Run With Our Ancestors

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

The January day is quiet, the mood somber, the air cold as a mountain stream. A hundred Native youth sit on the patches of grass in the snow and listen to the stories. When a time of silence comes, they listen for the cries of women and children who were shot in this place. Children like them, with their Cheyenne blood. Their ancestors. The tears come and bring healing.

When Phillip Whiteman Jr. (Northern Cheyenne) and Lynette Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota) initiated the Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run, it was not to traumatize the youth. It was to bring out the hurt and let it go, prepare to return home. The true interpretation of Lynette’s name is Woman who will lead and clear the way for the people. Philip is a traditional chief of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and lives on land his ancestors died for. The run honors the ancestors by remembering their sacrifices.

For two days, the youth are prepared for the 400-mile relay-style run. Now in its 20th year, this run has helped hundreds of youth reconnect with their heritage, culture and themselves. One of these youths was Cinnamon Spear. The run was one of the most important events in her unstable early life at home, and she continues to be involved with the run. She tells the youth, open your heart to the stories, the songs, the language. If you do, it will change your life. Her relationship with her mentors Phillip and Lynette has grown through the years. To Cinnamon, they are living representations of what the First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award is designed to honor, and led her to nominate them for the award.

Inside replicated barracks at the historical Fort Robinson site in Nebraska, the youth anticipate the moment when the door will open. At 10:30 p.m. — in 1879 — their ancestors waited with a different yet same anticipation. The youth hug one another and say, we are going home.

The ancestors knew death likely waited on the other side of the door. Yet they still broke out. They ran from the barracks amidst rifle fire. Some got away. Most were killed.

At 10:30 p.m., these youth break out, jostling through the doorway, with the sounds of victory — clapping, shouting. The journey begins. They run.

The ancestors ran until they reached Antelope Creek, 22 miles northwest of the fort. Here, most were slaughtered. This is where the youth are brought before the run to hear and to heal.

The ancestors who escaped continued the run — a total of 400 miles — to their home.

For days, the youth run from sunrise until deep in the night through the Sandhills of Nebraska, the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, and the mountains of Montana. They are going home.

The relay runners are followed by a caravan of buses and vans carrying chaperones, elders, and leaders of the event, keeping everyone safe. The youth run through snow, sunshine, the dark of night. The male runner holds the Eagle Staff and the female runner carries the Cheyenne Nation flag.

Today they are not running from gunfire. They run for the future.

For Phillip and Lynette, this is a part of their work, not only as artists but their lives. There is no separation between life and art, whether they are storytelling, teaching culture, singing songs, being spiritual and wellness advisers, dancing the grass dance, fancy shawl and jingle dress, or showing compassion to relatives. These things are art.

The youth run on and say, almost there. Almost home.

They arrive on the Northern Cheyenne reservation and come into Ashland, Montana, to the cheers, horn honking, and fist pumping of their families and friends. At 10:30 p.m.

This run is just one of the cultural preservation practices Phillip and Lynette have under their organizations, Medicine Wheel Model LLC (a right-brain, circular, holistic wellness model); Medicine Wheel Model—Beyond Horsemanship (a healing with horses program); and Yellow Bird (a grass-roots, nonprofit organization).

The Fort Robinson Spiritual Outbreak Run concludes with a time at the graveyard of the ancestors, the ones who made the original run home. A song, prayer, hugs, tears and a moment of silence, a final remembrance.

They are home.

Phillip Whiteman Jr. and Lynette Two Bulls are 2016 Community Spirit Award Honorees. Join us in celebrating Phillip and Lynette and the other honorees on October 8, 2016.