It took 138 years, but the remains of what researchers believe were two Northern Cheyenne killed during the historic Fort Robinson Breakout of 1879 have been reunited with their ancestral homelands in southeastern Montana.
The two sets of remains have been stored at the Nebraska State Historical Society’s museum in Lincoln. Last weekend’s repatriation ceremony was the first for the Northern Cheyenne since the tribe’s initial repatriations in 1993.
Wallace Bearchum, who serves as the vice chairman of the tribe’s cultural commission, was among about 10 tribal officials who traveled to Lincoln last week to reclaim the bodies.
Their return to the reservation was book-ended by traditional ceremonies in Lincoln and Busby, he said, followed by a formal burial Friday morning. During the initial rites in Nebraska, tribal dignitaries spoke to the ancestors, performed prayers and burned tribal medicines to prepare for the journey.
“It was a spiritual, real emotional, powerful experience,” Bearchum said. “As we were leaving, we could feel what the remains were feeling, just a real relief that they were out of there and we could tell what they were feeling. … On the way back, when we were in the Black Hills, we could feel that they were happy being back in the homeland.”
At the museum, the remains were placed in traditional cedar boxes, loaded into Bearchum’s car and driven Thursday through South Dakota to Busby, where teepees, a fire and meals had been prepared for the evening wake.
Several elders and other members of the tribe stayed up with the remains overnight, and about 50 tribal members joined Friday’s procession from Busby to the Chief Two Moons Memorial on a hill overlooking town. The final resting place for the two tribal members shares space with at least 24 other Northern Cheyenne remains that were relocated during the initial repatriation effort in 1993.
Beyond the spiritual importance of the ceremonies and long-awaited return of their ancestors' remains, the most recent repatriation also holds a deep historical importance for the tribe.
Following their role in the defeat of General Custer’s Army at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Northern Cheyenne were hunted by the U.S. Army until their capture in 1877. With no reservation of their own at the time, the tribe was sent to live with the Southern Cheyenne in present-day Oklahoma, where many of their members perished due to the unfamiliar desert climate, disease and scarce assistance from the U.S. government.
With their tribe nearing its breaking point, two Northern Cheyenne chiefs, Little Wolf and Dull Knife, led an escape from the reservation in September of 1878, bringing about 300 people north in a journey back to their homeland in the Northern Plains.
The two leaders split up, and the pursuing U.S. soldiers eventually caught up to Dull Knife’s band, forcing their surrender and confining them to Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska. Refusing to be relocated back to the brutal conditions they previously faced in Oklahoma, the remaining members of the tribe on Jan. 9, 1879, launched the “Fort Robinson Breakout,” a bloody skirmish alternately known as the “Fort Robinson Massacre.”
At least 64 Northern Cheyenne were killed over a two-week period beginning on the night of the breakout, according to historical accounts compiled by the American Indian Tribal Histories Project. Included in that total are 23 who initially escaped but were later cornered in a pit along a creek and shot by soldiers at point-blank range.
Kevin Kooistra serves as the executive director of the Western Heritage Center in Billings, which recently hosted an exhibit on the tribe’s struggle against the U.S. government. The Fort Robinson Breakout and the events surrounding it continue to have a profound effect on the tribe’s legacy, he said.
Northern Cheyenne memorial to the Fort Robinson Breakout
Eddie White Dirt
Gilbert White Dirt
Northern Cheyennes sing and drum
Tepee and clover
One of two small pine boxes is lowered
Wallace Bearchum, Roger Redhat and Donavan Taylor
Northern Cheyenne carry pine boxes
Jace Killsback, left, and Donavan Taylor
A small pine box
Gilbert White Dirt
Tribal members move along the newly completed bike path
It's “kind of like their Exodus. It’s very important,” he said. Referring to subsequent media accounts of the Breakout and federal investigations that were critical of the government’s actions. “I think what happened at Fort Robinson was kind of a turning point as far as the public’s stance.”
More than a century later, the Northern Cheyenne continued to play a role in shaping federal Indian policy.
Repatriations have been partly funded by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed by Congress in 1990. The law has helped tribes throughout the country to reclaim the remnants of their ancestors, and established requirements and procedures for returning human remains or cultural items likely belonging to native tribes.
One of the architects of that law, Bill Tallbull, was a Northern Cheyenne tribal historian who served on the committee that helped to draft the 1990 act. He was also responsible for the discovery of the two recently repatriated remains in Lincoln, Bearchum said.
“A lot of this started with the late Bill Tallbull, he went around and found out about universities and museums that had Cheyenne remains,” Bearchum said.
Tallbull worked with the Lincoln history museum to verify the suspected Cheyenne remains, which Nebraska State Archaeologist Rob Bozell said is typically determined by a preponderance of circumstantial evidence under the federal law.
“We have to say, based on our evidence, here’s our most likely understanding of who these remains are ancestral to,” Bozell explained. “There were some artifacts with them, some beads, glass beads and things that looked like they were from the 1870s, so by process of elimination, that’s probably related to the Cheyenne outbreak.
The Nebraska Historical Society’s analysis indicated that the two sets of remains belonged to a pair of males, aged 20 to 40, who were most likely Northern Cheyenne who were among the roughly 150 involved in the Fort Robinson Breakout.
Helping to lead the months-long effort to secure the remains was Teanna Limpy, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Preservation Officer. While the tribe had initially learned of the suspected tribal remains in the late 1990s, Limpy said it took years to navigate the process and secure the resources needed to transmit the remains back to the tribe.
“It took a lot of time to ensure that we were doing everything correctly," she said. "It’s the first I’ve had to do since being director of the programs, so it was something fairly new to my staff and people that weren’t at the ’93 repatriations.”
Despite the learning curve, however, she said her office will be better prepared to complete repatriation projects in the future.
“Everything turned out great, and it was a beautiful ceremony,” Limpy said. “I’m just happy that my ancestors were able to finally go back home to their people and to be reunited with their people after 138 years. I think that’s what’s most rewarding for all of us involved and for all the Cheyenne nations.”