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Commemorating Fort Robinson Breakout (1879)



Although we observe the major American holidays, Native Americans, including the Northern Cheyenne also mark many other significant days of commemoration throughout the year. Many of these are related to Indian wars during the late 1800’s and sadly many commemorate battles or massacres.

At Northern Cheyenne for example the tribal calendar includes the Battle of the Rosebud which the Cheyenne call “Where the Girl Saved her Brother” which occurred a week before the Battle of the Little Big Horn, also a highly significant annual observance; the Little Wolf Homecoming Celebration; Sand Creek Massacre; Dull Knife Battle and finally the Fort Robinson Breakout, which is observed in the first week of January.

This year, as in many past years a group of Northern Cheyenne youth, attended by sponsors, volunteers and many community members will make the 400-mile Spiritual Run from Fort Robinson to Northern Cheyenne country, in frigid temperatures. The youth, ranging from very young ones to young adults are very proud to participate in this event and they gain a greater understanding and respect for what our ancestors experienced and sacrificed on that sad day so long ago in Fort Robinson. For many, it is a very emotional and even life-changing experience.

The Fort Robinson Breakout story is also closed tied to Sioux or Lakota history. The two Cheyenne chiefs were both seeking aid from our Lakota brethren during that desperate time, although in two different ways. Little Wolf’s band thought to get to Canada, seeking refuge with Sitting Bull electing to continue north while Dull Knife’s band was bound for the Red Cloud band, to whom he had close kinship ties. Dull Knife’s band was captured by the military, forced into captivity at Fort Robinson a tactic the military thought would cow them into returning to Oklahoma. It did not work and when the Cheyenne broke out of the army barracks at Fort Robinson on a frigid January day in 1879, over 60 were massacred making it one of the worst incidents of the Indian wars, so say historians.

All of Montana, including Cheyenne Country is currently experiencing a bitter winter and already two Natives (one Crow and one Northern Cheyenne) have been found frozen to death, exposed to the bitter elements. That makes me wonder how those long ago Cheyenne managed to survive similar arctic conditions so long ago. It’s a wonder that they did not freeze to death, but perhaps they were accustomed to surviving winter conditions with minimal gear and supplies. Or perhaps they were just much tougher than we are today.

This year, under the leadership of President L. Jace Killsback and with the support of the Tribal Board of Health, a local Fort Robinson Commemoration, called “Addressing Historical Trauma” was held at the Charging Horse Casino (the only main public meeting area available on the reservation) on January 9th, 2016. Discussion focused on Traumatic Lives by Debbie Russell, the Director of Behavioral Health Programs; the Cheyenne Exodus (return from Oklahoma to Montana) by Conrad Fisher, Vice President and Healing a Nation by President L. Jace Killsback. This was not a holiday or time of celebration, but a solemn and heartfelt commemoration of that dark day in Northern Cheyenne history. That is fitting and in keeping with our oral tradition which counsels we must never forget the sacrifices that our ancestors made so that we can have our present homeland.

(Clara Caufield can be reached

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