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Braving bitter cold, Lakotas remember

The 176-mile journey began seven days ago, just south of Standing Rock Reservation on the North and South Dakota border. It ended at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation on a bitterly cold Dec. 29, for the 15th time.

Cloudy and gloomy, it was a fitting day to recall the tragic events of 110 years ago. As 30 or so riders made their way up the steep hill, a crowd of perhaps 150 people grew silent, each caught up in what was happening and the deep meaning of this annual spiritual journey.

Wounded Knee represents one of the darkest moments in Native American history.

"What happened here so many years ago cannot be forgotten by our people. We were and still are a peaceful people," said Alex White Plume, one of the founders of the annual ride which retraces steps of the doomed Big Foot Lakota band.

"We were a peaceful people when so many of us were massacred. This journey was started 15 years ago to pass along the seed to our young that they must keep the memory alive of what happened here, so they can learn ... all they can about our people so this generation and the generations to come will not die or vanish. The Lakota must survive.

"We started this journey 15 years ago with just 19 riders. The next year we had double that amount and the following year we had 120 riders.

"We don't publicize this ride. We don't advertise in any way. If you have to ask what the meaning of this ride is all about, then you really don't know," he said.

"I once had a young man come to me and ask if he could ride with us. I told him if he had to ask, then perhaps he didn't really need to ride."

As riders circled the massive grave, the only sound was of the wind pelting bystanders like pins. Finished circling, the riders sat on their horses, still, deep in thought.

When it was time to enter the fenced area, a monument stark against the sky, only descendants of the people's spirit were allowed inside, 30 of them.

In the crowd were people from around the world. A party of six from Frankfort, Germany, made the full journey from Standing Rock.

Another German couple had just arrived for the ceremony. "We came because we have heard so much about what happened here. I got interested in the event after reading something about it on the Internet. As you know, in our own history we to had something similar, except some of our people were the doers," Shane Rottenhouser said.

A couple from Sweden read about it and came to see, with their own eyes, how the American Indians honored their dead.

Included were folks from Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Some were there out of curiosity, some out of genuine concern, and admittedly, several were there "just to observe."

A film crew from Los Angeles was on hand.

"I work for a production company that is documenting endangered species. We have done the grizzly bear and other animals, but they also wanted something on the Indians," Mark said as he continued to film. "I started the journey at McDonald's Ranch. That's only four days ago. I work with the cook and with the support group."

"I guess we all come for different reasons, but I think we all have one underlying reason for taking the journey," Rhae Washburn from Eagle Butte said. "It is to plant the seed of knowledge for our youth. You can't make a child learn something. All you can do is plant the seed of knowledge and hope the child will want to learn. You place the information out there and, if things are right, your kids will pick it up and learn on their own."

The ceremony lasted almost an hour. Descendants said prayers and gave thanks to the Creator who gave life and land.

"That mass grave was the idea of the soldiers," White Plume explained. "We (Lakota) don't bury our people like that. What is left there is nothing but dirt and perhaps ashes, but what we are concerned with is the spirit of our people, those people that were massacred for no reason."

After Chief Sitting Bull was murdered by federal Indian Police, Dec. 15, 1890, Chief Spotted Elk (or Big Foot) worried that he too would be murdered and his people arrested.

He moved his band toward Pine Ridge reservation under guidance of Chief Red Cloud. On the way, they were met by Maj. Samuel Whiteside and his 7th Cavalry and herded to Wounded Knee where Col. James W. Forsyth, a known Indian hater, took command.

Spotted Elk, as he was generally known among the Lakota, was ill with pneumonia and flying a white flag to signal peace, believing his band had already surrendered. Troopers, some reportedly intoxicated, surrounded the camp and when Forsyth tried to disarm the band, a shot rang out and a massacre began.

Three hundred died, mostly women, children and elderly. Some women and children were found as far as two miles away, murdered by troopers.

Several days later, after a blizzard subsided, a burial party picked up the remaining bodies, about 146 on the massacre site, and threw them into a mass grave. It was reported that at least one of them was still alive.

This is why the Lakota make this spiritual journey of unity. This is why they stand in bitter cold to give honor to innocent people who died 110 years ago.

"Sometimes you wonder if what you are doing is worth it, then something comes along and you know it's worth it," White Plume said.

"For me that happened just a day ago. My five-year-old grandson came to me and said he wanted to ride. He didn't ask if he could, he said 'I want to ride.' I knew right then that what we do here today is all worth it. It put tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

"I can tell him what happened here, but unless he wants to know in his heart, then that's all I can do. But when he wants to get involved, especially at so young an age, then I know that the next generation will understand what we do and why we honor these people.

"The Lakota are a proud people. You can see it coming out in our young people. When the young come to you, like my grandson did to me, then you just know that our people will survive and that's what all this is all about."