BELLE FOURCHE — For 24 years, young members of the Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer, Mont., take a physical, and spiritual journey from Fort Robinson, Neb., to Busby, Mont., to honor their ancestors during the Fort Robinson Breakout Spiritual Run.
“The Cheyenne people were held captive (at Fort Robinson), and they were going to be sent back to Oklahoma, which was called Indian Territory at that time,” said Lynette Two Bulls, co-founder and organizer of the Breakout Run. “They didn’t want to go back there, that wasn’t their homeland, so they decided to break-out.”
Two Bulls explained that on Jan. 9, 1879, a group of Northern Cheyenne broke free from their imprisonment at Fort Robinson, Neb., and attempted to brave the harsh winter conditions and travel more than 400-miles to their ancestral lands in the Powder River area of Montana.
Malnourished and weak from their internment at the fort, most of the group was killed before they reached the exit. Many that did escape, were hunted down and executed at point blank range at Antelope Creek.
“Later the remains were dug up and sent to Washington to study the effects of gun powder at close range,” said Two Bulls. “They were held in the Smithsonian all that time … so when the Indian Repatriation Act was passed (in 1990), the Tribe repatriated those remains and they brought them home.”
The remains of the more than 30 Cheyenne people murdered at Antelope Creek were returned to their ancestral home near Busby. Two Bulls said that once the ceremonies had been held and the remains laid to rest, she and her husband, Phillip Whiteman wanted to do more to honor their ancestors who gave their lives as inspiration to never surrender what is truly important.
Whiteman and Two Bulls organized the first Breakout Run in 1996 with 14 Cheyenne youths participating.
“Moving is really healing,” Two Bulls said. “It uplifted them and it was so powerful to see the transformation in all area’s of their life. Emotional, spiritual, physical, it touches all of that.”
They endeavored to make the run an annual event, so on the anniversary of the break-out, Whiteman and Two Bulls bring young members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to Fort Robinson, along with chaperones and medical volunteers, and they pay homage by taking the journey their ancestors did more than 140 years ago.
Runners split the 400-mile journey among themselves, running one or two miles at a time, alternating as need be, while adults follow along in support vans, which serve as staging spots for the runners.
“It’s not about re-traumatizing our kids, but it’s about having them connect to what their ancestors did,” Two Bulls explained. “All along the way we have speakers and people that just uplift and empower these kids.”
For a number of years now, the runners have stopped at the AmericInn in Belle Fourche, for a dinner and some much needed rest sponsored by the Butte County Historical Society. Eleanor Marousek, with the society, was honored Sunday by the Breakout Run organizers for the contributions she and her late husband Melvin made to the annual tradition.
“She said, ‘you believe in the importance of history, and we believe in the importance of history, and that’s our commonality,’” Two Bulls said of Marousek. “’The Butte County Historical Society wants to feed your runners.’”
Two Bulls said the run has become an important right of passage for the young members of the tribe.
“We finish the journey that all of those ancestors did not because they were killed,” she said. “A lot of these kids are really going through some difficult things and the chaos and confusion in the world, you know, they feel that; and so this run is really connecting them back to hope. I think that’s the biggest this is, we have to give them hope.”
Whiteman led the ceremony at the AmericInn, which paid honor to the Marouseks and blessed the meal the runners would receive. During his speech, he summed up just how important the Breakout Run is to the future generations of the Cheyenne people.
“We’re spirits having a human experience,” he said. “That’s what this run is about; it’s about putting one foot in front of the other, learning to stand up, pick up that staff and flag, and continue to move forward and not to get stagnant in mourning or grieving.”
The runners will continue their journey today, making their way to the border of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, before making their final push to Busby on Jan. 14.
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