Every December, hundreds of American Indian riders pay tribute to those who died in the Wounded Knee Massacre by tracing the path of their ancestors.
It is called Oomaka Tokatakiya, the Future Generations Ride, and it is an epic journey spanning nearly 300 miles of historic and sometimes hostile territory. It will take place this year as it has for the last quarter of a century, with some 300 riders and their horses departing in mid-December to trace the paths of their ancestors across the South Dakota landscape, and find in themselves a strength and power that will change their lives.
Our history books in school would tell us that it was the last armed conflict of the American Indian Wars. Today we know it as the Wounded Knee Massacre. On December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry opened fire with Hotchkiss cannons on 350 Indians, mostly women and children. Followers of the peaceful Big Foot, the Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota people were traveling in the dead of winter in an effort to reach Red Cloud in Pine Ridge, where they hoped to find a safe respite and avoid further conflict with the United States.
The soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry, numbering approximately 500, intercepted the fleeing people and made them camp near Wounded Knee Creek on the night of December 28. In the morning, they gave the order for all of the Lakota people to surrender their arms, which they did — except for one. A deaf man named Black Coyote refused. There was a struggle and a shot was fired. Within moments, the Hotchkiss guns, which encircled the camp, blazed down on the unarmed Lakota and the soldiers.
In less than an hour it was over. The Indians who were not killed by the guns were murdered by hand. The dead and dying were left on the ground as a blizzard closed in. Their frozen bodies would be buried days later in a mass grave when the blizzard finally passed.
Twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were given to members of the Seventh Cavalry who participated in the massacre. For the Lakota people, in many ways it was the end.
“I did not know then how much was ended,” Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk wrote decades later in his memoir, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. “When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream ... . [T]he nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
In 1986, almost a century after the tragic massacre, the scars remained heavy on the hearts and lives of the Lakota people. “It was a sad time in our lives; depression was strong,” recalls Alex White Plume, former tribal president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation. “Our [traditional Lakota] way was not here.”
Oglala Sioux member Karen Ducheneaux recalls how that began to change. “Before the first ride in 1986, several people began having dreams about following the path taken by our ancestors in 1890 before their massacre at Wounded Knee. One of these people was Birgil Kills Straight, the organizer of the first Si Tanka Wokiksuye Ride.”
Nineteen riders, including White Plume and his younger brother Percy, and one woman, Vevina White Hawk, committed themselves to that vision. They retraced the journey of Big Foot and his band on horseback in the dead of winter and called it Si Tanka Wokiksuye, or the Big Foot Memorial Ride. “We rode the spirit trail to bring back all our ceremonies,” White Plume says.
The second year, the group of riders grew to include Ducheneaux and her family. “We were supposed to go on the first ride but couldn’t get our horses to Bridger [Montana],” she explains. “I was 16 years old the first year we went on the Big Foot Ride; my little brother was only 3 and had to ride in the wagon.”
From 1986 to 1989, the riders prepared for the Wounded Knee centennial. And then, in 1990, they undertook the Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations ride.
“The ride was extended to include the route Sitting Bull’s people took after his assassination in 1890,” Ducheneaux says. “The reason the ride was so important was because the Lakota usually do a ‘wiping of the tears ceremony’ a year after a loss. But after what happened at Wounded Knee, we were a broken people who were herded back onto our reservations virtually without protest. What they did to our people was so unthinkable that we were too damaged to do the wiping of the tears after a year — and really, we remained in mourning for those people who died in that horrific way for 100 years. The ride in 1990 was an attempt to move forward from that time of mourning and healing and face the future as a recovered people.”
Today the annual ride is called Oomaka Tokatakiya — the Future Generations Ride. The young people who participate are now the sixth and seventh generations of Lakota since that dark time in American history, when massacre was considered the best way to deal with the “Indian problem.” The tribe believes that this is the generation upon whom its future depends — the generation that elders have seen in visions, the generation that will restore the sacred hoop.
Ducheneaux and her brother have grown up on the ride, and her commitment to it has remained strong. “I went on four of the original Big Foot Rides, a wopila [giving thanks] ride, and seven of the Oomaka Tokatakiya rides. I was one of the organizers for the last six I went on.
“By the time I went on the Oomaka Tokatakiya ride, my little brother was 11. Because being on the ride had taught me so much, and given me the strength I had, I wanted to make that opportunity available for another generation the way it had been provided for me.”
The Future Generations Ride is about spiritual strength and physical sacrifice. It is about healing, honoring the ancestors, embracing one’s own power, coming together as a people. And beneath all of it, carrying both body and spirit, is the horse.
Breath steaming from their nostrils, thick winter coats shrugging the snow, these veterans of the journey lead the way across the frozen terrain in minus-20-degree weather, taking each step with purpose. They come in every color and in a variety of shapes, but the horses all possess heart and stamina.
The stuff of legend and folklore is real on this ride. The people trust their lives to their horses, and their horses carry them across sweeping plains and bristling interstates, through snowdrifts and settlements, sometimes as many as 35 miles in a day.
Large and heavy-boned, many of the equines have a strong quarter horse influence. Others are traditional Appaloosas. There are animals that, beneath their shaggy coats, move with the collected grace of the Spanish Barb. There are beloved family horses whose pedigrees may not be listed in any registry.
“As far as the horses, I always took quarter horses,” Ducheneaux says. “I like their disposition and their build, and that’s the kind my family raises. Some people took Arabians because they claimed they had better stamina. Those horses are amazing; they learn their strength just as the riders do. The first couple of days they are kind of played-out, but they hit their stride and just keep going.
“It’s a beautiful thing to suffer with a horse that you know well. You’re having such a hard time and you just keep thinking, This horse is doing all the work. A good horse is like a good dog: They will give their all for you; they will give their life for you. They are so selfless. I was lucky to have a few good horses in my life.”
Ducheneaux pauses. “It makes me cry to think about my horses and all they sacrificed to carry me to Wounded Knee, over and over.”
On December 15, 2014, the riders will depart again to make the epic two-week journey. They will gather at Sitting Bull Camp, near Bullhead, South Dakota, to ride nearly 300 miles on horseback to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
What began as a small and determined band of American Indian people healing the wounds carried by their nations for a century has become a group of hundreds, devoted to their children and their future.
People from around the world will join them. Native communities will come out to greet them. Children will look up to the riders — some as young as 7 — and see in them positive role models. They will feel proud to be Lakota. They will feel the power of the Horse Nation.
From the January 2015 issue.