“As individuals and as a nation we have been spiritually crippled, because after the massacre at Wounded Knee, our ancestors had never gone through the process, the ritual that is usually accorded to… people who… lose a loved one. And until… that takes place, they are in a period of mourning.” – Birgil Kills Straight (Lakota), co-founder of the Big Foot Memorial Ride
Every December, several hundred Lakota and other Native American allies converge in Bridger, South Dakota, for a pilgrimage on horseback to Wounded Knee, retracing the historic journey in 1890 of the Lakota chief and 350 of his followers – most of them women and children – that ended in the Wounded Knee massacre.
The Lakota People’s Law Project, “While 1890 may seem like a long time ago, it’s actually only been a few generations since the bloodiest military attack on Indigenous people in the United States.”
The name of the pilgrimage? Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride.
This year, the ride begins December 22 and will continue through Christmas Day, ending at Wounded Knee on Thursday, December 28.
For several years, Running Strong’s Oyate Teca Project on Pine Ridge has provided the riders, many of whom are middle and high school students, a warm meal and a corral for at the end of the long day.
Since the opening of our Oyate Ta Kola Ku Community Center just one year ago, we will also provide an opportunity for a hot shower, their only one during the days’ long ride.
On the 27th, they begin their last long miles of riding, ending solemnly at Wounded Knee on December 28.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS HISTORICAL RIDE CANNOT BE UNDERSTATED.
On December 29, 1890, the U.S. Army Seventh Calvary massacred 150 to 300 Lakota Indians, as well as their leader Miniconjou Lakota chief Sitanka, known as Big Foot, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Following Sitting Bull’s death at the hands of the U.S. Army just days on December 15, Big Foot and his followers rode 300 miles to Pine Ridge Reservation to join Oglala chief Red Cloud in an attempt to preserve Lakota land and traditions peaceably. When spotted and stopped by the U.S. Army, Big Foot and his fellow travelers submitted without resistance and set up camp by the Wounded Knee Creek on Pine Ridge.
On that following Monday morning, the Army began confiscating weapons at the camp. Soon after, a shot rang out (who and why is still uncertain), and the Army opened fire: in the first few minutes, dozens were killed, including Big Foot. Within 30 minutes, as many as 300 Lakota infants and children, women and men lay dead. (Only many days later, in January, did the Army return to bury 146 Lakota in a mass grave.
Ninety-six years later, in 1986, two Lakota elders – Curtis Kills Ree and Birgil Kills Straight – established the Sitanka Wokiksuye (Big Foot Memorial Ride), tracing the Big Foot’s route to Wounded Knee, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
“The journey was the beginning of a long-awaited healing process,” states the NMAI, noting that “During the two-week, 300-mile journey, riders experience some of the hardships their ancestors endured, as a physical, spiritual, and intellectual remembrance.”
(In 1992, the event was revived under the name Oomaka Tokatakiya [Future Generations Ride]. While it still pays homage to Big Foot and his followers, today’s ride is meant to foster leadership qualities in youth.)
SUPPORTING THE RIDERS
Oyate Ta Kola Ku director Rose Fraser reported that last year, she and staff and volunteers provided meals for more than 140 riders and are preparing for even more this year, including one of the staff members.
“It’s a really important part of our culture,” says Rose. “It’s important for us continue supporting the youth in their spiritual journey, even if it is by providing a meal and hot shower. We are very honored to support all the riders because they do not stop, postpone, or cancel because of the weather. They push through just like our ancestors did. It is very emotional when they arrive at Wounded Knee. The blessing, prayers, songs, war hooping and sense of completion is a very powerful spiritual moment.”
“I am very proud of each and every one of the riders who make that 300-mile journey,” says Rose.
Remembering history. Honoring culture.