Battle Cry

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

What Laird Cometsevah heard, he heard from his father, who heard it from his mother, who camped at Sand Creek when she was five or six years old. Old enough to remember the soldiers coming.

The story was told as Laird and his family sat outside under a thatch of willows, making a fire, cooking supper, boiling coffee. It had been passed down through the family, by elders telling children, children growing up and telling their children.

The way Laird's father told it, there was a lot of turmoil and disagreement between Indian and non-Indians. After gold was discovered in 1858, cattle drives had come across the Indian lands, the men stealing horses, causing trouble. The Indians tried to keep them away. They tried to protect what belonged to them.

Black Kettle went to Denver to try to speak of peace for his people. He was led to believe that Fort Lyon troops would protect them if they stayed on a reservation along Sand Creek. So they set up camp there.

Black Kettle's camp had many elderly people, children and widows. He tried to take care of them. That was his duty as a Cheyenne chief. The young men, they probably were at Smoky Hill with the Dog Soldiers, who lived apart from other Cheyenne, banned after a killing among themselves.

At the time, Colonel Chivington was tied in with Governor Evans, who had wanted to invite non-Indians into the area since gold was discovered. Gold didn't amount to anything for the Cheyenne. Anyway, Governor Evans formed this militia with Chivington.

Early one morning--they always said it was morning--some young people were herding horses when they saw images coming from the south. It was early, with the sun just coming up, and they couldn't see too well. It was cold. Very thin snowflakes were falling.

The young people thought what they saw were buffalo. Then they realized it was U.S. troops. Quite a few of them. Chivington's troops, coming toward the camp. So these young people ran back and told the village.

The troops got closer.
Black Kettle came out of his lodge holding a long pole with the American flag and a white flag underneath. He stood in front of his teepee and told his people, "Don't run. Don't run. Don't be afraid. Come around me. The soldiers won't hurt you. As long as we have this flag, they won't bother us."

Chivington's troops divided in three groups. One headed off the herd of horses on the south side of Sand Creek; another group of troops dismounted and went upstream toward the camp; the third group of mounted troops came from the northeast.

Chivington's men started shooting. They ignored the flag, the truce of peace, whatever you want to call it. The troops walked through the camp, shooting, killing, they even walked over their own flag.

Chief White Antelope came out of his teepee. When he saw the soldiers weren't going to stop shooting, he started singing his death song. They shot him down as he stood singing.

Laird's great-grand-father, Cometsevah, lost two of his six children when the shooting started--his oldest boy and his oldest daughter. He also lost his younger sister, who was twelve or fourteen years old. She died at the beginning, too.

Cometsevah ran toward the commotion and tried to fight. That's one of the laws of a Cheyenne chief. When your people are attacked, you go forward and stand your ground until your people can run away. While Cometsevah fought with the other men, the women, old people and children moved upstream, maybe two miles.

Colleen's great-grandfather's brother ran to the camp from the horse herd; his mother and father were already gone. He picked up his war things--his war bonnet, his shield and the gun that his father had given him. As he ran up Sand Creek, soldiers shot at him the whole way. All the feathers were shot off his war bonnet, but he didn't get a scratch.

Black Kettle and his wife left the flag standing and went up the creek after the rest of the camp. Halfway there, Black Kettle's wife was shot down. When he looked at her, she looked like she was dead, so he ran.

The troops were shooting at them from three directions. The women dug into the sand, making pits to hide from the gunfire. That's how they survived.

Cometsevah caught up with them sometime later.
By the time the shooting stopped, Laird's father said, the sun was straight up in the sky.

Cometsevah and the other men went back toward the camp, where they could see smoke. The troops had burned their lodges. Cometsevah walked through the camp, looking for the bodies of his missing children and sister, whose Indian name was Tallow Woman. He couldn't find them. He didn't know what the soldiers had done with them. Maybe cut them up. But he knew they were dead.

These troops, they mutilated people. Bodies had arms gone, legs gone, fingers cut off. Heads were missing. A lot of the women were cut open. Even Chief White Antelope had his ears cut off. Things of that nature.

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