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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 27, 2002 - Issue 66


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Running Warrior

by James Hagengruber of the Billings Gazette Staff
With shoes thin as skin and clothes light as feathers, the state's fastest runners will race around Daylis Stadium tonight. The best Montana Miler will cross the finish a few strides past 4 minutes.

Welcoming the runners will be Honorary Miler John Wooden Legs, who holds a record for running a mile in 5 minutes, 34 seconds.

In full combat gear.

Wooden Legs made the run in 1967, just before being shipped off to Vietnam. At the time, Sports Illustrated reported the feat as the highest score ever recorded in the U.S. Army's basic training combat proficiency test. Wooden Legs posted a near-perfect score. The record is believed to have stood untouched.

Wooden Legs, a 54-year-old Lame Deer resident, hereditary Northern Cheyenne chief and vice president of his tribe, will be the guest of honor at the Montana Mile race.

The running life
Running is a solitary pursuit, and Wooden Legs is proud of his achievement. But he said it took help from an entire tribe to achieve his life's greatest victories.

Wooden Legs grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation three miles from Lame Deer. Like most families from the time, his didn't have a car. So, he ran.

The blood of chiefs runs through his veins and Wooden Legs was given lessons as a child so that one day he could take a leadership role in the tribe. The way to prepare a future chief is to school him about the past.

Wooden Legs grew up hearing stories of when his tribe still roamed freely. He heard about how his great-grandfather fought Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. This same warrior was the first to use the Wooden Legs family name after gaining a reputation for walking great distances.

The elders told young Wooden Legs that the tribe's best leaders had the experiences of a warrior.

At the same time, Wooden Legs attended schools where white teachers taught him to be ashamed. He was told what to wear, how to act, what to say and how to correctly worship God. When he spoke his first language, his mouth was washed out with soap.

Still, he didn't hesitate to volunteer when the United States needed soldiers. Wooden Legs joined the U.S. Army in 1967.

"The government came to the tribe and asked them if they could use the young men to go and fight," Wooden Legs said. "The tribe said OK."

At the end of basic training in Fort Lewis, Wash., Wooden Legs and the rest of Company E, 4th Battalion, 3rd Brigade took the two-day combat proficiency test. He threw grenades, shimmied under barbed wire, shot rifles, ran a mile and "went through the whole gas mask thing," Wooden Legs said.

The highest score possible was 500. Wooden Legs doesn't remember his exact number of points, but it was the highest his instructors had ever seen.

"They were pretty surprised," he said.

His warrior prowess proven, Wooden Legs was shipped off to Vietnam in the winter of 1968. Much of his work consisted of conducting long-range intelligence patrols with two or three other soldiers.

"My grandfather took scalps in the Battle of Little Big Horn at 18. I was in 'Nam at 18," he said.

Back from the war
Wooden Legs returned to the United States a year later. He was spit on and shouted at by war protesters in Washington, but his tribe welcomed him with feasts and honor songs.

"You can pin a lot of medals on me, but you sing me an honor song, that's what gets me," he said. "Medals don't have much meaning."

Wooden Legs decided to sign up for another year in Vietnam. "I wasn't done with what we were doing over there," he said.

As a soldier, Wooden Legs learned to fight and learned to be patient. He also learned lessons about Uncle Sam.

Wooden Legs grew up in a place where vital decisions about health care and education were made a world away, in Washington, D.C. In the jungles of Vietnam, he felt the same pangs of frustration as orders were handed down from generals thousands of miles away in the Pentagon.

Apart from saying that his job was to track enemy forces - and that he "knew where the enemy was most of the time" - Wooden Legs doesn't like to talk about his combat experiences.

Needless to say, his time in Vietnam wasn't pleasant. After the war, it didn't get much easier.

The Northern Cheyenne say all people have two spirits: one good, one bad. In combat and times of trauma, the bad spirit takes over. Soldiers have an easier time killing fellow humans with the bad spirit in command. But the good spirit is afraid of the bad spirit, and the body loses its natural balance.

As the bad spirit dug in its heels, Wooden Legs said, his nightmares and drinking increased. "I was pretty crazy. I didn't care too much about anything."

Others in his tribe returned from Vietnam taunted by the same demons.

Wooden Legs said he and other Northern Cheyenne vets looked for help from the Veteran's Administration, but were turned away and told to find care from the Indian Health Service. But that agency wasn't equipped to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder of combat veterans, Wooden Legs said.

"I was down so much I didn't even think there was a way out," he said.

Help was found not from the government, but from within the tribe. About 20 years ago, Northern Cheyenne elders approached Wooden Legs and a group of other troubled veterans. "They took us and said, 'We're going to help you,' " Wooden Legs said.

There were sweat ceremonies, prayers at sacred sites, cedar smoke blessings and other types of healing that are too difficult to describe using the English language, Wooden Legs said. The traditional ways don't work overnight, he said, but, with time, he began regaining balance.

"My people got me back on my feet," he said.

Role model
Time has passed, and Wooden Legs is now in a role to use his lessons to help his tribe as well as his seven daughters and one son. His youngest daughter, Josette, 17, said her father tries to be a role model.

"Education is very important in our family," she said. "Every time we sit down to eat, it's like a lecture. He talks about tribal law, politics, history. That's all I've ever heard since I was a little girl."

Wooden Legs and some of his fellow Vietnam veterans from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe also are trying to repay their debt by helping others in the tribe going through hard times.

"We help each other. We help any person with any kind of trauma, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse," he said. "We help the people the doctors give up on."

In summer, Wooden Legs hosts a camp for Vietnam veterans from across the country. Many vets have a hard time bringing the good spirit back into their bodies, and Wooden Legs said he tries to help them heal the same way he was helped. "Any Vietnam veteran is my brother."

Wooden Legs is proud to be the Honorary Miler tonight at the Big Sky State Games. But he hopes people look beyond his record as a solitary runner and recognize him as someone who found success with the help of his tribe and someone who is trying to help the next generation.

"When I'm up there with the runners, they're honoring my people too," he said. "I'm proud of that."

Peabody Museum Exhibit of Native Running
Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is pleased to announce its "virtual" exhibition on the traditions of Native American running. This exhibit is shown on-line and not in physical space such as a gallery. The use of computer network technology to present this exhibit, makes it accessible to anyone with Internet access.

Billings, MT Map
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