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.