Native Sun News: Cheyenne River veterans watch over 9/11 flag

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy, Native Sun News Editor. All content © Native Sun News.
Members of the Cheyenne River Veterans Association along with wacipi (powwow) participants respectfully unfurl the 9/11 flag entrusted to the association, as part of a ceremony in honor of the flag and all that it represents. COURTESY/CHEYENNE RIVER VETERANS ASSOCIATION

Richard Charging Eagle, Kella With Horn and Robert Dunsmore, from left, as members of the Cheyenne River Veterans Association, which is headquartered in Eagle Butte, are the honored sentinels of one of only three American flags to survive the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. COURTESY/KELLA WITH HORN

A greater glory
Cheyenne River veterans keep watch over 9/11 flag
By Jesse Abernathy
Native Sun News Editor


For many in America, the two numbers call forth the collectively shared tragedy of the concerted, carefully orchestrated terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A dark moment in U.S. history many will never forget, primarily because of the almost 3,000 Americans who lost their lives that day.

For a group of veterans on the Cheyenne River Reservation in north-central South Dakota, 9/11 has added meaning and purpose: the Cheyenne River Veterans Association inherited one of the American flags that flew atop the World Trade Center on that fateful day just over 11 years ago.

The story of how this American flag with elevated significance came to be in the hands of the Cheyenne River Veterans Association is a tale of quiet outside commitment to the organization, which was established as an entity of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in 2001, according to spokeswoman and member Kella With Horn, who served in the U.S. Army from 1986 to 1994 and is considered a Desert Storm-era veteran.

According to information contained on the group’s website,, the flag itself selected the group to be its caretaker: “The Cheyenne River Veterans Association was chosen to be guardians of this flag — hear the stories behind how this flag chose this group to tell the story of its survival and what it means to so many people, families of those who perished and those who survived and the lives that were lost.”

The site adds that “This flag was given to the Cheyenne River Veterans Association (CRVA) to be presented to the public as a Remembrance Flag for the War on Terrorism that is continuing today.”

Also on the Cheyenne River Veterans Association’s website, Richard Charging Eagle, the group’s commander and a Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, recounts in one of several videos linked to YouTube how one of President Barack Obama’s white Secret Service agents grilled him on why the Native American group had the 9/11 flag in its possession. The veterans had been invited by the White House to attend Obama’s inauguration in January of 2009 in Washington, D.C., and the agent was dumbfounded as to why Natives were entrusted as guardians of such an important piece of the country’s history, according to Charging Eagle.

Charging Eagle says he told the Secret Service agent that the group had the flag because Native Americans were the first people to fight for this country. “We fought, and we got this (American) flag during the Battle of the Little Big Horn,” he notes in the video, “and it was never returned to us. More Native Americans are decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor; if it wasn’t for us, (America) wouldn’t have won World War II.”

After his explanation to the agent assigned to Obama’s protective detail, Charging Eagle told Native Sun News the man looked down at the ground, shaking his head, and stepped quietly away.

The flag is one of only three to survive the attacks on the World Trade Center, Charging Eagle said from his home in the community of Red Scaffold on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and comes from the North Tower, which was the first of the Twin Towers struck by one of the four airplanes hijacked that day, but the second to fall.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe elder describes the flag as still being in pretty good shape, but darkened with soot from the ashes of the collapsing World Trade Center towers.

One of the three flags is on display in a New Jersey museum and the second was presented to the New York City Fire Department, according to Charging Eagle.

Around 2005, the third American flag to survive the collapse of both the North and South Towers was presented to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s veterans service officer at the time, Charging Eagle said. “Senator Tom Daschle was heavily involved in helping us get the 9/11 flag,” he said.

Then-U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle was joined in his efforts in securing the flag for the Native American veterans’ organization by the state’s other Democratic senator in Congress, Tim Johnson, Charging Eagle added.

Since acquiring the 9/11 flag, the Cheyenne River Veterans Association has been touring the country with it, respectfully presenting it as a powerful symbol of the large-scale tragedy that is now forever seared into American consciousness and sharing its story of survival at powwows and other community events, both tribal and non-tribal.

To date, the flag has logged over 70,000 miles of travel with the organization. Included in those 70,000-plus miles are yearly trips at the end of July to the flag’s original home of New York City to share its story with people on the East Coast, said With Horn, who is based in Aberdeen. The Cheyenne River Veterans Association not only recognizes local veterans, she noted, “we recognize all veterans.”

Charging Eagle said sometimes veterans who travel with the flag have to sleep in their vehicles. “And we do it because it’s important. But gas is not cheap,” he noted with a laugh, “and we do appreciate any donations we get for travel.”

He said he taught a special honoring song for the 9/11 flag to the organization’s accompanying drum group, Bad Nation, from Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation, emphasizing that “It didn’t take them long to learn the song.”

Being a protector of the 9/11 flag has further significance for Charging Eagle, who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder — as many war veterans do — for 12 years following his honorable discharge in 1971 as a Marine in the Vietnam War. He said he went through a “Wiping of the Soul” ceremony with Lakota spiritual leader and medicine man Frank Fools Crow, who made his journey to the spirit world at almost 100 years old in 1989.

The ceremony “is very powerful, and it helped me immensely,” Charging Eagle said.

In addition to traveling extensively with the 9/11 flag, both Charging Eagle and With Horn say their group has a Cheyenne River Veterans Memorial Park in the works. “And we are doing fundraising for that and seeking donations,” said Charging Eagle.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s powwow, or wacipi, grounds, located just outside the Cheyenne River Reservation’s administrative center and largest community of Eagle Butte, has been selected as the site for the Veterans Memorial Park.

The pair also indicated that Robert Dunsmore, the tribe’s veterans service officer for the past three and a half years, holds a key role within their organization. Additionally, Dunsmore, who served in the U.S. Army from 1977 to 1981, is featured in the Veterans Association’s online videos alongside Charging Eagle and With Horn.

For information on how to donate to the Cheyenne River Veterans Association to help ease travel expenses or to donate to the park project, go to or visit the association’s Facebook page.

The group will be presenting the 9/11 flag for an honoring ceremony during the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate’s “Gathering of Warriors” Veterans Wacipi, which runs from Friday, Nov. 9, through Veterans Day on Sunday, Nov. 11, at Dakota Magic Casino in Hankinson, N.D., on the Lake Traverse Reservation.

“We’ve never had (the flag) cleaned or nothing like that,” Dunsmore explains in one of the association’s Internet videos. “A veterans’ work program built the case that it’s carried in … .” Veterans who don’t want people to forget what happened during the terrorist attacks on 9/11, he adds.

Dunsmore says the state of South Dakota alone lost over 40 veterans on 9/11 — two of them enrolled members from Cheyenne River.

“It’s an honor to carry this flag to so many people so that people don’t forget what happened.”

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at

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