Cheyennes from left, Wallace Bearchum, Roger Redhat and Donavan
Taylor lead a quiet processional carrying the remains of two
ancestors up a hill to a burial ground in Busby. (photo by
John Warner for the Billings Gazette)
It took 138 years, but the remains of what researchers believe
were two Northern Cheyenne killed during the historic Fort Robinson
Breakout of 1879 have been reunited with their ancestral homelands
in southeastern Montana.
Cheyenne carry pine boxes containing the remains of two ancestors
who were returned to the tribe for burial in their homeland.
(photo by John Warner for the Billings Gazette)
The two sets of remains have been stored at the Nebraska State
Historical Society's museum in Lincoln. Last weekend's repatriation
ceremony was the first for the Northern Cheyenne since the tribe's
initial repatriations in 1993.
Cheyenne chiefs and spiritual leaders carry pine boxes containing
the remains of 24 ancestors returned to the tribe in 1993.
(photo by John Warner for the Billings Gazette)
Wallace Bearchum, who serves as the vice chairman of the tribe's
cultural commission, was among about 10 tribal officials who traveled
to Lincoln last week to reclaim the bodies.
Their return to the reservation was book-ended by traditional
ceremonies in Lincoln and Busby, he said, followed by a formal burial
Friday morning. During the initial rites in Nebraska, tribal dignitaries
spoke to the ancestors, performed prayers and burned tribal medicines
to prepare for the journey.
remains of two Northern Cheyenne ancestors sit inside the
tepee as visitors wait in line to pay respects. The remains
were taken to a bluff overlooking Busby and buried with a
group of 24 relatives who were repatriated in 1993. (photo
by John Warner for the Billings Gazette)
"It was a spiritual, real emotional, powerful experience," Bearchum
said. "As we were leaving, we could feel what the remains were feeling,
just a real relief that they were out of there and we could tell
what they were feeling.
On the way back, when we were in
the Black Hills, we could feel that they were happy being back in
At the museum, the remains were placed in traditional cedar
boxes, loaded into Bearchum's car and driven Thursday through South
Dakota to Busby, where teepees, a fire and meals had been prepared
for the evening wake.
Cheyennes sing and drum in honor of relatives who were returned
to the tribe and buried in Busby. (photo by John Warner for
the Billings Gazette)
Several elders and other members of the tribe stayed up with
the remains overnight, and about 50 tribal members joined Friday's
procession from Busby to the Chief Two Moons Memorial on a hill
overlooking town. The final resting place for the two tribal members
shares space with at least 24 other Northern Cheyenne remains that
were relocated during the initial repatriation effort in 1993.
Northern Cheyenne youth views pine boxes containing remains
of 24 ancestors and relatives before they were buried in Busby
in 1993. (photo by John Warner for the Billings Gazette)
Beyond the spiritual importance of the ceremonies and long-awaited
return of their ancestors' remains, the most recent repatriation
also holds a deep historical importance for the tribe.
Following their role in the defeat of General Custer's Army
at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Northern Cheyenne were hunted
by the U.S. Army until their capture in 1877. With no reservation
of their own at the time, the tribe was sent to live with the Southern
Cheyenne in present-day Oklahoma, where many of their members perished
due to the unfamiliar desert climate, disease and scarce assistance
from the U.S. government.
With their tribe nearing its breaking point, two Northern Cheyenne
chiefs, Little Wolf and Dull Knife, led an escape from the reservation
in September of 1878, bringing about 300 people north in a journey
back to their homeland in the Northern Plains.
The two leaders split up, and the pursuing U.S. soldiers eventually
caught up to Dull Knife's band, forcing their surrender and confining
them to Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska. Refusing to be relocated
back to the brutal conditions they previously faced in Oklahoma,
the remaining members of the tribe on Jan. 9, 1879, launched the
"Fort Robinson Breakout," a bloody skirmish alternately known as
the "Fort Robinson Massacre."
Cheyennes bury the remains of 24 men, women and children during
a repatriation in 1993. (photo by John Warner for the Billings
At least 64 Northern Cheyenne were killed over a two-week period
beginning on the night of the breakout, according to historical
accounts compiled by the American Indian Tribal Histories Project.
Included in that total are 23 who initially escaped but were later
cornered in a pit along a creek and shot by soldiers at point-blank
Kevin Kooistra serves as the executive director of the Western
Heritage Center in Billings, which recently hosted an exhibit on
the tribe's struggle against the U.S. government. The Fort Robinson
Breakout and the events surrounding it continue to have a profound
effect on the tribe's legacy, he said.
It's "kind of like their Exodus. It's very important," he said.
Referring to subsequent media accounts of the Breakout and federal
investigations that were critical of the government's actions. "I
think what happened at Fort Robinson was kind of a turning point
as far as the public's stance."
More than a century later, the Northern Cheyenne continued to
play a role in shaping federal Indian policy.
Repatriations have been partly funded by the Native American
Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed by Congress in 1990.
The law has helped tribes throughout the country to reclaim the
remnants of their ancestors, and established requirements and procedures
for returning human remains or cultural items likely belonging to
with a Pendelton blanket, a small pine box containing the
remains of a Northern Cheyenne ancestor is lowered into the
ground. (photo by John Warner for the Billings Gazette)
One of the architects of that law, Bill Tallbull, was a Northern
Cheyenne tribal historian who served on the committee that helped
to draft the 1990 act. He was also responsible for the discovery
of the two recently repatriated remains in Lincoln, Bearchum said.
"A lot of this started with the late Bill Tallbull, he went
around and found out about universities and museums that had Cheyenne
remains," Bearchum said.
Tallbull worked with the Lincoln history museum to verify the
suspected Cheyenne remains, which Nebraska State Archaeologist Rob
Bozell said is typically determined by a preponderance of circumstantial
evidence under the federal law.
"We have to say, based on our evidence, here's our most likely
understanding of who these remains are ancestral to," Bozell explained.
"There were some artifacts with them, some beads, glass beads and
things that looked like they were from the 1870s, so by process
of elimination, that's probably related to the Cheyenne outbreak.
The Nebraska Historical Society's analysis indicated that the
two sets of remains belonged to a pair of males, aged 20 to 40,
who were most likely Northern Cheyenne who were among the roughly
150 involved in the Fort Robinson Breakout.
Cheyenne Tribal Historic Tribal Preservation Officer Teanna
Limpy invites members to place wreaths on the 24 graves of
Cheyennes buried in 1993. (photo by John Warner for the Billings
Helping to lead the months-long effort to secure the remains
was Teanna Limpy, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Preservation Officer.
While the tribe had initially learned of the suspected tribal remains
in the late 1990s, Limpy said it took years to navigate the process
and secure the resources needed to transmit the remains back to
"It took a lot of time to ensure that we were doing everything
correctly," she said. "It's the first I've had to do since
being director of the programs, so it was something fairly new to
my staff and people that weren't at the '93 repatriations."
members stand as the remains were prepared for burial. Highway
212 traffic moves by below the windswept knoll overlooking
Busby. (photo by John Warner for the Billings Gazette)
Despite the learning curve, however, she said her office will
be better prepared to complete repatriation projects in the future.
"Everything turned out great, and it was a beautiful ceremony,"
Limpy said. "I'm just happy that my ancestors were able to finally
go back home to their people and to be reunited with their people
after 138 years. I think that's what's most rewarding for all of
us involved and for all the Cheyenne nations."
"As we were leaving, we could feel what the
remains were feeling, just a real relief that they were out of
there and we could tell what they were feeling.
way back, when we were in the Black Hills, we could feel that
they were happy being back in the homeland."
Wallace Bearchum, vice chairman of the
Northern Cheyenne tribe's cultural commission