Fort Robinson Breakout Spiritual Run honors Cheyenne history
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 Fort Robinson Breakout Spiritual Run honors Cheyenne history

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Fort Robinson Breakout Spiritual Run honors Cheyenne history

AUTHOR: Mike Stark, Billings Gazette Staff Writer

The young Northern Cheyennes woke before dawn Thursday and began running in subzero temperatures in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The young men and women slogged through the wind and snow, retracing on foot a historic 400-mile trek their ancestors took 126 years ago after breaking out of the barracks at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, en route to Montana.

The ninth annual Fort Robinson Break Out Spiritual Run is meant to give young members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe a chance to better understand history and themselves.

"It's reintroducing them to their identity, their culture," said Phillip Whiteman Jr., a founder and coordinator of the run. "The transformation they go through in four days - the pride, the self-esteem - it's magic."

This year, 90 students from Lame Deer, Busby, Ashland, Colstrip and elsewhere are participating in the relay run, which began Wednesday and is scheduled to finish in Busby on Sunday afternoon.

The journey will take them through portions of Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. This year's runners range in age from 3 to 17. At any one time, one to four of them are running in the relay.

"They're learning everyday values like teamwork, unity, learning to recognize opportunities and overcoming adversity," Whiteman said. The run also has a deep historical connection to an important moment in the Northern Cheyenne story.

In 1878, Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf decided to lead their people from Oklahoma, where they feared they were dying, to their ancestral land in Montana.

Some of the tribe stayed behind - today known as the Southern Cheyenne - and others, about 300, made it as far as Nebraska before splitting into two bands. Little Wolf would lead the healthy to Montana, while Dull Knife would take the sick and weak and seek help from the Lakota tribe.

The U.S. Cavalry, though, caught Dull Knife's band and took them to Fort Robinson in western Nebraska.

That winter, troops locked the Cheyenne in the barracks without food, water or heat. After five days, the Cheyennes decided to break out.

About 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 9, 1879, the band fled the barracks, and a bloody gun battle ensued. Most of the band was killed within minutes, and many of the survivors were later killed by U.S. soldiers. But Dull Knife and a few others survived and embarked on a long, difficult journey - once having to eat their shoes - to the north.

A decade ago, Whiteman began organizing a run on the Northern Cheyenne reservation to commemorate the breakout at Fort Robinson. Six years ago, the run expanded to a 400-mile relay from Nebraska to Montana.

During the run, young people get a chance to tread the same ground as their ancestors and better understand the journey that led them back to Montana, the Tongue River and where they live today.

"It's spiritual, it's powerful," Whiteman said.

Runners have also had to battle the elements. Caught in storms and plunging temperatures, they have had to persevere and put themselves to the test, Whiteman said. Safety is always a high priority, Whiteman said, but runners are also learning skills of survival and working together.

"It's important that they better understand and value their culture, their traditions and one's self," Whiteman said.

Sunday's finishing ceremony will include Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills.

Mike Stark can be reached at 657-1232 or at

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