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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Students Run To Remember
by Jodi Rave - Indian Country Today correspondent
credits: Photos courtesy of the Billings (MT) Gazette
LAME DEER, Mont. – After a five-day journey through four states, youth runners from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana completed a 400-mile journey Jan. 15 in commemoration of their relatives who escaped from a military fort in Nebraska in January 1879.

Earlier this month, 97 runners from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, mostly grade school and high school students, participated in the Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run. About 30 more supporters followed them to cook, drive and offer support as one highway mile marker eventually blurred into hundreds through Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and finally the southeastern corner of Montana. Many runners and supporters shared stories about how the run changed their life.

"This was my first time, I didn't know what to expect except what I heard from my grandchildren on previous runs," said Alaina Buffalo Spirit, whose granddaughter and grandson joined the run. "It was very emotional hearing the horrific events that happened to our ancestors. I was moved to tears when I heard Jenny Parker tell the story of her grandmother who ran into the night with a baby. When she went to take the baby off her back, the baby's head had been blown off."

More so, said Buffalo Spirit, she was moved by the positive effect the run had on the youths who returned home full of pride, joy and energy. Indeed, the students remained in high spirits beginning with the first day of the event, which started with a prayer at Bear Butte in South Dakota, to the exuberant homecoming reception in Ashland, Mont., where hundreds of people lined the streets to greet the returning runners.

People whooped, hollered, honked car horns and shed tears of pride when the runners ran as an entire group into town. Otherwise, they had run the entire 400-mile stretch as relay, with male and female runners paired together. The girls carried the Northern Cheyenne flag while the boys carried an eagle feather staff.

The run is organized by Phillip Whiteman Jr. and Lynette Two Bulls of Yellow Bird Inc., a nonprofit organization on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The event started 14 years ago as a run around the reservation. Eleven years ago, they decided to expand it to commemorate Cheyenne relatives who were rounded up and forcibly removed from Montana to Oklahoma after defeating Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.

After sickness and heat killed more than half of the Northern Cheyenne while in the Indian Territory, about 300 people left Fort Reno Sept. 9, 1879. "In the middle of the night, the military societies said enough is enough and they walked away," said Whiteman. Before they could make it home, Dull Knife's band was imprisoned at Fort Robinson. They were starved at the fort because they refused to return to Oklahoma. On Jan. 9, 1879, the group decided to break out of the fort's log barracks, choosing death over starvation and imprisonment.

Today, many American Indians are still recovering from the historical trauma associated with death, disease, imprisonment and unemployment associated with a change in their traditional way of life. "After four generations, I feel hope," Whiteman said. "That's what inspires us to fight this battle of ongoing extermination of our people. At the same time, I see the faces of the young people who have so much pride. Doing something like this takes a lot of hard work. You have to have a lot of passion to overcome negativity. That's what those original warriors had to face. They faced overwhelming odds that didn't discourage them from breaking out."

The five-day journey is about more than running. All along the way, they participate in prayers and ceremonies. Additionally, inspirational speakers are invited to talk with the young people about how to be better human beings. Speaker Gerard Baker, superintendent at Mount Rushmore National Park in South Dakota, asked some of the younger kids to do three things every day, including supporting everyone around them and daily prayer.

"He inspired us to look in the mirror and say, 'I am a warrior,'" said BreeAnna Little Coyote, 13. "He made me want to cry, he was so inspiring. He told us we were all brothers and sisters."

Even though one might expect the kids to get more tired with each passing highway mile, their joy and energy only seemed to increase the closer they got to home. When the community in Lame Deer hosted their return with a dinner, the youths painted their faces.

To an outsider, they may have appeared militant, said Buffalo Spirit, who traveled with the group. But the run has a much more powerful effect, she said, noting how a few years earlier, the run motivated Cinnamon Spear to enroll and later graduate from Dartmouth College. The war paint signified their "warrior spirit. They were being prideful."

Little Coyote and Roshandra Little Cherries, 13, were among a number of students on the trip who were convinced their warrior relatives of Fort Robinson joined them on the run.

One of Little Coyote's friends, said, "'BreeAnna. BreeAnna, can you hear that? Just listen.' And I could hear old people singing way out there while we were running. It was awesome. When we were finished they stopped. You could hear a drum, too. It was really loud but way out there." After the song, the girls also heard the women's cry of honor. "There was 'luluing,'" said Little Coyote.

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