creek, where some breakout survivors found refuge and are now buried. Mesteth walked on January 16.
Around the warmth of the fire Mesteth told the runners of the traditional alliance between the Oglala and the Northern Cheyenne, which reminded the group of the history their relatives had experienced there.
Guy Dull Knife, great-grandson of Chief Dull Knife, prepares a breakfast for the runners every year. His branch of the family stayed in Pine Ridge after receiving sanctuary. “It took them four days to reach the Red Cloud Agency,” Guy said. “They traveled by night with no food and were pursued by soldiers.” This information is not widely taught, he said, but the run helps people remember. “We must never forget what happened to our ancestors.”
Runners traversed the Black Hills, the easternmost range of the Rocky Mountain system, which is home to sites that are sacred to the Northern Cheyenne and other Plains tribes. The route goes along Highway 212, which is designated the Warriors Trail for the number of historical sites in the area, including The Little Bighorn Battlefield. “I love night running,” said high school student Sharlyce Parker. “I feel the presence of my ancestors. It’s like they’re running with me.”
Along the way runners were welcomed into communities, like on January 13 when they entered Ashland, Montana, the firth Northern Cheyenne community on the run. The highway was lined with cars filled with parents, relatives and community members. “They’re coming!” cried out one youngster.
“It makes me proud to be Cheyenne,” said runner Torey Wolfvoice.
The run ended at a hilltop burial ground in Busby, Montana where more than two dozen men, women and children killed during the outbreak are buried. Their remains were repatriated in 1994 from a Harvard University museum. The breakout memorial run would start two years later.
Climbing the hill in the soft twilight, some runners looked as though they could go another 50 miles, while some leaned on comrades. “Keep going, we’re almost there,” they said to each other. They finally reached the fence surrounding their relatives’ graves.
“I felt really good,” said high school sophomore Tonielle Shoulderblade. “I cried because I was so happy. We did it for our ancestors. We did it together, and we are all a family.”