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Newcomb: All our relations

Dec. 29 marked the 20th anniversary of the initial Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride. The ride was organized to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, in honor of the hundreds of Oglala and Hunkpapa ancestors murdered by the 7th U.S. Cavalry on Dec. 29, 1890. Each year, from 1886 to 1990, members of the Oglala Lakota Nation and their supporters rode hundreds of miles on horseback through the winter snow and freezing winds of the Great Plains. The ride has been repeated annually ever since those years of preparation that culminated in the centennial commemoration.

The horseback riders retraced the journey taken by Chief Big Foot and his community from what is now Fort Yates, N.D., through the Badlands, and then to Wounded Knee Creek. It was on a bitterly cold day in December 1890 that U.S. soldiers used Hotchkiss guns (an early machine gun) to slaughter Big Foot and other members of his community. The next day, the U.S. solders threw the bodies of the slain women, children and men into a mass grave and buried them.

Birgil Kills Straight, who lives in the town of Kyle on the Pine Ridge Reservation, was one of the original Oglala Lakota organizers of the memorial ride, along with Alex White Plume and Eugenio White Hawk. Kills Straight, who is currently the director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, has described to me on several occasions how one year during the ride, the temperature dipped down to 40 degrees below zero, with a wind chill of 80 below. The ride was no ordinary human feat. It took tremendous strength and courage.

The ceremonial ride was a powerful way for the people to mourn their fallen ancestors. This was necessary because the U.S. Army had control of the victims' bodies after the massacre, and this meant that the people were never able to conduct a Wiping of the Tears ceremony for their relatives. The memorial ride was a way of beginning to mend the Sacred Hoop of the Oceti Sakowin, or the Seven Council Fires of the Great Teton Nation.

The Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride was a great feat of spiritual strength and liberation. It was a powerful reminder to all oppressed nations and peoples throughout the world that there are spiritual resources available to us if we keep ourselves centered, maintain our ceremonial ways and do not give in to despair.

I consider the memorial ride to have been an integral part of the global indigenous peoples' movement toward cultural restoration and healing. It was undertaken in a prayerful manner, in keeping with the first indigenous value: ''Respect the Earth as our mother, and have a sacred regard for all living things.''

One lesson of the Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride is that our Native ancestors had incredibly strong powers of body, mind and spirit that enabled them to discern and live in keeping with the laws of nature in a spirit of truth and beauty. Through our ceremonies and our restorative abilities, we can regain the health and strength that is our sacred birthright.

When Kills Straight first began to dedicate his life to the ceremonial traditions of the Oglala Lakota people in the early 1980s, he worked with such eminent Oglala medicine people as Curtis Kills Ree, Fools Crow and Peter Catches Sr. in an effort to help revitalize the Sun Dance, the inipi (purification) lodge and the vision quest. At that time, not many Oglala people were still carrying on their ceremonial traditions. This was partly because for nearly a century after the Wounded Knee Massacre, Catholic and other Christian churches and organizations proselytized to the Lakota people, attempting to convince them that their own spiritual traditions were wrong or evil.

Such destructive missionary work was further intensified through the boarding schools in which Indian children were forced to be isolated away from the nurturance of their own families. They were forced to undergo a vicious socialization process that was intended to, in the infamous words of Col. Pratt, ''Kill the Indian, save the man.''

In the boarding schools, Indian children were taught self-hate and to be ashamed of their own ceremonial traditions.

I have personally met Indian elders who, when they were children, were forced to put their tongue on dry ice so that the top layer of skin was peeled off their tongue for the ''crime'' of speaking their own indigenous language. Others were forced to kneel for long periods of time with bare legs on pieces of sharp broken tile until their knees bled. Still others were beaten viciously with leather straps and burned with cigarettes. Sexual abuse was common. An unknown number of children died of diseases. They died without any member of their family there to comfort them at their deathbed. That is the worst kind of loneliness.

This kind of intergenerational trauma is what the Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride was intended to start addressing and healing. The ancestral spirits who inspired the ride knew that the people would have to be strong and spiritually centered to recover from the wounds inflicted by generations of colonization. Fortunately, we - as indigenous nations and peoples - also have a powerful healing tradition of intergenerational knowledge and wisdom that goes back thousands of years, or, as expressed in terms of our respective oral traditions, back to the beginning of time. Since the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1990, the ride has been repeated each year as a truly amazing expression of that knowledge and wisdom.

Steven Newcomb is the Indigenous Law Research coordinator of Kumeyaay Community College and the Sycuan Education Department, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.