Honoring the spirit of Wounded Knee Con.
It was not until later than night that she had a chance to unfold the quilt and discover, to her amazement and awe, that Mrs. McNeil had given her a handmade star quilt. The giving of one of these quilts is a high honor; Speiden had no idea that she would be honored to such an extent.
Various beliefs and legends address the custom of creating a star quilt. Not all the quilts have the same design. The one Mrs. McNeil gave Speiden has pastel colors, perhaps symbolic of the dawn.
The next morning, the riders gathered at Sitting Bull’s grave site beside the Grand River near McLaughlin, S.D., for a prayer circle ceremony that included a custom called smudging. A small, tight, hand-held bundle of sweet grass or sage is lighted and the smoke is wafted across the faces of the riders and horses as a purification and protection rite.
After a lunch prepared by Ina McNeil and her sister, Della, the riders left Sitting Bull Camp to begin the arduous 14-day trip. Speiden was thrilled to find herself and her husband riding with superb horsemen, former members of a mobile, horse-based culture who were back in their element.
The initial group of 31 riders was about equally made up of adults and boys and girls age 8 up to late teens. Some of the youngsters were riding bareback, and all were riding hard to keep up on their little ponies, which were only about 3 feet high. The young people were counseled by the elders to pay close attention to the route, since they would eventually be responsible for leading the ride.
The first two days of the trip crossed the Standing Rock Reservation; then the riders traveled for six days across the Cheyenne River Reservation. The next three days would be across nonreservation land until they reached the Badlands on the Pine Ridge Reservation on Dec. 25, then on to Wounded Knee, with arrival planned Dec. 28.
Generally, the riders left around 10 a.m., stopping for several short rest periods and an hour for lunch, traveling an average of about six hours a day. Every fourth day was a day of rest. Most days, the group traveled at least 25 miles, with the two hardest days clocking 35 and 40 miles.
The first leg of the trip took the riders down the frozen Grand River, and by the end of the day, 28 miles had been covered in 41/2 hours, traveling either at a fast trot or slow canter. “Ron hadn’t been exaggerating when he told me they rode fast,” commented Speiden. “I had been expecting maybe 10 or 12 miles that first half-day.”
It was well after dark when they came into the town of Timber Lake to stay for the night, and when Speiden got to the trailer, she sank to her knees in pain and exhaustion.
“I put my head down on my arms, unable to move, or even help take care of the horses. I had been congested over the last few days but pains in my midriff made it clear there was more to it than that,” she says.
She rode in the truck with Leith until Dec. 21, when the pain finally put her in the hospital in Rapid City, S.D., diagnosed with a large stomach ulcer.
“While I was there, I slept under Ina McNeil’s star quilt and could feel the prayers of the riders,” she says.
Prayer is an important part of Indian life. Each day started with a prayer circle, usually led by Arvol Looking Horse, the spiritual leader, who spoke of the need to pray while riding and help each other along the way. He emphasized the need to restore balance and be at peace, thinking good thoughts in order to counteract the pervasive sickness and strife in the world.
Successful treatment got Speiden out of the hospital on Christmas Day. Leith and Bill Speiden picked her up, and they rejoined the riders. The next day was a day of rest. Bill Speiden continued the ride the following day while Sandra Speiden prudently rode in the truck again, since it was the day of the tough 40-mile stretch through the Badlands. Support vehicles could not follow there and any injury to a horse or rider could have had severe consequences.
Fortunately, the weather was unusually mild during the trip, reaching the teens in the morning and warming to the 20s or 30s during the day.
Although there often was ice on the streams, it was possible to break through to let the horses drink, even if occasionally they had to go to their knees to reach the water. (Not an easy thing to do.) Generally, if the water is very cold, horses tend not to drink enough of it to suit their needs, so their supply had to be supplemented from water warmed in the truck.