287-mile ride a rite of passage
BEAR SOLDIER, S.D. - When Donaven Yellow of
On Saturday, he began the fourth journey across the
"Riding for two weeks isn't easy," said the 15-year-old Donaven. "A lot of my friends made the same commitment. It gets really cold. You've just got to ride it out.
"A couple of times, I didn't feel my toes. And my legs were shaking. I had a Gatorade in my pocket. I tried to take a drink, but it was frozen solid after a couple of hours. I was really thirsty that day, and I wasn't warm enough to keep it thawed out."
The Spirit Riders were established in honor of a young man who went to the Spirit World on Sept. 21, 2004. The 16-year-old suffered from mental-health issues, said his father, Manaja Hill.
Before he died, he found some peace with horses after riding in the Big Foot Memorial Ride. It was his introduction to the horse culture.
"With his mental issues, that horse turned everything around," said his father. "Here was a kid who was in constant trouble when he was in school. I got called every day. After he got with horses, the calls seemed to have lessened."
Started with 7
So Hill and a friend started a horse program to help youth. In 1998, seven young men from Standing Rock became the first group of Spirit Riders to join the Big Foot Memorial Ride. They've been riding ever since. Adults now credit them for keeping the ride going.
The Big Foot Memorial started in 1986 after several men in different tribal communities shared a common vision to honor the ancestors who died in the
More than 350 unarmed men, women and children under the leadership of Chief Big Foot, a Minneconjou Lakota from the Cheyenne River Reservation, were shot after making an attempt to seek safety on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Big Foot's band started its journey after learning of the death of Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota. Today, the memory of the slain is honored as horseback riders retrace the trail of the slain Lakota.
Riders now participate in the Big Foot Memorial ride annually from Dec. 15 to 29. They end their 287-mile ride at
Keeping a vision alive
In 1992, after adults fulfilled their vision to honor their ancestors' memory in four consecutive rides, they felt it was time to let the vision go, following a wopila ride.
But the youth didn't want it to stop.
"The younger people kept it alive," said Ron His Horse Is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a 12-year veteran rider of the Big Foot Memorial Ride. "For many youth, it has become a rite of passage. They want to say, 'I've done that trail. I've ridden 300 miles.' It's good that they do. It teaches them fortitude, to go forward without complaining. It's so much a part of who we are."
"Now I come to support the young riders more than anything else," said His Horse Is Thunder. "It truly has become a ride for the youth."
Adults contend that youth and horses are a natural fit.
"There's no barriers," said Hill. "There's a natural rule out there - you be nice to me, I'll be nice to you. It's about respect. My son had all these rules. Be still. Don't talk. With a horse, you don't have those rules. A horse will listen to what you have to say, as long as you pay attention to him. They accepted one another. A lot of our kids respond to that."
"Watch the actions of horse," said Hill. "And then watch the actions of child. They mirror each other. When you get them together, they're going to figure out which one's which. If you put a herd of horses out there, and put the kids with them, they're going to find each other."
The horses help build the traditions, or lakol wicohan.
"It's a good foundation to give to our kids," said John Eagle Shield Sr., who has provided that foundation for his own son, John Eagle Shield Jr. "He's 16. And I haven't lost him. He was 6 months old when I'd be holding him in my arms and singing at Sun Dance. He knew ceremonial songs long before he knew powwow songs or round-dance songs."
Carrying one's self
It's a matter of how you carry yourself with all these values, beginning with prayer, respect, humility and generosity, said Eagle Shield. "The youths that follow these ways, I doubt very much they'll have some of these problems ... belligerence, discipline, lack of respect for authority. If they had this foundation, it would teach them how to live their lives."
Donaven Yellow has made the traditions of a horse culture and the values that accompany it a key part of his life as he matures into adulthood. He's embracing values important to being a good human being. It's a way of life that steers him away from being self-centered, said his grandfather.
"His birthday is Dec. 25 - Christmas Day," said Pat Yellow. "He hasn't been home with me for three Christmases now. It will be the fourth one coming up. I don't mind that as long as he's doing his job there on the ride and helping out the other youth."
Reporter Jodi Rave covers American Indian issues. She can be reached at 800-396-7186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.