Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 30, 2001 - Issue 39



3 Tribes Gather for Historic
Journey to Honor Ancestors


 by JAMES HAGENGRUBER of The Billings Gazette Staff-Published 6/26/2001


photo by LARRY MAYER/Gazette staff

 photo by LARRY MAYER/Gazette staffLAME DEER, MT – The last time young men from the three tribes stared at the sacred carvings on the Deer Medicine Rocks, they held rifles, coup sticks and warrior’s shields.

On Monday – 125 years later – they wore Nikes.

Men and women from the tribes that defeated Custer met beneath the sandstone formation at dawn to begin a 45-mile run to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The runners, including 22-year-old Nathaniel Whiteman, of Lame Deer, carried sacred staffs of the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux tribes. They ran to honor their ancestors and to mark a bittersweet victory.

"It put a good feeling in my heart when I saw those three staffs come together," he said. "Our people are now struggling to move forward. We’re going to do it together."

Ancestors of the runners met here below the Deer Medicine Rocks to hold a sun dance shortly before going off to battle. This is where Sitting Bull, a powerful Hunkpapa Sioux leader, received a vision that foretold the fall of Custer. The 50-foot-tall formation four miles north of Lame Deer is a sacred stone archive for the victors of the battle.

Until recently, the rocks have been off limits, even to many tribal members. The history of the stones is being shared with the hopes that young people will find strength in the stories of their warrior ancestors.

Phillip Whiteman Jr. drove a van full of young Northern Cheyenne to the rocks early Monday. He was in a convoy of 15 other vehicles, many from reservations in the Dakotas and Wyoming.

"This is a historical event," he said. "This is the first time the tribes are coming together again."

The convoy stopped four times on the dusty road to the rocks. Leaders from the tribes took off their sunglasses and hats and offered quiet prayers. Snakes, badgers, hawks and lizards guard the rocks from disrespectful visitors, Whiteman said.

"We’re asking for permission and guidance to be here," he said.

The formation stands next to strawberry- and peach-colored bluffs. Yucca with fat, white blossoms poked out of the ground. Prayer offerings tied in cloth bundles to chokecherry branches fluttered in the breeze. The group of about 70 runners and their families approached quietly.

"I want you guys to listen and absorb as much as you can," Whiteman told a group of children. "I want you to learn from this."

Sitting Bull was led to the rocks by spirits after he asked the Creator for protection from the white settlers, Whiteman said. The Sioux and Cheyenne tribes had recently been ordered to live on reservations. As the Army marched toward the tribes to enforce the order, tribal chiefs met in the spring of 1876 along the Rosebud Creek below the Deer Medicine Rocks.

An estimated 15,000 Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho met along the creek, Whiteman said. Sitting Bull prayed for help. He prayed for a vision. In exchange, he would hold a sun dance and offer a "scarlet blanket" of his own blood.

Before the sun dance, Sitting Bull stripped to the waist. His adopted brother, Jumping Bull, stuck a steel awl into Sitting Bull’s arm, pulling away the flesh before slicing it with a knife. One hundred pieces of flesh were cut. With the streaming blood beginning to congeal on his body, Sitting Bull faced the sun and began to dance. He danced all day and all night, until he slipped into his vision. He saw soldiers with no ears falling into camp like dozens of locusts, Whiteman said.

The warriors were filled with confidence and rode to battle days later.

"This rock is where our ancestors came together and helped each other," said Theresa Two Bulls, vice chairwoman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. "They fought hard to keep our homeland. It wasn’t to be."

Sitting Bull’s visions were carved into the rock, where they remain. The pictographs girdle the rocks in a story. In the beginning are symbols of a mirror and a lizard, signs of self-reflection and life. Then there are elk, deer and bear. The images become more warlike, with etchings of warriors, shields and a bull elk standing on his hind legs, ready for battle.

Whiteman would only explain a portion of the images. Some were too sacred for outsiders.

The landowner, a rancher whose family homesteaded the land in 1880, allows visitors but does not want to advertise the site or have his name printed.

"The people that come here are good people. They wouldn’t harm this place for the world," he said. "But we’re starting to get overrun."

Minutes before the run began, a tobacco offering was made. Phillip Whiteman Sr., a hereditary chief, sang the same song Sitting Bull did at the rocks. After the song, the runners’ faces were streaked with sacred ochre paint by Lee Lonebear.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal President Geri Small praised the runners – most of whom were children or teenagers.

"Keep all of us in your prayers as we will keep you in our prayers," Small said.

Many of the runners would only run portions of the route. Others planned to travel the entire journey on foot.

"This is not a race," Whiteman told the group. "I know that some of you guys are fast, but we can only go as fast as our slowest runner."

Nathaniel Whiteman stretched his lanky muscles. He tied a blue bandanna around his head. Exactly 125 years earlier, his ancestors were beginning a summer day in a massive tepee encampment 45 miles to the west.

"This is a day of victory. They tried to annihilate our people, yet we were so strong and so guided with prayer that they couldn’t," he said. "Running puts perspective in my life. It makes me feel empowered by the spirits. It makes me try so much harder to help myself and my people."

With a lone war whoop, the men and women set off from the Deer Medicine Rocks, running down a dusty road toward the Little Bighorn River.


Maps by Travel




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