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BUSBY -- One step at a time, Northern Cheyenne youth run away from historical trauma and toward a future of hope and health.

That's partly the idea behind the annual Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run that takes young members of the southeastern Montana tribe on journey to their past.

On Saturday afternoon, 90 young runners completed the run in Busby. It began on Monday at Fort Robinson, Neb., 400 miles from Lame Deer. Fifth-graders up to high school seniors took part in the 16th annual run.

About 30 adults accompanied them on the long-distance relay, and some of them ran alongside the youth.

Toward the end of the trek, two runners at a time, a boy and a girl, jogged on the shoulder of Highway 212, while the other runners rode in a bus or one of several vans. The boy carried an eagle feather staff and the girl held the blue-and-white tribal flag that features the Morning Star, symbol of the tribe.

Each pair ran a short distance and then handed the staff and the flag off to the next duo. Some wore jeans and T-shirts, others had on long shorts and many wore painted designs on their faces.

At their destination, the youth ran as a group up a hill near the Two Moon Monument, to the clapping and cheers of people and honking of cars to welcome them home.

The ending point is significant because the remains of some of the tribal members who originally fled Fort Robinson on Jan. 9, 1879, are buried in an enclosed area on top of the hill. The 150 Northern Cheyenne men, women and children, led by Chief Dull Knife, broke out of their wooden barracks and escaped from Fort Robinson at night. They had gone five days without food and water and decided to flee their captivity.

It was bitterly cold, with temperatures at 30 below zero, and many died or were killed by soldiers. But a few, including Dull Knife, made it to the Powder River country in southeastern Montana.

The youth who retraced their ancestors' steps got one last history lesson Saturday as they, the chaperones, and family and community members stood in a circle next to the burial ground.

"We're going to ask for a moment of silence for our ancestors who sacrificed their lives on that horrible night in 1879 at 10:30 p.m.," run organizer Phillip Whiteman Jr., spoke into a bullhorn. "It was 30 below zero when they chose to break out of the barracks, going against the government, the army."

After a smudging ceremony, when the youth and the adults cleansed themselves with cedar smoke, Whiteman invited them to remove their hats "and made a connection in the circle so that we can become strong again."

Tribal elder Vernon Bull Coming spoke quietly for a few minutes, and then he prayed in his native tongue while Whiteman sang in Northern Cheyenne. Then everyone departed for one last meal at the tribal school in Busby.

After the ceremony ended, Lynette Two Bulls, Whiteman's wife, said the six days of the run include visits to the actual sites where the events took place, as well as education detailing the history of that time.

But the idea of the run goes beyond teaching them about the past, she said.

"One of our themes this year is stepping out of the trauma, running towards your future," she said. "It's about empowering our young people to help them heal from the historical trauma so they can move forward with their lives and look towards the future."

The run went through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Two Bulls said, to pay tribute to Chief Red Cloud's band of Indians who hid Chief Dull Knife's family.

"The kids got to meet Chief Oliver Red Cloud, who is a direct descendant of that original chief," she said. "All along the way we were honored, and heard presenters and speakers, and the tribe fed our runners."

On Friday night, the group reached the reservation line. In Ashland, family and other supporters lined the streets and cheered on the runners who all ran together.

"It was really powerful," Two Bulls said.

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One of those runners, Davian Stands, 13, of Ogallala, S.D., carried more than a flag when she took her turns jogging. She also carries the name Dull Knife in her lineage.

"I'm a descendant from Chief Dull Knife," she said, waiting by a van to run on Saturday afternoon. "My grandma's name is Barbara Dull Knife."

Davian, in a red sweatshirt with a pink Morningstar painted on her face, has been part of the run since she was 8. She participates "because it makes me feel like I have something that I'm part of."

The run also has helped give her a vision of what she's capable of.

"As a kid it makes me realize what I can do in the future to help people," she said. "Like help out on our reservation and talk to kids about suicide and drinking and being an alcoholic. There's consequences to everything they do."

Suzette Cain parked her car on the side of the road to cheer on the runners. Camera in one hand, she ululated as her son, Sgt. Leslie Bird Chief, ran by with some of the younger participants.

Bird Chief, 32, acted as a chaperone on the trip, his mother said. He's just coming off a difficult time in his own life.

"It's just something he really needed after serving in Afghanistan," she said. "It was very traumatic, he lost a good friend there. And so for him to be able to come home and take part in this, it really makes him feel welcome back into the community."

The run, Cain said, lets the youth know what their ancestors went through to get back to their homeland. And it can help solidify their own identities.

"It empowers who they are as individuals and as Northern Cheyenne as a tribe," she said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.