Native History: Descendant Tells Father’s Story of Fort Robinson Escape
On January 22, 1879, the cavalry came from three directions and attacked and killed more than 30 Cheyenne people at point blank range at Antelope Creek. Already on the run for more than two weeks, the Northern Cheyenne had escaped from Fort Robinson, Nebraska, to return to their homelands in the north. During that time, they had been hunted, killed, mutilated, and tortured by the cavalry. Antelope Creek was the site of the final attack.
Previously, the Cheyenne had been tricked into going to the Southern Plains reservation in what is now Kansas and Oklahoma. They remained there a year, but food was scarce and they were dependent on the government’s hand-outs. The Cheyenne were determined to return to their homelands, where there was still enough game to support them.
Jenny Seminole Parker, a Northern Cheyenne elder, recounted the story of the exodus, told to her by her father, who had been at Fort Robinson with his own parents. The story she told began with the decision to leave the Southern Plains.
“They were all planning together and decided to come back to their north home. They knew they would face hardship; they had no food and they knew soldiers were following them. When they got to Kansas, they had their last battle near a fork in a creek we called The Place Where We Got Knives.
“When they got to the fork, they knew the soldiers were coming, so they hid in a cave and set a trap for the soldiers. Everybody helped, the women helped make the rifle tips and the children helped with the horses. They could see the wagons of 300 soldiers coming. The older men said the wagons looked like a long, white snake.
“The elders and children hid in the cave and they moved the horses into a ravine. When the soldiers came, one young warrior was eager. He ran out, but they shot at him and he ran back in.
“The soldiers surrounded the ravine and began shooting, but all they shot were the horses. One of the sharp shooters was up on the hill, and they knew he was a captain. The Cheyenne shot his horse and then they shot the captain in his leg. He died there, bled to death.
“That night, the Cheyenne crawled up out at the end of the cave and they left on foot, taking only what they could carry. They went on to Nebraska without stopping to rest. The next morning, when the soldiers saw that they were gone, they killed all of the 70 or 80 horses that were left behind.
“There was a holy woman, her name was Moving Against The Wind, and later she was called, North Woman. The spirits talked to her and told her which way to go, but there was a disagreement between Dull Knife and Little Wolf. Little Wolf went one way and Dull Knife went to the agency. The people decided who they would follow. My grandmother and father went with Dull Knife, and that is how my father got locked up at Fort Robinson.
“At first the agency treated the people well, giving them plenty of food and water until they said they would not return to the Southern Reservation; then they were cut off from food and water. It was so cold that the old ladies told the children to lick the frost off the window for water. They tore up the floor boards for a fire because the elders were sick. They knew the only way to survive was to break out of there.
“They were sitting on the ground, singing war songs, and my father grabbed my grandmother’s hand. She said, ‘If they hit me, don’t stop.’ My mother said the old warriors distracted the soldiers and when it was time to break out, a soldier ran up and shot my father’s uncle in the head. Her other brother got shot, and she ran with a baby on her back. When they finally stopped to rest, she turned and saw that the baby had been shot in the head.
“She went and laid the baby down by a tree and prayed. She told my father, ‘That baby saved my life.’ My father ran back and found a blanket so she would have something warm. They started walking and met up with some other Cheyenne who knew a place where there was a tunnel up through those rocks, and that is how they got away. They walked to Pine Ridge, and along the way there was a Cheyenne woman married to a trader who hid them there until they walked to the north. This is my father’s story. He lived it.”
Each January, Lynette Two Bulls, Oglala, and Phillip Whiteman, Northern Cheyenne, organize a Spiritual Run for the youth that retraces the original breakout from Fort Robinson.
“They sacrificed their lives so we could live today, so we could have life,” Two Bulls said. “For the youth, it is about reconnecting to spirit, to identity and culture. The young people reconnect with the spirit that lies within each of us, that connects us to the ancestors. The strength they had is still within us, and it is what keeps us strong, courageous, compassionate, determined, with integrity. All of those values lie within our way of life. When they reconnect to that, it gives them self-esteem.”
David Whiskers, 13, made his first run this year. Describing the event, he said, “We ran to represent our ancestors, to remember and to move on and to heal. We remember the sacrifice they made was so we could live and be here today and be free. They gave up their lives to protect their families, and they did it with honor and as Cheyenne. They were starving and they wanted to be somewhere where they weren’t prisoners. A place they could call home.”
Describing how the experience affected him, Whiskers said, “It showed me how each person could make a difference. It takes teachings to show people something good and what we know. I learned about my language and culture. I didn’t know this stuff at first. I was lost and now I feel found… and home.”
Two Bulls and Whiteman work to bring traditional teachings through their Medicine Wheel Model programs. Whiteman’s teachings came through as he spoke about the run. “Historical trauma and this reservation-itis disconnects us from the original teachings. Our people understood natural law and natural justice. That gravity pull is still in our language and our ceremonies. That was what Dull Knife and Little Wolf were trying to protect, to maintain connection to universal law, love and forgiveness. The behaviors, the attitudes, the disconnection is still devastating our people today. We have forgotten the simple laws; the only thing that is real is love, and that is what Dull Knife and Little Wolf were fighting for, their original instructions. That is what learning is all about.”