Fifteen years after a small group of Northern Cheyenne elders traveled to Nebraska and wept at the site where some of their ancestors suffered and died, a monument meant to make sure no one ever forgets that sacrifice has been dedicated.
The Northern Cheyenne Breakout Monument honors the tribal members who tried to break out from imprisonment at the U.S. Army outpost at Camp Robinson, now Fort Robinson, in western Nebraska during the winter of 1878-1879. More than 60 Cheyenne men, women and children were killed during the breakout following four days with no food or water, according to the Nebraska Historical Society.
“It took 15 years to get it done,” said Vince White Crane, coordinator of the Northern Cheyenne Breakout Monument that now stands near Fort Robinson State Park. “There were times when we ran out of money and times when we just couldn’t get the right people, but finally it all came together.”
In July, Northern Cheyenne tribal members traveled from their reservation in Montana to the monument site in Crawford, Nebraska, for the dedication. The monument is a teepee-like structure featuring plaques telling the story of the Cheyenne’s plight. It is made of Pipestone rock, which came from a Cheyenne tribal member who owned a quarry in Pipestone, Minnesota, White Crane said.
The group hopes in the future to construct a trail from the barracks to the monument, pow wow grounds as well as an interpretive center that shares the history of the breakout as told by Northern Cheyenne people. “Rather than coming from the fort’s stories, the soldier’s stories, we want it coming from our people,” White Crane said.
White Crane became involved with the project after taking his mother, Edna Redfox, and other tribal elders to Nebraska for a pow wow back in 2001. It was then that the women saw that the site that held such historical value for the tribe was in poor condition.
“There was a sign there kind of explaining what happened at the breakout. The ladies were looking at it – it was a wooden sign and there were bullet holes in there,” White Crane said. “The ladies cried and we really felt sad there wasn’t anything else that really told the story of the breakout.”
Afterward, the elders met with Nebraska ranchers T.R. and Kay Hughes, who wanted to help create a monument of remembrance. The couple ended up donating land for the cause, and the women went to work raising funds by hosting bingo games.
But a few years ago the money ran out, and it looked like the monument might remain half-finished. That’s when the Nebraska Land Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting agricultural, historical and natural resources in Nebraska, got involved and helped fundraise within the state. The organization uses conservation easements to legally protect wildlife habitat, scenic views, clean water, historic sites and working agriculture on their land. Usually this means working with farmers and ranchers to preserve grasslands, said David Sands, executive director of the Nebraska Land Trust.
“But in this case, the property had extraordinary historical value and meaning to the Cheyenne people, and so we felt it was perfectly within our mission to try and help them to enhance the historical value of the property through completion of the monument,” Sands said. The trust helped raise the remaining necessary funds with others through personal and foundation donations.
Calling the event “one of the darker chapters in American history,” Sands said the Land Trust believes history isn’t always pretty but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth knowing and understanding.
“We feel this monument also speaks to a much larger issue, which is the issue of identifying people by race or culture and then persecuting those people,” he said. “Our hope is that this monument will stand as a reminder of never again. It will remind people of what happened there and what did happen and people will think to themselves this will never ever happen again.”
White Crane said the monument is a sacred, healing place for the Northern Cheyenne people. His mom, Redfox, was at the dedication ceremony, but the other women who were so passionate about creating the monument died in recent years and were unable to see its completion.
His mom, who will turn 90 in March, said at the dedication that her friends wanted this monument and she was very happy to have it finished.
“She said this is what they would have wanted. This is what we wanted to do and it’s completed. She just felt so relieved and honored to have that happen. I just felt that way, too, with her,” White Crane said.