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Wintery weather doesn't dampen spirits

WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. - In much the same weather as in 1890, the Big Foot or Spirit Riders completed the 350-mile, 14-day ride in a foot of snow.

The trees were dusted with fresh snow and horses pawed looking for prairie grass. But those who gathered to welcome the riders didn't seem to mind the snowy inconvenience.

The weather did not deter the riders who were dedicated to honoring their relatives who perished in a massacre at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890. In 1890, snow, cold and wind were present, and this year the weather changed quickly and riders experienced weather like what Big Foot and his followers may have suffered.

Finishing the ride was the most treacherous. The foot of snow was fluffy but very slippery and many horses fell with their riders. There was only one serious injury to an unidentified rider, a broken leg, said 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred Pipe, Arvol Looking Horse.

The annual ride has become very popular. It ended with 115 riders, young and old, who gathered to honor those who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1890, over a religious ceremony, the Ghost Dance. Big Foot or Si Tanka, from the Bridger community on the Cheyenne River Reservation, was a follower of the Ghost Dance, which disturbed the U.S. government.

Years of storytelling indicate the massacre occurred out of revenge for the Little Big Horn battle where Col. George A. Custer was killed by the Lakota. The seventh cavalry was involved in the Wounded Knee massacre where more than 280 children, women and elderly men were killed.

Accounts of the massacre do not emphatically state who fired the first shot, or if a shot was fired at anyone at all.

When Big Foot and his followers surrendered to the military, they hoped to find safety with Red Cloud on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

It is also believed that Sitting Bull was living on the Standing Rock Reservation near the present town of Mobridge on the Missouri River when he was taken into custody and assassinated on Dec. 15, 1890.

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The Spirit Ride started as the dream of Virgil Kills Straight, Oglala. He said the ride is about more than just honoring those ancestors who lost their lives at Wounded Knee, it has become a time to honor the youth and teach them to become leaders with courage, self-discipline and respect. Since 1987, riders have come together to pray and sacrifice.

On Dec. 29, the anniversary date, riders circle their horses and in a gesture of solidarity with their ancestors, gallop around the circle and end up on top of the hill where the massed grave of their ancestors is located. The ride starts each year at the location where Sitting Bull lived and was killed.

Looking Horse said the ride is about love and compassion. Each day the riders gather for prayers and the protocol is to honor and respect each other. Youth learn from the experience on the ride and take what they learn home and to school.

The young people said they learned everything from taking care of their horses to getting along with others. They also learn something about who they are as Lakota.

John Red Feather of Pine Ridge said it was a good ride. He has taken part in the Big Foot ride for six years. Red Feather said his horse fell on the slippery snow, but neither he nor his horse was hurt.

"It is a good experience," said Dan Two Bulls of Kyle. Two Bulls, 15, has been riding for six years. "The worst experience was a runaway horse that fell into a fence," Two Bulls said.

For the most part, riders, no matter their age or the weather conditions they endure, have positive experiences and come back to ride again.

This year the ride started in unseasonably mild weather. Gary Little Bird, Cheyenne River Sioux, said it was hot the first few days. But by the last day he and the others rode in driving snow, with near-whiteout conditions at times.

Last year's ride found many families waiting for word that their young people who were in the military would be deployed to Iraq or the Middle East. This year many rode in honor of loved ones serving in Iraq.