“We will not go there to live. That is not a healthful country, and if we should stay there, we would all die. We do not wish to go back there, and we will not go. I am here on my own ground, and I will never go back. You may kill me here, but you cannot make me go back. You can starve us if you like, but you cannot make us go south. We will not go.”
--Chief Morning Star
aka Chief Dull Knife)
Those words, uttered by Chief Morning Star of the Cheyenne at Fort Robinson, are immortalized in a long-awaited monument honoring the Cheyenne Outbreak from the fort in 1879. His words, along with those of other important Cheyenne figures, are engraved on the four sides of the Cheyenne Outbreak Monument west of Fort Robinson.
Under construction for years, the monument is finally finished and was dedicated at a ceremony Friday.
More than 60 Cheyenne, including women and children, were killed during the tribe’s flight for freedom.
“The soldiers fired on us, and then it was just like shooting cattle; we dropped dead one after another as we ran,” recalled Tangled Hair, whose words are also inscribed on the monument.
The outbreak’s roots date back to events in 1876, when chief Morning Star’s village in the Bighorn Mountains was burned. The tribe joined Crazy Horse on Beaver Creek in refuge and eventually surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. From there, the Cheyenne were sent south to what is now Oklahoma, but after a year of suffering from poor food and diseases, a large group of Cheyenne fled the reservation to return to their tribal lands in the north. They were led by chiefs Morning Star and Little Wolf.
As the group crossed Nebraska, they split up, with Morning Star’s band seeking to join Lakota Chief Red Cloud at the Red Cloud Agency. Red Cloud, however, and his tribe had been relocated to Dakota Territory. Instead, Morning Star and nearly 150 men, women and children surrendered ended up in the cavalry barracks in October 1878.
Morning Star attempted to negotiate the release of the Cheyenne, either to their homeland in Montana or to join Red Cloud in Dakota Territory, but the government insisted that the tribe return to Oklahoma. As Morning Star’s words on the monument make clear, that was not an option for the tribe, and in January 1979 the government withheld food, water and fuel from the Native Americans. After several days of such treatment, the group broke out of the barracks Jan. 9, 1879; in Tangled Hair’s words they had no intention to harm anyone, only to flee.
A running fight ensued for days as soldiers attempted to recapture the Cheyenne. Many were killed and recaptured that night, but some managed to elude the soldiers for a time. Iron Teeth Woman, also immortalized on the monument, recalls hiding in the caves of the buttes west of Fort Robinson for seven days in the cold, afraid to start a fire and using snow for water. More of the Cheyenne were killed or recaptured Jan. 22 on Antelope Creek northwest of the fort. In addition to the dozens of Cheyenne killed during the outbreak, 11 soldiers also were killed. Morning Star and his family were among the few who were eventually able to find refuge with Chief Red Cloud. The government eventually allowed the Northern Cheyenne to return to a reservation in Montana, but Morning Star died before that happened.
The construction of a monument to honor the Cheyenne who fled that night has been in the works since 2001, but progress was slow. It culminated Friday with the dedication ceremony marking the completion of the structure. The land for the site was donated by T.R. and Kay Hughes. T.R. died last year, but Kay was on hand for the dedication.
T.R. first became acquainted with the Cheyenne in 1970 when he wanted to give a Native American tribe buffalo from his herd to re-establish a herd on tribal lands, Kay said. He met with the Cheyenne in Lame Deer, Mont., and became friends with Ted Rising Sun, who shared stories with T.R. about the Cheyenne’s exodus from Oklahoma and outbreak at Fort Robinson.
T.R. walked the route the Cheyenne took from the fort with Rising Sun and when the private ranch adjoining the fort was sold, he purchased 1,200 acres, knowing it was where the Cheyenne crossed the creek in the hopes of finding safety in the buttes.
He immediately gifted 365 acres of land and made it possible for the Cheyenne tribe to purchase the rest at a reduced price, Kay said.
“It was a story that touched both of us,” she noted, saying they were privileged to be a part of making the monument possible.
Construction began in 2001, but funding ran out and the monument was left half finished until more funds could be generated. Reflecting on the monument Friday, Jerae LaRance of Lame Deer, Mont., said it means a lot to be able to see her ancestors’ honored for their bravery. Her grandfather, she said, often told them stories about the break out of Fort Robinson.
Dr. Leo Killsback of Arizona State University, a descendant of Morning Star, said understanding what the Cheyenne went through making the decision to flee Fort Robinson knowing many would likely die, puts things in perspective.
“We think we have hard lives. … You have 2,000 soldiers ready to kill your people … that’s leadership.”
L. Jace Killsback, Leo’s brother, served as master of ceremonies Friday and called the completion of the monument an achievement made more significant because it took so long to finish.
“This is one way we mark our history, and our continued existence as a sovereign Indian nation,” said Northern Cheyenne Tribal Vice President Winfield Russell. “(T.R.) was a great man who really helped the Northern Cheyenne.”
Several people who led the efforts to fundraise and make the monument possible were recognized during the ceremony, and the tribe hosted other activities throughout the weekend to celebrate.