Spirit Rider Teens Commemorate Wounded Knee Massacre
By Jodi Rave, Lee Enterprises Sunday, December 16, 2007
BEAR SOLDIER -- When Donaven Yellow of Wakpala
joined the Spirit Riders, he pledged to ride four years in the Big Foot
Memorial Ride, a near-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 en route to the Pine
Ridge reservation, picking up others along the way until they number 200.
"Riding for two weeks isn't easy," 15-year-old Donaven said. "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 was 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, his father, Manaja Hill, said.
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," his
father said. "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."
So Hill and a friend started a horse program to help youths. In 1998,
seven young men from the Standing Rock reservation 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 Ride 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 down after making an attempt to seek safety on
the Pine Ridge reservation.
Big Foot's band started their journey after learning of the death of
Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota. Today, the memory of those
slain is honored as horseback riders retrace the trail of the massacred
Riders now participate in the Big Foot Memorial Ride annually from Dec.
15-29. They end their 287-mile ride at Wounded Knee, where Big Foot's
band was buried in a mass grave.
In 1992, after adults fulfilled their vision to honor their ancestors'
memory in four consecutive rides, they felt it was time to end.
But the youths 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," His
Horse is Thunder said. "It truly has become a ride for the youth."
Adults contend youth and horses are a natural fit.
"There's no barriers," Hill said. "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
"Watch the actions of horse," Hill said. "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 six 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."
It's a matter of how you carry yourself with all these values, beginning
with prayer, respect, humility and generosity, Eagle Shield said.
"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," he said.
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 is embracing values important to being a good human being. It's a way
of life that steers him away from being self-centered, his grandfather said.
"His birthday is Dec. 25 -- Christmas Day," Pat Yellow said. "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."
Contact Jodi Rave at 1-800-396-7186 or email@example.com.
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