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Lakota Country Times

Chief Big Foot Memorial ride in 21st year
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Youth ride for healing

By Roseanna Renaud
Special to the Times

KYLE - For the past 21 years, hundreds have journeyed the 286 mile path Chief Big Foot and his band traveled before they were massacred at Wounded Knee in 1890. Each year in December, youth participate in the spiritual ride for healing.

The 1975 book, Moon of the Popping Trees describes Miniconjou Chief Big Foot's arrival in Red Cloud's lands. 'Late in the Moon of the Popping Trees, Dec. 28, 1890, icy air had been lying for days like a frozen blanket over the long gray hills of southwestern South Dakota. . . a band of travelers were winding their way southwestward up the slope of Porcupine valley.' In the bed of a horse dawn wagon, pneumonia stricken Big Foot lay huddled in blankets. With him on his flight from the soldiers at Cheyenne River were about 350 men, women, and children including a number of Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa refugees. Some rode horses while others walked. Through great hardship, sickness, and a bitter cold prairie winter they had come for sanctuary on the Pine Ridge. The massacre that followed the next day and the subsequent photograph of a frail shabbily dressed Big Foot, his frozen contorted body, half sitting; half lying in the snow haunts Lakota people to this day.

And 117 years later, on Dec. 27 and against a similar wintry weather backdrop to that of 1890, a band of about 100 Big Foot Memorial riders trotted on horseback two-by-two into the parking lot of Little Wound School at Kyle trailed by their support team of friends, family, and supplies. Proud riders at the front of the column carried their flags and staff held high, pointed toward frosty smoke-gray skies as they formed a circle and were welcomed to their noon meal by announcer Chubbs Thunder Hawk. The close-knit group of riders bundled up against the chill, and their winter-shag coated mounts, were very near journeys end with all but 30 miles left to reach Wounded Knee on Dec. 29.

A number of youthful spirit riders from Standing Rock and their ever reliable adult leaders have made the journey again and again throughout the event's 21 year history. Some have grown up on the ride and now bring their own children. A.J. Agard, age 29, was ten when his mother, Standing Rock Tribal Secretary Geraldine Agard took him to his first memorial ride. This year A.J. brought his own sons, 7-year old Shad Young Agard and Shang Kaima Agard, age 4. Shang was somewhat concerned about Santa Claus finding him on the prairie and stayed up late on Christmas Eve. He told his father, "I thought I heard his reindeer. They're all loose Dad."

A.J. watched with a father's pride as young Shad, who has been riding for three years, unloaded his black pony from a trailer. "This is like a family reunion. It gives you an idea about what your ancestors went through. They were just trying to stay alive. Some of us are struggling with the clothes we do have." A. J. said. He explained that each rider is responsible for the care and feeding of their horses so hay and other feed must be hauled along the route. "We help each other out and we do have other people who give or donate to us. The best part of this year's trip for A.J. is new family members who have joined the Spirit Riders. A.J. emphasized that the most important thing to carry along is your spoon, and he chuckled softly while producing a white plastic spoon from his jacket pocket, its handle adorned with beadwork. The toughest part of the trip this year, "Icy roads and gas. Gas is running out and it's harder going home because we have full trailers."
Manaja Unjinca Hill, of Wakpala District and one of the organizers, is a project manager for the Standing Rock Tribe and has been associated with the ride since 1997 when his son Kellyn Hill started with the riders. "Our youth are called Spirit Riders and was started by my son who is now deceased. We've got about ten of them this year. They have all ridden this ride at least one. That is the test. You have to ride at least once and you have to ride every day.

And all the kids that are Spirit Riders have done that." One of Spirit Riders, 16-year old Donaven Yellow, made a four year commitment and is on the last year of that challenge. For him it was either play in the Lakota Nation Invitational basketball tournament or come on the ride. He chose to ride. Manaja feels that it is "the kids" who keep him coming back every year. "I'm 52-years old. I'd rather be kicking back and relaxing." But it is obvious from the sound of his words and the smile on his face that he is absolutely where he wants to be at this moment in time. "We encourage them and support them. I'm a firm believer that a child and a horse are the best combination that has ever been. The kids have each other and depend on each other. We have a total of 17 to 20 that have actually ridden. My kid started at 7-years old. My grand daughter and my niece's child are riding on this trip." Manaja, who appears to be the adopted father to many, seemed particularly proud of Kim Cameron, 18, one of the female Spirit Riders from Wakpala High School. "She got a congressional nomination to the navel academy. She says that a lot of the discipline, leadership and responsibility, comes from riding with the Spirit Riders."

Cameron spoke while watering her one blue one brown eyed paint pony Cobalt, is the essence of the character within the Spirit Riders. "It's phenomenal. It's hard too. 300 miles on horse back without stopping and sometimes on bareback. You go through this pain and hunger and when you're done you get this feeling of accomplishment. The coolest feeling ever. Especially being a girl," she said. "There is a lot of guys that think girls can't make this trip. I did." Young people want to accomplish something like the adults and follow in their footsteps. Preparation for the event means having enough horses to ride that are broke and not 'green.' Then there is the hunt for trailers and borrowing of vehicles, plus the monetary costs. She feels the best part of this years' trip happened the previous day when she rode bareback 25 miles. The most difficult. Riding 45 miles in the cold, some by moonlight, to reach the McDaniel's Ranch to camp.

Many expressed admiration for Standing Rock Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder and Geraldine Agard who accompanied the riders. "Ron His Horse is Thunder has supported this ride and these children for as long as I have been on the ride. He is out here. Geraldine, she is out here. Not guiding people. They are right here with everybody. That's the difference. They don't make a big scene or show and then leave. They lead by example, "said Hill. Cameron supports that contention. "I have a lot of respect for our chairman and the secretary is here as well. I'm amazed that they are here because they have so much work to do and they still make time."

On Dec. 29, the riders arrived at Wounded Knee cemetery, ending the long journey with prayer and ceremony promoting healing from what happened that sad day in history on Dec.. 29, 1890.

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