Battle Cry

While historians search for the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, Laird Cometsevah listens to his ancestors.

Chivington, Colorado: The air is restless here, always stirring, rustling the stalks of dried buffalo grass and sage, whistling endlessly through miles of rusted barbed wire.

For many years, this was a dead place. Cheyenne and Arapaho stayed away.
But each November for over a decade now, Laird Cometsevah has driven here with his wife, coming 400 miles from their home in Oklahoma. He prays for the people, his relatives, whose bones lie in this ground, alongside U.S. Cavalry bullets. He smokes tobacco, as tradition says, and leaves offerings of dried meat, corn and chokecherries. He walks along the rolling plains of southeastern Colorado, on the banks of the Big Sandy, and he hears the children crying.

Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals and none to exceed it in final results.

--Rocky Mountain News, December 17, 1864

It's just after lunchtime in Cheyenne, Oklahoma, where it's 89 degrees in early May. Farmers wearing sleeveless T-shirts lean against the wall of the Trading Post convenience store, sipping Slurpees and watching semis rumble by. The Black Kettle Museum stands open for business, waiting for business, waiting. A waitress at the B & H restaurant slumps in a back booth, crunching ice cubes with her mouth open, watching a whirlwind sweep across a parking lot.

In a corrugated-tin building beside a metal shop--the only place in town big enough to hold a meeting of twenty people--Laird Cometsevah sits with his wife, Colleen. They've been here all morning, listening to a man from the U.S. Park Service talk about creating a memorial to those who died November 27, 1868, at Washita River, just a mile away.

At dawn that day, General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry into the peaceful camp of Chief Black Kettle and killed anywhere from 35 to 200 men, women and children, including Black Kettle, a prominent Cheyenne leader who'd been seeking a truce with the whites. The attack catapulted Custer to national fame and escalated tensions between Plains Indians and white settlers.

Park Service officials say they want the memorial to present all sides of the attack. They want to stay true to historical fact. They want to present a balanced interpretation. And so they have invited representatives from the Cheyenne tribe, the local chamber of commerce, congressional offices, historical societies and other groups, who discuss in exhausting detail every point of contention. They carefully weigh each phrase. And then, in a long, tedious process, they try to forge statements that will remain fair and accurate and stand for years to come.

Hours tick by.
A parks employee stuffs a glazed donut into a Styrofoam cup.
A geologist yawns.

Laird and Colleen listen intently. They woke at 5 a.m. and drove 57 miles from their home in Clinton to get here. They don't usually attend government meetings; they usually aren't invited. But this meeting is different, and they're curious. They take the opportunity seriously.

Laird is a Cheyenne chief; Colleen is a genealogist and historian. Together they help scholars compile accurate accounts of the Cheyenne's past and work to preserve tribal records. They have come to offer a perspective of the so-called Indian Wars not found in most textbooks: that of the Indian survivors.

At 67, Laird is an imposing figure: over six feet tall, somber, with dark glasses shading his eyes and a low, raspy, Oklahoma twang to his voice. Colleen is more outgoing, quick to smile, on this day wearing pink. They both like to laugh. They travel everywhere together.

When the meeting began, Laird introduced himself by his Cheyenne name, Whistling Eagle. He said his great-grandfather, Cometsevah, had survived the attack at Washita, as well as an attack at Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. These are all related, he said. Even Little Big Horn. It all starts at Sand Creek.

Few dispute the basics.
At dawn on November 29, 1864, almost 800 soldiers from Colorado's 1st and 3rd cavalries led by Colonel John Chivington attacked the peaceful camp of Black Kettle on the Big Sandy and killed some 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children. Ten soldiers also died.

From there, accounts diverge.
Some historians say Sand Creek must be viewed within the context of its time. Not to condone. Not to defend. But to understand. And at the time, white settlers in Colorado were on the edge of hysteria.

Two years earlier, some 700 pioneers had been killed during the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota. Afterward, rumors swirled that Indian tribes were uniting for war. Stagecoaches were raided; mail carriers refused to travel across the Plains. Newspapers raged: "Indian vs. White Man," "More Indian Outrages," "The Indians Are Coming!"

In June 1864, a family named Hungate was killed by four Arapaho on their ranch 25 miles southeast of Denver. The mutilated bodies, including those of two children, were brought back to the five-year-old town and placed on public display.

The impact was immediate.
"Nowadays we find it hard to believe there was a real possibility that all whites in Denver could be wiped out by Indians," says historian Tom Noel. "But when people saw those girls carved up, it certainly enhanced that possibility in their minds."

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