BUSBY, Mont. ? This time, those running from the fort didn't have to eat their shoes.
They weren't being chased by the U.S. Cavalry, so there was no need to begin their 400-mile trek from Nebraska to Montana in the middle of the January night.
The modern-day Northern Cheyenne runners even slept in clean, heated barracks before the journey and started with full bellies. Now in its fourth year, the Fort Robinson Break Out Run is a celebration of times changed for the Northern Cheyenne and a way to remember the suffering of their ancestors 123 winters ago.
"We're glad we've got something to run home to instead of having to run from soldiers. We're proud of our home and we're never going to let it go," Northern Cheyenne runner Lloyd Lone Elk Sr., of Lame Deer, said of his ancestors.
Fifty-five men, women and children completed the relay event Jan. 9 in Busby, Mont., at the graves of 18 ancestors who were killed while trying to make the same journey in 1879.
After the Cheyenne helped defeat Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in 1876 at a grassy hillside along the Little Bighorn River, the U.S. Army returned with greater numbers. The Cheyenne were rounded up and marched to Oklahoma.
In Sept. 1878, chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf decided to lead 300 of their people back to the crisp air and cool water of their ancestral Montana homeland along the Tongue River. After making it to the sand hills of western Nebraska, the chiefs decided to split up ? Little Wolf would continue on with the healthy and Dull Knife would find refuge with their Lakota allies for about 150 sick, elderly, women and children.
The U.S. Army was on their trail and captured Dull Knife and his followers.
The group was marched 28 miles to Fort Robinson. Dull Knife refused to return to Oklahoma. "You may kill me here but you can never make me go back," he told U.S. Cavalry Captain Henry W. Wessells, who then ordered all food, water and heat cut off for his new prisoners.
By the fifth day, the group had become desperate. Some had already sung their death songs. The decision was made to escape. Shortly before midnight on Jan. 9, 1879, the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, the elite warrior corps of the tribe, shattered the barrack's frosty glass windows and were the first to go.
It was a bloody night.
Many were gunned down at the door. Nearly two dozen others were killed at point-blank range in a nearby buffalo wallow. Phillip Whiteman Jr., whose father Phillip, is a Northern Cheyenne chief and mother, the late Florence Whiteman, was the last of the Cheyenne warrior woman to go through the traditional induction, estimated that fewer than 50 made it home to regroup with Little Wolf. Dull Knife and members of his family survived, at one point eating the soles of their moccasins to survive, Whiteman said.
The victims' remains were gathered, studied and sent to museums on the East Coast, where they laid on shelves for more than a century. In 1993, bones of 18 victims were returned to Montana, where they were buried on a quiet hillside above the small reservation town of Busby, in southeastern Montana.
It was then that Whiteman decided to honor the past by running. The first year, six people ran 76 miles around the isolated reservation. More people turned out the next year. Four years ago, Whiteman decided it was time to retrace the original path.
The Break Out runners had little money and sometimes ran through the night to save on hotel costs. The event has grown in popularity - Nike now helps with clothing, said Whiteman, who continues to organize the event. Jim Yellowhawk, a Lakota artist living in Rapid City, S.D., donated a logo for the event.
The runners left Fort Robinson the morning of Jan. 5 as four eagles circled above. They took turns on the highway while others rested in vans. Some ran
more than 10 miles at a stretch, others could only handle a few minutes,
Whiteman said. A sacred staff was carried the entire way. This year, a small American flag fluttered from the staff near the eagle feathers and small medicine wheel.
"What happened to our ancestors is the same thing that happened in New York City," Whiteman said, explaining the flag.
The Oglala Sioux and Northern Arapaho join the runners for part of the journey ? these are the tribes that helped the Cheyenne defeat Custer.
The journeys are infused with lessons on history and culture. During the final minutes of this year's run, Whiteman spotted two participants racing.
He pulled up next to the young men and told them to slow down. Throughout the journey the young people are encouraged to think differently, back to the older ways, Whiteman said.
"Our culture teaches us not to compete but to cooperate with each other, to find balance, unity," Whiteman said. "We go as fast as the slowest person. The warriors need to lead from the back. The dominant society teaches us to be in front, be aggressive."
Five days on the road barely begins to erase years of hip-hop music, television ads and mainstream textbooks the young people are subjected to, Whiteman said. "We barely scratch the surface."
The young runners seemed to appreciate the lessons. They set aside their usual joking when asked why they decided to run.
"The reason I'm here is because of my ancestors," said Lame Deer, Mont. resident Leonard Young Bear Jr., 23, who has completed all four Fort Robinson Break Out runs. Travis American Horse, 14, also of Lame Deer, completed his first run this year. He said a dream prompted him to run. "My ancestors woke me up and said, 'You better go on that run or you're going to get a few lickings.'" Snow and rain began falling as the convoy reached Busby. Townspeople were waiting with banners, camcorders and honking car horns. Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council member Danny Sioux was in the small crowd of observers as the runners were blessed at the end of the journey.
"I'm really proud of them," Sioux said. "It's all about the spirit in which it was done, the spirit the old people live by."