LAME DEER - When members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe gathered Wednesday to commemorate the 1879 homecoming of Chief Little Wolf, their present-day leader asked them to keep one word in mind: Home.
"We have a homeland because of his leadership," President Eugene Little Coyote said.
Little Coyote and other dignitaries addressed about 200 people in a commemoration of the 126th anniversary of Little Wolf's April 1 return with about 350 Northern Cheyennes to their traditional homeland in Montana.
"Home," Little Coyote said. "I'm going to keep repeating that word. This is our home. They brought us here, they led us here."
Some tribal members don't know much about Little Wolf and his impact on the Cheyennes, Little Coyote said.
"It was intended to be that way through decades and generations of assimilation-based education," he said. "Real Cheyenne tribal history was not taught (in schools)."
Tribal Councilman Joe Fox Jr. talked about how the Cheyenne came home to live in peace and that Little Wolf was a courageous leader who brought them back.
"We forget this sometimes," Fox said. "We take it for granted."
He encouraged people to follow the Northern Cheyenne tradition and spread the history shared at the commemoration.
"Cheyennes don't have history books," Fox said and tapped his chest. "They are kept here, in our heart, and told over and over. … Pass this along to your grandkids, so they can tell their grandkids."
Ivan Posey encouraged the group to spread the word of Cheyenne contributions to society and to teach their children traditional ways. Posey is a Northern Cheyenne descendant of Little Wolf. He is also part Arapaho-Eastern Shoshone from Wind River in Wyoming and is chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council.
"We need to educate non-Indians about us," Posey said. "But we need to start educating ourselves about ourselves."
Alcohol, drugs and violence sometimes permeate Indian Country, Posey said.
"A lot of times in Indian Country, we're still going home," he said. "We still haven't got there yet."
Posey said that when the bands followed Little Wolf home from Oklahoma, they helped the weaker members. Today, there are people who need help, Posey said, whether that is to learn the language or traditional songs or to sober up.
"A lot of our old people are leaving us," Posey said. "It's our responsibility to carry on."
The commemoration began at the tribe's Charging Horse Casino instead of the Little Chief Capitol Building grounds as planned because of snow left from last week's spring storm.
Here's some of the history shared at the commemoration:
Little Wolf was the Sweet Medicine Chief of the Council of 44 Chiefs and a headsman of the Elk Horn Society. In 1877, many Cheyennes were moved to Indian Territory in today's Oklahoma, where they led "intolerable lives," Little Coyote said, with malnutrition and daily deaths. The bands of Indians wanted to return to their homeland, but the non-Indian army would not let them.
"Little Wolf said, 'Tell them we're going home, even if you attack us,' " Little Coyote said.
Chief Dull Knife, also known as Morning Star, took his band to Fort Robinson, Neb., and Little Wolf continued with his band to Montana and reached the headwaters of Otter Creek and the Yellowstone River on April 1, 1879.
"We want to remember," Little Coyote said. "Because if that didn't happen, we might not have a reservation today, we might not have a tribe."
The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation was created by presidential executive order in 1884 and expanded to today's boundaries - nearly doubling it - with a second executive order in 1900.
"Remember: Home. We're home," Little Coyote said.
Little Coyote and other dignitaries led about 80 people on a walk from the casino to the Lame Deer Cemetery, where Little Wolf's grave is surrounded by a fence with panels in the tribe's morning star design.
"This is a simple, yet powerfully symbolic gesture," Little Coyote said and began walking his people down the road and across a field of snow and mud.
The Northern Cheyenne are different from other tribes that have history in their escapes from forced removal of their lands, Little Coyote said. The Cheyennes were removed and returned home through harsh elements and constant threat of attack and death.
"What distinguishes us is we were going home, and what distinguishes us is we made it home," he said.