By Gerry Robinson,
Native Sun News Today Correspondent
On September 9, 1878, three hundred and fifty-three Northern Cheyenne broke away from the Darlington Agency in Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma. They were intent on returning to their northern homeland in and around the Black Hills. They left the southern agency because many of their number had died from the foreign illnesses of measles and malaria. They were also starving due to an extreme lack of rations.
After a series of fights with the US military, they crossed the Platte River and split into two groups. Shortly afterward, one group was captured by soldiers and imprisoned in a cavalry barracks at Fort Robinson. After three months they were told they would be sent south again. In a ruthless effort to try to persuade the Northern Cheyenne to agree to the move, the post commander cut of their heat, food and water. On January 9, 1879, after being without food and heat for five days and without water for three, the band of 130 desperate people fought their way out of the barracks and ran for their lives. After nearly two weeks, sixty-four of them had chased down and killed and most of the rest were recaptured.
The full story is beyond the scope of this column to attempt to share in an accurate and respectful manner. Interestingly, with the exception of a few short video clips, the story has been told to the outside world primarily by non-Natives. It is important to note that most of them have shown a good-faith effort to be sympathetic to the Northern Cheyenne’s plight. Despite their best intentions however, none of them can, or do, tell the full story from the perspective of a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. That’s about to change.
In 2003 The Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council issued a tribal resolution that created the Northern Cheyenne Breakout Committee to “coordinate, facilitate and preserve the commemoration of the Fort Robinson Breakout site and the memory of those tribal members lost…”
The committee’s initial undertaking was to plan and build the Northern Cheyenne Monument three miles west of Fort Robinson, on land that had been donated to Chief Dull Knife College by Nebraska residents, T.R. and Kay Hughes. After several years of planning and hard work, The Northern Cheyenne Monument was dedicated in 2016. Four plaques on the monument present short vignettes of the Breakout shared with government officials and historians by several of the Northern Cheyenne involved in the tragic event.
The Breakout committee then went to work on their next project which is to design and build an interpretive trail that will parallel the path taken by the Northern Cheyenne in their flight along the White River. The trail will begin near the prison barracks and extend to the base of the sandstone buttes where the Northern Cheyenne Monument is now located. The project is called “The Northern Cheyenne Healing Trail” and, in addition to honoring those involved, it is intended to provide more detail about the event, about the Northern Cheyenne journey home from Indian Territory, and about the culture of the Northern Cheyenne People.
The effort is not affiliated with the annual spiritual run that is held each year on the anniversary of the Breakout, and intends the trail to provide a more solemn and consistent representation of the heroic effort of their ancestors to stay in their homeland. The committee’s efforts are guided by four primary directives which are to Remember, Honor, Heal and Preserve. They hope also to provide an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding and healing for the Northern Cheyenne People and all those who visit or learn about the site.
The Northern Cheyenne Breakout Committee President, Vincent White Crane, stated, “We don’t want anyone who visits here to leave feeling even more traumatized from the experience than when they came here. The trail is about telling the Cheyenne side of the story, but to do so in a way that reflects on the courage and the perseverance of our ancestors. We want people to know how much it meant for them to be back here in our homeland and what they were willing to do to stay here.”
Indeed, the Cheyenne Breakout is as much a story about hope and courage as it is about the tragic loss of many lives. The story of the Northern Cheyenne Breakout is an ongoing one. Developments since the night of January 9th 1879 include the establishment of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana and the steady growth of the population of the Northern Cheyenne People. The efforts of those involved in the Breakout have led to many subsequent stories of accomplishment among their descendants.
Despite past aggressions against them and the current belief of many, the Northern Cheyenne were neither permanently removed, nor annihilated. They have persevered and are intent on telling the story of their ancestor’s great accomplishment from their perspective. In essence, a key part of the positive message that the Northern Cheyenne Healing Trail hopes to provide is that The Northern Cheyenne People are still here.
Anyone wishing to contribute to the planning and construction of the Northern Cheyenne healing Trail can do so at the following address. All donations are tax deductible: Nebraska Community Foundation, Attn: Northern Cheyenne Breakout Legacy Fund, PO Box 83107, Lincoln, NE 68501-3107. Or can be received at the following Nebraska Community Foundation webpage:
(Gerry Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)