Friday, December 21, 2007

Jodi Rave: Youth a part of Big Foot Memorial Ride

287-mile ride a rite of passage

BEAR SOLDIER, S.D. - When Donaven Yellow of Wakpala, S.D., joined the Spirit Riders, he pledged to ride four years in the Big Foot Memorial Ride, a nearly 300-mile journey dedicated to the Lakota ancestors who died in one of the nation's most horrific massacres.

On Saturday, he began the fourth journey across the South Dakota prairie with 44 riders who will spend the next two weeks on horseback en route to the Pine Ridge Reservation, picking up others along the way until they number 200.

"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 Wounded Knee massacre on Dec. 29, 1890.

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 Wounded Knee, where Big Foot's band was buried in a mass grave.

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

Abourezk: A Tribute to Floyd Red Crow Westerman

We Must Give Back What This Minstrel Gave Us

A gentle but forceful critic of his people's assailants.

A strong, proud vision of Native people as we were.

These are the gifts Floyd Red Crow Westerman has given Native people.

These are the obligations and responsibilities we are left to carry on in his absence.

To the public, he will be remembered as Ten Bears, the wise Lakota elder who gave fireside counsel to Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves.

But Westerman was much more than a movie character to those who knew him.

So much more to those who loved him.

For Gwen Westerman Griffin, he was and will remain uncle Floyd. The man who would tease her and call her his "magic butterfly."

A smiling, mischievous minstrel who always had time to lend a hand to someone in need.

"Anytime anybody called on him he was there," said Westerman Griffin, an English professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato. "He would bring his guitar with him. He would talk."

This week, Westerman's lifelong endeavor to set the record straight for Native people ended. As an actor, musician and activist, Westerman fought until his final days to educate non-Indians about the trials his people have had to endure.

Born on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota, Westerman had plenty of his own trials with which to contend, including boarding school abuse and an alcoholic father.

As a man, he would carry the lessons of his youth into his activism.

In 1973, when his old classmate, Dennis Banks, and other Native activists took control of Wounded Knee, S.D., sparking a 71-day standoff, Westerman crept past a military cordon around the village to make his way to his friends.

He went on to become AIM's voice in song, traveling the country to raise funds for the group's cause.

His career took a slightly different path when, in 1987, he answered a casting call for an episode of "MacGyver." Westerman landed the role and went on to appear in a number of supporting TV and film roles.

In 1990, fame came calling.

Appearing as Ten Bears in Costner's epic "Dances With Wolves," Westerman instantly became one of the most recognizable faces in Indian Country.

"He was the picture of the Lakota," said Wilmer Mesteth, a longtime friend of Westerman's and spiritual leader of the Oglala Lakota.

And Westerman worked hard to present a proud and honest portrayal of Native people in the movie, said his niece. Many Native people hailed the movie for using real Indians and using the Lakota language.

"It was an incredible opportunity to put forward Indian people during that time period as Indian people, not artifacts," Westerman Griffin said.

Westerman did not take for granted his newfound fame, she said, offering his name and weight to any cause he found worthy.

In his final years, he had begun work on a six-part documentary called "Exterminate Them: America's War on Indian Nations." With the help of his niece, he had completed the first part, "California Story," and had begun work on the second installment, "Great Plains Story."

Westerman Griffin said she doesn't plan to let her uncle's death end efforts to complete the documentary.

Nor does she plan to let his relentless efforts to improve the lives of Native people die with him.

"It's going to take a lot of us to fill in the void that this one man is going to leave," she said. "It's going to take so many of us to carry on his work."

Kevin Abourezk, Oglala Lakota, is a reporter and editor at the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star. He is a reznet assignment editor and teaches reporting at the Freedom Forum's American Indian Journalism Institute.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rain and Rain in the Face....

My oldest son Rain, Magazu, is going to be 9 years old on December 15. I am sad that I will miss celebrating his birthday this year, since he and his brother Remy, and sisters Colleen and Amber are living with their dad at this time. He is growing so tall! He is standing on the left in this picture in the red, white, and blue coat. As I am here today in my office, I can't help but wonder what happened to all that time since he was born.  I am adrift in a time without my kids...

This photo of my children was taken by their father, Charles New Holy. They are standing in front of the gravesite of their Grandfather Rain in the Face. He is the one my son Rain is named for.  

Rain in the Face was of the Hunkpapa Band of Lakota and was believed to have killed Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

My son looks just like him.  Smiles like him.  My Rain is so sweet, extremely intelligent, and always helpful.  When he was born, the doctors told me that he would grow to be very tall, at least 6'5", they said.  I believe it, he already looks like he is 14 years old.

My children are preparing to ride on horseback beginning this weekend at Standing Rock for the Future Generations Ride hosted by their dad and other members of the Chief Bigfoot Memorial Ride. They will be journeying for the next two weeks in prayer for Native youth.

I will be praying for my children throughout and thinking of how they are riding with their relatives and ancestors.  The thought brings tears to my eyes.  

Found this poem by Longfellow, which doesn't equate to the description I've heard from the descendents. They say that Rain in the Face was tall, charming, and humorous. I believe that rather than this Longfellow person's words. But this is just one's man's words after all...

The Revenge of Rain-in-the Face
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In that desolate land and lone,
Where the Big Horn and Yellowstone
Roar down their mountain path,
By their fires the Sioux Chiefs
Muttered their woes and griefs
And the menace of their wrath.

"Revenge!" cried Rain-in-the-Face,
"Revenge upon all the race
Of the White Chief with yellow hair!"
And the mountains dark and high
From their crags re-echoed the cry
Of his anger and despair.

In the meadow, spreading wide
By woodland and riverside
The Indian village stood;
All was silent as a dream,
Save the rushing of the stream
And the blue-jay in the wood.

In his war paint and his beads,
Like a bison among the reeds,
In ambush the Sitting Bull
Lay with three thousand braves
Crouched in the clefts and caves,
Savage, unmerciful!

Into the fatal snare
The White Chief with yellow hair
And his three hundred men
Dashed headlong, sword in hand;
But of that gallant band
Not one returned again.

The sudden darkness of death
Overwhelmed them like the breath
And smoke of a furnace fire:
By the river's bank, and between
The rocks of the ravine,
They lay in their bloody attire.

But the foemen fled in the night,
And Rain-in-the-Face, in his flight
Uplifted high in air
As a ghastly trophy, bore
The brave heart, that beat no more,
Of the White Chief with yellow hair.

Whose was the right and the wrong?
Sing it, O funeral song,
With a voice that is full of tears,
And say that our broken faith
Wrought all this ruin and scathe,
In the Year of a Hundred Years.

Obituary for Grandpa Elmer Blackbird...

Grandpa Elmer always had words of encouragement for me. My memories of him are good. He was there for me when I graduated from UNL. I invited him as a guest of honor to my graduation reception at the Lincoln Indian Center in August of 2002. Grandpa Elmer offered a prayer and smudged my family with cedar that time to help me along my path.

I will always be thankful for that...


Elmer LaFlesche Blackbird, 86, of Walthill died Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2007, at a Sioux City hospital.

Services will be 2 p.m. Saturday at Omaha Nation School auditorium in Macy, Neb. Burial will be in Omaha Tribal Cemetery. A Native American church service will be held Friday evening at the Native American Church in Macy. Arrangements are under the direction of Munderloh Funeral Home in Pender, Neb.

Elmer was born Feb. 16, 1921, the son of Charles Blackbird and Suzette LaFlesche. He was the great-grandson of Chief Joseph LaFlesche, one of the last principal chiefs of the Omaha Tribe. He graduated from Walthill High School and received a bachelor of science degree in education from Wayne State College. He received a master's degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff. He received an honorary doctoral degree from the Nebraska Indian Community College. He was a World War II veteran, serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

He began his teaching career at Lynch (Neb.) Public Schools and continued to teach in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools in Colorado, Arizona, South Dakota and North Dakota. He retired from Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., in 1975, after serving as the head of the guidance department and director of residence halls. After retirement, he returned to the Omaha Indian Reservation and continued work for the tribe in the area of education.

He served twice as the Omaha Tribal chairman and once as a Nation chairman of the Native American Church. An academic scholarship in his honor was established in 2001 by his son, Dr. Russell L. Blackbird, and is presented to a Walthill High School senior each year.

He married Mabel Veaux of LaPlant, S.D. in 1947. They later divorced, He then married Nancy Miller Springer in 1972.

He is survived by three sons, Kenneth Blackbird of Fort Duchesne, Utah, Russell Blackbird of Lawrence, Kan., and Gene Blackbird of Tama, Iowa; a daughter, Ida Blackbird of Walthill; two stepsons, Tim and Leonard Springer; two stepdaughters, Connie Kirkpatrick and Tammy Springer; two sisters, Francellia Clark and Maxine White, both of Macy, Neb.; 37 grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by his parents; a sister, Ida St. Cyr; a brother, Dale Saunsoci; a son, Ray Steven Blackbird; and grandchildren, Memory Blackbird, Jerome Springer and Natavia Parker.