Dakota 38 Ride Jessica Olson
Facebook/Jessica Olson
A rider breaks from the crowd and rides with a staff in the ride to honor the 38 + 2 who died in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history.

Remembering and Reconciling Tragic Winter Events With Memorial Rides and Runs

Christina Rose

While the mainstream celebrates Christmas as a time for peace and joy, across the Plains the winter holidays are a reminder of massacres that took place throughout the 1800s. Though the decades and years may be different, dates in late December through early January recall the hardest time across the Plains. Today though, many of those tragic events are remembered with memorial rides and runs.

Americans enjoy peace and prayerful holidays at a time when Native Americans are remembering atrocities and honoring those who died. (By Ron Cobb, Thanksgiving in America, 1968)

On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was killed at his home. After his death, Big Foot led his band away from the area through knee-deep snow, seeking refuge with Red Cloud at the Pine Ridge Agency. For nearly 300 Minneconjou Lakota men, women, and children, including Big Foot, their journey ended on a cold morning at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.

RELATED: Native History: Sitting Bull Shot By Indian Police, His Legacy Remains

Today, the Big Foot Ride begins in Standing Rock and ends at the Wounded Knee Memorial. Percy White Plume, whose 1986 vision led to the origin of the Big Foot Ride, said the temperatures for this year’s ride were as low as minus 10 degrees. “We had about 100 riders. They start off in McLaughlin, South Dakota, where Sitting Bull was killed at his home site. They go to different stops, and reenact the fleeing of Sitting Bull’s people from the Bridger area. We join up with them and it starts back down to Wounded Knee. Every year there are more youth than adults. The youth that started 10 years ago are adults now.”

Bigfoot Riders arrive at Wounded Knee—for some it was two weeks after the ride began. (Andrew Ironshell/Thunder Valley)

For the Upper and Lower Sioux Dakota, the Ride for the Dakota 38 + 2, begins in Lower Brule and continues to Mankato, the site of the December 26, 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota people. Two were found in Canada and hanged later. Forced off of their land by the broken treaties and unfulfilled promises of financial compensation, supplies and food, one Indian agent, Andrew Myrick said, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.” An uprising by the starving and freezing Dakota resulted in the largest mass hanging in history, the day after Christmas.

“Why choose the hanging to be the day after Christmas?” Gabrielle Strong, Dakota from the Upper Sioux Community asked. “That is supposed to be such a sacred time in the Christian tradition. Was it a gift to the non-Native people in Minnesota? We need to talk about these hard and painful things that people don’t want to acknowledge, but they need to be acknowledged. That’s how you move forward. You tell the truth,” Strong said.

More than 40 riders made their way to Mankato, Minnesota to honor the 38 + 2 who died in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. (Facebook/Ella Mae Greybuffalo)

The rides and runs are indeed bringing acknowledgement of the atrocities, and through them, truth and the beginnings of reconciliation are beginning to occur. Vanessa Good Thunder, Dakota, 20, just finished her ninth ride. Good Thunder became involved in the rides when she was only 11 years old. “Every year we are spreading the education. Since we started the ride more and more people are coming out and asking questions, and when they learn about it, they want to help, so the healing and the education is really powerful.”

“We believe in what the ride stands for,” Strong said. “That healing and unification of all the Dakota who have originated from this homeland, this motherland of Minnesota. The exile that took place afterwards (in 1863, when the Dakota were banned from Minnesota), this ride brings home all that ancestral spirit and the descendants of those people. Dakota people from as far away as Canada, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, from all over the present-day reservation communities, come home for this ride.”

For Lynette Two Bulls, executive director of Yellowbird, the Fort Robinson Breakout Run for the Northern Cheyenne is also healing, especially to the youth. “Today the youth are not running from bullets and gunfire, today they are running for their future, and they are running for the future generations that have yet to come,” she said.

Runners pray after the second day of the Fort Robinson Run, which starts at Fort Robinson, Nebraska and ends 400 miles later in Lame Deer, Montana. More than 100 youth, ages 11 and up, relay run for five days. (Christina Rose)

At Fort Robinson, Nebraska, 150 Northern Cheyenne planned their escape, knowing they risked death, rather than return to the Oklahoma Indian Territory where heat and disease had claimed many of their people. They were in dire straits in the camp where thirsty children licked the frost on the window panes for water. On January 9, 1879, they broke out, running into the cold night. Soldier’s bullets hit some and flew past the faces of others, but the majority of those survivors were soon gunned down in a massacre at point blank range at Antelope Creek.

RELATED: Native History: Descendant Tells Father’s Story of Fort Robinson Escape

On January 9, for the last 19 years, Northern Cheyenne youth reenact the breakout from Fort Robinson, running in the ice-cold weather, sometimes wearing only T-shirts. “They were cold, so we will be cold,” one young man reported after his run. The 400-mile, five-day relay run is currently raising funds on indiegogo for the upcoming run.

Two Bulls said the importance of the run goes beyond reconnecting with history and extends into developing a sense of identity. “With identity comes self-esteem. For so many years, our children were taught to disconnect from their culture and identity and they were never at peace, they were always searching. So, when they learn of their history and that their ancestors died so they could have life today, something happens to them. It’s powerful; that reconnection takes place. They begin to value life and who they are as a spirit, connected to Mother Earth and the universe. They take off their jackets and run in their shorts and tank tops because they want to experience a little bit of what their ancestors experienced,” she said.

The winter season means many things to many people. For some it is a time of celebration. For others, it is a time to remember the harsh conditions of starvation and cold, massacres, rape, imprisonment, and the hanging of ancestors.

“Non-Natives that do this ride and support us today, they are trying to understand and build awareness, to develop that cross-cultural understanding. Most schools don’t teach this, most people have no idea this occurred. Through the rides, awareness is being built, and for the first time we are seeing schools in Minnesota that are acknowledging that these things have taken place,” Strong said.

Horses and riders emerge from the mist to honor the spirits of those who died at Mankato in 1862. (Facebook/Gloria Hazell Derby/Alberta Iron Cloud Miller)

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