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Cheyenne warrior can finish spiritual journey

FORT SUPPLY, Okla. - Remains of a Cheyenne warrior, believed to have died in the Battle of Wolf Creek, were reburied last month so he might complete the journey he began in 1838.

The warrior, known as Sandman, is believed to have begun his spiritual journey following the Battle of Wolf Creek during an intertribal war between the Cheyenne and Kiowa nations.

He was reburied in the Fort Supply cemetery as a small gathering of people sang a Cheyenne memorial song. It was on the 132nd anniversary of the day hundreds of Cheyenne were slain along the icy banks of the Washita River.

"As a chief, I felt it was my responsibility to get him back on his spiritual journey," said Gordon Yellowman, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act representative for the Cheyenne-Arapaho Nation. "It was something that was done out of respect for him. We know that the burial rights were already given to him at the first burial. We were just doing this to get him back on his spirit journey, it was an honoring ceremony."

He conducted the ceremony which began at a canvas tipi outside the fort's replica stockade. The remains, wrapped in a painted buffalo hide and smudged with sweet grass, were carefully loaded onto an antique buckboard which bore him to the cemetery.

"I believe he may have been a Cheyenne chief or someone of great standing among his people," Yellowman said.

The remains were unearthed by accident in 1973 by a homeowner south of Woodward. Since then the remains have been at Fort Sill and the University of Oklahoma for study.

Yellowman speculates that Sandman died in the battle since, "there was still intertribal warfare going on between tribes because of territorial encroachment.

"Kiowas and Comanches were camped along Wolf Creek," he explained.

"They were still fighting among one another. We have traced his trade goods back to this time. He was only twenty miles south of the battle site. It makes a lot of sense. You take your victims away.

"We also know that he had fallen off his horse. He had a broken arm, his arm was swelled up and the brass coils around his arm had to be cut away. With the pelvic grooves we know that he was an equestrian. What happened was that when he fell off his horse, that is when he got killed, either from the swelling of his arm or from infection. We know that he was given proper burial rights at that time in the way that a Cheyenne would have done it."

Tom Duggin, the landowner who was excavating for the foundation of his new home apparently understood the significance of what he had unearthed and contacted Oklahoma's State Archeological Society. Such vigilance in the pre-NAGPRA era wasn't common, and probably helped keep Sandman from being sold overseas to a collector.

"Everything was done respectfully and in a non-destructive way," he said.

Yellowman said the state had planned to study the remains, but for years nothing was done. In 1995, the Cheyenne Nation received an inventory from the state regarding remains. Although he was relatively new to NAGPRA, Yellowman began assembling a team of Cheyenne professionals to begin examining the remains.

"I really wanted to utilize our Cheyenne resources," Yellowman said. The group learned that Sandman was between 27 and 33 years of age when he died. A Cheyenne forensic artist has replicated what Sandman probably looked like.

"We were able to culturally identify him as affiliated with the Cheyenne, but not who he was," Yellowman remarked. "This was an individual who was important among the people at that time. We're certain that he was a person of great standing. All of his trade items and burial items that were with him ... told us that this guy was a great trader and a great hunter. We knew that he was a great warrior because we have tied him in with being a victim of the Battle of Wolf Creek."

The name Sandman came from where the remains were found, in a sand bed. "The name just kind of stuck with him," Yellowman said.

The cooperation between state archaeologists and the Cheyenne Nation was so great the team documented all of the work done in identifying and repatriating Sandman. They hope to use what they learned as a model for other tribes and states because of the respectful manner in which Sandman's remains were handled.

Yellowman said they proved that even after 27 years, mutual respect and cooperation allowed them to rebury a Cheyenne warrior with dignity.