Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
January 29, 2000 - Issue 02

Running for Their People

Dawn Spang grew up wanting out of here. You always see the drinking, the poverty, the people getting old before their time, she said. She had to leave the reservation before she could see that this land is beautiful.

She had to run 400 miles before she felt the spirit of her people.

"It's phenomenal," Spang said. "You think there's nothing here, and there's this whole spiritual side of it."

Spang was one of 38 runners from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation who ran in the second annual Fort Robinson Break Out Run - a 400-mile relay the first week of January. The runners trekked from Fort Robinson, Neb., to Busby. They carried a sacred staff and ran a sacred course.

The run marks a bloody chapter of Northern Cheyenne history. On Jan. 9, 1879, 164 Northern Cheyenne - mostly the sick, the old, women and children - broke out of the barracks at Fort Robinson, where they were starving. They were the weaker, slower half of the Northern Cheyenne, who by then had dwindled to about 300 after the U.S. soldiers drove them from Montana to Oklahoma.

In 1878, under the direction of chiefs Little Wolf and Dull Knife, the tribe embarked on a daring journey. They were going to walk from Oklahoma, where their people were dying, to Montana, their ancestral home. Some of the tribe stayed behind - today they are the Southern Cheyenne.

The group made it as far as Nebraska and broke into two bands. Little Wolf would lead the healthy on to Montana, while Dull Knife would seek help with their allies, the Lakota, for his band of the sick and weak.

Dull Knife never made it. Troops caught up and marched them 28 miles to Fort Robinson, where they were imprisoned without food, water or heat.

After five days, the band broke out. Most were gunned down within minutes. A small group took shelter in a shallow creekside, where troops later found them and shot them at point-blank range. Dull Knife and a handful of his family somehow made it to South Dakota. They ate their moccasins to survive.

He lived to see Montana, though. He died there four years after the massacre.

About seven years ago, Phillip Whiteman Jr., son of a hereditary Northern Cheyenne chief, started organizing runs every January to mark the event. The early runs didn't leave the reservation, but gathered crowds numbering into the hundreds.

Last year, he and co-organizer Lynette Two Bulls, of the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota, launched the current ultra-marathon, retracing the steps the Northern Cheyenne ancestors never got to take.

Most people, Whiteman said, don't know why their reservation is here, in the shadow of the Rosebud Mountains, where Deer Creek merges with the Rosebud. They don't know what their people gave to live on this land and how the tribe almost died off in the exodus to Montana.

"There's a lot of people older than me that haven't even been to Fort Robinson," Whiteman said. "A lot of them have given up. When you fall into that distress, you don't know where you came from or where you're going."

Last year's run, in bitter temperatures and with little money, contained mostly young men, whom Whiteman called, "tall, slim, lean machines." The group ran out of money, and ran all night at the end to save on hotel bills.

This year, the run attracted more money and more "everyday people," Whiteman said. The Sacred Hoop Runners of South Dakota also joined them.

While only two women ran last year, 13 women and girls took part this January. They ran in pairs, man and woman, boy and girl. Women, who are considered sacred in Northern Cheyenne theology, do not carry the eagle feather staff, Whiteman said. The staff symbolizes sacrifice in battle, he said, and the Northern Cheyenne believe women should be protected, not sacrificed as warriors.

"With the women and children, it was more spiritual," Whiteman said. "It was more powerful, more real."

It's only natural to bring in everyone when the Northern Cheyenne throw an event like the run, Two Bulls said.

"They're all a part of the circle," she said. "You have your infants, the adults and the elderly, you can't separate them."

Spang, 33, had run half-marathons with her dad. A mother of two daughters and three sons, she said she wants her children to live peacefully on the family's land on Muddy Creek and not get mired in the reservation's problems.

"I want them to be able to live here and be happy," she said.

Special note: All are welcome to run next year.
For more information, call organizer Phillip Whiteman Jr. in Busby, 406-477-8720.

Cheyenne/Arapho Nations of Ok.

Website of the Northern Cheyenne

Dull Knife

Little Wolf

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