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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 12, 2002 - Issue 53


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Culture Mixes With History in Break Out Run

by James Hagengruber - Billings Gazette Staff
credits: Larry Mayer/Gazette Staff (Runners in the 400-mile Fort Robinson Break Out Run gather as they make their way through Busby Wednesday afternoon. Below, Tim Lame Woman put up a flag and American Indian Movement banner as the runners passed his property near Busby. Lame Woman said he was displaying the banner, "In remembrance of our ancestors and Leonard Peltier, one of our own who is still incarcerated.")
Runners in the 400-mile Fort Robinson Break Out RunBUSBY – Running through the Black Hills under a starry winter night sky was the most memorable leg for Krystal Two Bulls, a 16-year-old from Lame Deer.

“It was calm,” she said. “The mountains protected us from the wind.”

The long stretches of road between here and western Nebraska gave Two Bulls and 54 other runners – some with flecks of sacred sage leaves and cedar needles tucked in their shoes – a chance to think about their lives and about a similar 400-mile foot journey made by ancestors 123 years ago.

The conditions were a bit different, though.

Wednesday’s runners weren't being chased by cavalry soldiers. They didn't have to eat their shoes. People held feasts for them along the way. They slept in clean, heated barracks before the run. They also didn't begin the run in the dark of night while being shot at.

“They didn't even have water. They had to lick the frost from the windows of the fort before leaving,” Lloyd Lone Elk Sr., of Lame Deer, said of his ancestors. “We're glad we've got something to run home to instead of having to run from soldiers. We're proud of our home and we’re never going to let it go.”

The runners left Fort Robinson, Neb., Saturday morning as four eagles circled above. The men, women and children took turns on the highway while others rested in vans. A sacred staff was carried the entire way. This year, a small American flag fluttered from the staff near the eagle feathers.

“What happened to our ancestors is the same thing that happened in New York City,” said Phillip Whiteman Jr., of Lame Deer.

Dozens of Northern Cheyenne were killed when they tried to escape Fort Robinson in 1879 and return to their homeland near the Tongue River – few made it. The corpses of those left behind were collected, studied by medical students and shelved in museums. Remains of 18 Break Out victims were returned to Busby in 1993 and buried on a grassy hill overlooking town.

im Lame Woman put up a flag and American Indian Movement bannerShortly after the reburial, Whiteman and five others began marking the Break Out by running around the reservation. It was a way to remember and pray, Whiteman said.

Four years ago, Whiteman led a group of runners all the way from Fort Robinson back to the graves above Busby. The Break Out runners had little money and sometimes ran through the night to save on hotel costs.

More runners joined the next year and received more support. Montana Auto Brokers now sponsors vans. Nike provides running gear and helps with hotels. The Oglala Sioux and Northern Arapaho join the runners for part of the journey – these are the tribes that helped the Cheyenne defeat Custer in 1876, an event that soon led to their imprisonment in Oklahoma, then Nebraska.

The journeys are infused with lessons on history and culture. During the final leg of this year’s run, Whiteman spotted two participants racing. He pulled up next to the young men and told them to slow down. Throughout the journey the young people are encouraged to think differently, back to the older ways, Whiteman said.

“Our culture teaches us not to compete but to cooperate with each other, to find balance, unity,” Whiteman said. “We go as fast as the slowest person. The warriors need to lead from the back. The dominant society teaches us to be in front, be aggressive.”

Five days on the road barely begins to erase years of hip-hop music, television ads and mainstream textbooks, Whiteman said. “We barely scratch the surface.”

The young runners seemed to appreciate the lessons. They set aside their usual joking when asked why they decided to run.

“The reason I’m here is because of my ancestors,” said Leonard Young Bear Jr., 23, who has completed all four Fort Robinson Break Out runs.

Travis American Horse, 14, completed his first run Wednesday. He said a dream prompted him to run. “My ancestors woke me up and said, ‘You better go on that run or you’re going to get a few lickings.’”

Snow and rain began falling as the convoy reached Busby. Townspeople were waiting with banners, camcorders and honking car horns.

The end of the journey is bittersweet, Whiteman said. After five days of fresh air, exercise and prayer, many of the young runners will return to dysfunctional homes on the remote reservation.

“It’s like taking a tree out of a sick forest, nursing it back to health, then putting it back in the sick forest again,” Whiteman said.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council member Danny Sioux was in the small crowd of observers as the runners were blessed at the end of the journey.

“I’m really proud of them,” Sioux said. “It’s all about the spirit in which it was done, the spirit the old people live by.”

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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