WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. - At the site of the 1890 massacre of Chief Si Tanka (Big Foot) and his band of Mniconjou and Hunkpapa refugees, several hundred horse-riders gathered in a circle for prayer. Then in a flurry of speed they circled and rode up the hill to the mass grave, which was surrounded by horses and riders. The leaders laid tobacco, sage and food on the grave with prayer to honor and respect the Lakota ancestors, women, children, elders and warriors who are buried at the site.
This was the scene Dec. 29 at the conclusion of the 17th annual Big Foot Memorial Ride. More than 250 riders, some as young as seven, journeyed from the site of Sitting Bull's birth and death on the Standing Rock reservation some 300 miles to Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge. A recurring dream in the mid-1980s directed a Lakota elder to begin the ride as a way to heal the wounds of the 1890 massacre. It continues today to honor the courage of the ancestors and to teach the young to become leaders.
"When you give of yourself that is all you own. The Creator gave you everything else as a gift. When you have pain you made yourself traditional and strong. And for the young women who rode, thank you," Ron McNeil, president of Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation, said to the many young riders after the ride.
"You felt the pain in your legs that were rubbed raw and you were hungry, but you continued and showed how sincere you were," McNeil said.
Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe bundle, said some of the young people on the ride this year were babies when the ride started. Now they are being asked to become leaders and "speak about love and compassion when they go back to their communities."
"It is good to see all the youth on the ride. It will teach them to build trust and fear nothing and to support each other and respect each other as brothers and sisters," he said.
The ride attracted national and even international attention this year. One couple journeyed from Japan to participate. Another family, William and Sandra Speiden and their son Lief, came to the beginning ceremonies with a catlinite ceremonial pipe which might once have belonged to Sitting Bull. Sandra Speiden said she purchased the Pipe at the 1984 auction of belongings of a granddaughter of Civil War General Thomas Rosser, who later in his career was chief engineer for construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad and befriended Sitting Bull, then an exile in Canada after the Battle of Greasy Grass Creek (Little Big Horn). According to the Teton Times of McLaughlin, S.D., the Standing Rock Sioux newspaper, Speiden was moved by the Spirit to return the Pipe to a descendant of Sitting Bull.
An incident of vandalism midway through the Ride also prompted national support to keep the pilgrimage going.
The Big Foot Ride began in 1987 at the urging of Birgil Kills Straight, a descendant of a Wounded Knee Massacre survivor. Each year, the riders have come together to sacrifice and pray for the 13-day trip from the Standing Rock Reservation beginning on the anniversary of the death of Sitting Bull and ending at Wounded Knee on Dec. 28, the day before the anniversary of the massacre. (Please turn to page D-1 for a map of the ride and chronology of the 1890 events)
In the first few years the ride was to honor the ancestors. Later it was to teach the young people to become leaders through courage, self-discipline and respect and to learn about their ancestors as well.
McNeil said he was proud that a lot more young people participated this year. He has ridden on the ride from the beginning, he said. While many rides have endured intense cold, this year the weather was good.
Six young Spirit Riders from Wakpala on the Standing Rock Reservation, some with more than two years experience, joined the group.
"It was a good ride, no wrecks and one of the kids has ridden his fourth year," said Manaja Hill, Wakpala. "This year was different because there were a lot of youth."
One outbreak of hostility, apparently from non-Indians, did interrupt the ride briefly. While on an overnight at Cherry Creek on the Cheyenne River Reservation two tires on each of the pickups and horse trailers were slashed. At first juveniles were thought to be involved, but adults were found to be the guilty parties. No explanation has been determined.
The vandalism prompted a nationwide appeal for support, but local volunteers quickly took care of the problem. Paula Horn, a spokesperson for the Ride, said, "The Mennonites assisted with equipment to patch and get the people to Rapid City, two hours away, to get the tires replaced.
"Like the Buffalo Nation that stands around to help one that is down, everyone did just that."
"A lot of these kids are learning lots from this, even the disgrace of vandalism and what that brings to people that are trying to learn a history of a people from a spiritual perspective.
"So all is good," she reassured nationwide supporters. "Thanks all for the prayers!"
The youth on the ride learned a lesson about the courage of the ancestors who made the original journey. As Big Foot's followers traveled from their home on the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Reservations to join with Red Cloud at Pine Ridge, they walked most of the way and endured the severe winter weather of the Great Plains.
"I learned to take care of my horse before myself and to respect others," said eight-year-old Ramey Hill, a two-year veteran of the Big Foot Ride. He said this year was easier than last year, because he was riding a pony last year and it was a rough ride. He added that he wants to become a scout rider in the future.
Wiyaka Wastewin, 10, a second year rider said she had fun on the ride and learned about respect for other.
"It was a spiritual experience. I found out how hard it was for my ancestors to walk all the way," she said. Wastewin plans on more rides in the future.
Kills Straight said, "The horse is sacred to us and when a person is on a horse you seem to understand life around him. The riders are important to us. We must keep this going on and carry it forward."
At the closing ceremonies, Looking Horse said, "Today during out holiday season it is supposed to be about love and compassion but there are children who are not safe in their homes and elders live in fear that their loved ones are going to war right now."
He added that more than 100 years ago on the Great Plains there was no fear because the people were healthy and the Indian nations had respect for each other.
"Everything was put through ceremonies and prayer. Dreams were strong. People have to go through the protocol of ceremonies; a lot of honoring and respect. Today we just talk about it," he said.
World peace was the message for 1990, the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee. It was also the coldest ride on record with 75-degree below wind chill on occasion and no day with temperatures above zero.