Sitting Bull, the most respected leader in the history of the Lakota Nation, was killed Dec. 15, 1890, in his cabin on the Standing Rock Reservation by U.S. cavalry forces, a measure taken to control perceived dangers posed by the tribe.
The Indians fled in an attempt to reach Red Cloud's reservation in Nebraska, 300 miles to the south. When they reached Wounded Knee, S.D., the pursuing troops caught up to them and began to disarm them. One tribal member, who was deaf, misunderstood the order to relinquish his rifle, and in the ensuing scuffle it discharged. This precipitated the slaughter of more than 250 of the nearly 350 men, women and children who had made the arduous journey from North Dakota.
The opportunity to join the commemorative ride honoring Sitting Bull and the Wounded Knee Massacre left Speiden feeling delighted and privileged. When she took home the invitation, her husband predictably and enthusiastically agreed to the venture.
After three months of preparation, which included conditioning both themselves
and their two horses for open-country travel in weather that could reach minus
40 degrees with blizzards, they left Virginia, driving their pickup truck
and pulling the stock trailer. Bill Speiden had fitted plywood panels over
the trailer's side openings and tailgate to allow it to serve two purposes.
The rear half sheltered the horses on the trip to and from South Dakota. The
front half was nighttime camping space for the couple during the ride, while
the horses stayed in portable corrals or at ranches along the way.
The horses--true heroes, or heroines, in the story--were two mares, Topaz, Sandra Speiden's 14-year-old Spanish mustang, and Dancer, Bill Speiden's 15-year-old Tennessee Walker. The support of their son Leith Speiden, who came along to drive the truck during the ride and take care of many sometimes onerous tasks and details, also was invaluable to the success of the venture.
The pipe was carried wrapped in a piece of flannel, along with a sprig of wild sage that is used by the Indians for ceremonial purposes. Formed of two interconnecting pieces that are joined only during use, it is made from a sedimentary rock called pipestone, found exclusively in southwestern Minnesota in an area sacred to the Indians where no one but they are allowed to quarry.
The stem, representing the backbone of the people, is drilled out with reeds and sand. The pipe Sandra Speiden bought has a wood stem inserted inside the pipestone stem. Oral history of the tribe tells that the pipe was given to the Lakota by White Buffalo Calf Woman, along with seven ceremonies to accompany it, so the Indians felt it was particularly appropriate for a woman, Sandra Speiden, to return the one she had purchased.
At Sitting Bull Camp on the evening of Dec. 14, the Speidens brought the gift pipe to the powwow that preceded the start of the ride. Before an audience of 80 or more people, Sandra Speiden presented McNeil with the pipe. She began by saying:
"Ron, in the spirit of healing, and in memory and in honor of a great leader, I give this pipe to you that may have been Sitting Bull's.
Gen. Thomas Rosser met and recognized Sitting Bull in Canada in 1881, and gave him some food. In return, Sitting Bull gave him a headpiece.
"In 1984, Barbara Rosser, Gen. Rosser's granddaughter, was going into a nursing home and an estate auction was being held that included possessions formerly owned by her grandfather. Attributed to Sitting Bull at that auction was the headpiece, as well as a necklace and the pipe.
"I have never before, nor since, purchased an Indian's personal possession because I am not comfortable, for a number of reasons, with the idea of doing that. But something made me go to that auction; and the pipe spoke to me.
"Since that time, I tried to find a descendant of Sitting Bull so I could gift the pipe back to the family, and complete its circle."
She ended the presentation by saying, "One of the wonderful things about this whole experience has been the expanding circle of involvement and good thoughts. It is my hope that this may be an example to be followed. It is a particular pleasure to gift you with the pipe because you, yourself, are a leader."
Immediately afterward, McNeil's mother, Ina McNeil, who lives in Long Island, N.Y., held an honoring ceremony and giveaway. Much to Speiden's surprise, she was presented with a quilt and two matching throw pillows.