After 133 years, Cheyenne people are teaching youth about their ancestors who left starvation and illness in Indian Territory—today’s Oklahoma—for an ill-fated attempt to return to their Powder River homelands in present-day Montana and Wyoming.
Defeated and captured by the U.S. Army on their journey north, members of Dull Knife’s band of Cheyenne refused to surrender or return to Indian Territory, so they were imprisoned in barracks without food, water or heat at Fort Robinson, in today’s northwest Nebraska. They attempted escape in subzero weather at 10:30 p.m., January 9, 1879. Many were shot down just outside the barracks, others were killed in the snow as they fled, and a few survived.
The 130 people making the 400-mile Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run January 9-14 this year cannot go back in time to 1879, but they can recapture some of their ancestors’ experience as they “break out” of the rebuilt Army barracks at Fort Robinson at the hour, 10:30 p.m., and on the day, January 9, that approximately 130 Cheyenne people charged out into the snow, fought with the few weapons they had concealed, and were wounded or killed outright.
Most of those killed in 1879 were buried at Busby, in southeastern Montana, the final destination of this year’s 400-mile, six-day run, which will include ceremonies along the way and at the end.
Because their ancestors had few blankets or winter clothing, the Cheyenne descendants often don’t wear coats or jackets—even in the bitter cold—out of respect for their ordeal, said Lynette Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota, who, with Phillip Whiteman Jr., Northern Cheyenne, organized the run and shared information by phone as they traveled through Nebraska.
The Outbreak—part remembrance, part memorial, part healing and affirmation—is like others across Native America, including the Big Foot Memorial Ride to Wounded Knee, the Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk, the Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye Horse Ride, the Trail of Tears Motorcycle Ride/Walk, and others, conducted annually through participants’ insistence that the past is in the present and cannot be forgotten.
“We as First Nations people have experienced trauma and four generations of oppression,” Whiteman said, adding that he has learned, “You can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that created it,” as he recalled recent mass shootings.
“We want to become ‘thrivers,’ not survivors,” he said. “We want to help youth become warriors—protectors of Mother Earth to counter the effects of the industrial culture.”
It’s important for youth to learn what happened to their ancestors, partly so they can learn about their bravery and commitment in order to gain self-esteem, and partly so they can cross the generations and understand “this is why I’m maybe doing some of the things we do,” Two Bulls said. She added that emphasizing self-esteem can help to counteract youth suicide, a tragedy that afflicts some tribes today.
On the contemporary journey, non-Natives in South Dakota hosted dinner for the runners in a “spirit of diversity, understanding and respect,” she said, and recalled that at Fort Robinson the runners ate in Comanche Hall—named after the horse that survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn—and slept in officers’ quarters “where they were once forbidden to go.”
The day before the runners began the run, they visited sites around Fort Robinson including the Last Hole, where Cheyenne women and children seeking refuge were shot point-blank, she said.
Their remains and those of warriors who, guns empty of ammunition, still charged the soldiers, were turned over to the Army, which used them to “study the effects of gunpowder at close range,” Two Bulls said. Some of the remains were repatriated to the tribe and buried at Busby.
How are survivors approached about the past? “We sometimes hear, ‘Just get over it,’ but historical trauma runs deep—you have to heal from it, revisit it, to let it go,” she responds.