Battle Cry

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

When Cometsevah got to his lodges, he saw nothing but ashes. All his belongings, his winter supplies, were gone.

He looked all around.
Everywhere he saw dead Cheyenne. Elderly people. Women. Children. Babies.
He looked back at the ashes and saw his peace pipe. Just the bowl remained. The stem had burned. That pipe was all he had.

Cometsevah went back to tell his wife and the others what had happened. He looked at where the Cheyenne people had died. And he said, "The sand was red with blood."

All Cometsevah could do was sing his chief songs. He couldn't do anything else.

So he sang.
Anyway. That's what Laird's father told him, as his father's mother had told him.

The words "Sand Creek" appear on a marker outside the Colorado State Capitol, erected in 1909 and commemorating Civil War battles. This spring, legislators called for Sand Creek to be erased from the list. Was it a battle or a massacre? The debate still rages.

"Today we obviously condemn it," says Tom Noel. "But we have different values, different sentiments and a different worldview than people did 133 years ago. If you go back and see the Hungate massacre, that makes it a little easier to understand why the great majority sided with Chivington and rationalized or pardoned his activities. Even with nightmares like Hitler, there are reasons and contexts explaining what happened. Historically, it's important to look at all sides."

"I firmly believe there were hostiles in that camp," Mike Koury says. "Logic tells you women and children could not have held off 700 well-armed troops for six hours. There were a hell of a lot of warriors there. They put up a darn good fight."

"Should we apologize for Sand Creek?" asks Duane Smith. "That's absolutely ridiculous. Why should we? I know I sound like a bigot, but there were a lot more women and children killed in Minnesota. Are the Sioux apologizing? If my grandmother had been killed at Sand Creek, I'd certainly be horrified. But an awful lot of people justified it to the day they died.

"This was part of a civil war that had been going on since 1622," Smith continues. "Two American armies were fighting for their homeland. That is not unusual in world history. We're making it into something it's not. Are we ever going to reverse it? No. So why dwell on that history? Learn from it. Let it go."

David Halaas, chief historian for the Colorado Historical Society, could not disagree more. He has worked with Laird and Colleen Cometsevah--the Historical Society produced a videotape on Sand Creek four years ago in which both Cometsevahs told their families' stories--and learned from them that Sand Creek was a turning point for the Cheyenne. After the massacre, they never looked at white leaders the same way. There is a direct line between Sand Creek and the Battle of Little Big Horn. (It leads through the Washita River Camp, which is why Halaas, like the Cometsevahs, attended the Park Service meeting in Cheyenne, Oklahoma, earlier this month.)

"Sand Creek is a watershed," he contends. "For the Plains people, it was a lesson. It showed that the U.S. had declared war on their way of life. It proved to the Cheyenne that the U.S. could not be trusted. After it, everything changed. Sand Creek was the catalyst for twelve years of intermittent war. It was an act of genocide on all Indian people. Chivington wasn't out to kill only hostiles. He was out to kill Cheyenne. The closest and easiest was the peaceful camp at Sand Creek. It was condemned and repudiated by the government in the strongest language you can use."

Chivington was driven by self-interest, adds Andy Masich, vice president of the Colorado Historical Society. He wanted to further his political ambitions. He wanted a grand exit from his military career. He deliberately deceived the public by inflating casualties.

"He fanned the flames of hatred," Masich says. "It was he who created a sense of hysteria among his men by telling them to remember the Platte. It was he who said, 'Take no prisoners.' It was a personal agenda. There may have been a man or two at Sand Creek who participated in a raid, but that doesn't mean every man, woman and child was fair game. Those things don't make it right."

"A massacre is a massacre," Halaas adds. "It was much more than an outpouring of emotion by a bunch of thugs. Sand Creek was protected by the U.S. flag. You can't ignore that."

As for being "men of their times," Captain Silas Soule was a man of his time, too, Masich points out. And he refused to kill. "It looked too hard for me to see little children on their knees begging for their lives," Soule wrote, "to have their brains beaten out like dogs." But Soule himself was later killed in Denver by a Chivington supporter.

"The government, most people in the country and nearly all Army officers in the West believed it was an unwarranted massacre, even during the horrors of the Civil War," Masich says. "It is not a case of the Cheyenne saying frivolously that people should not forget. The government was wrong. It said it was wrong. It said--in a treaty--it would repay survivors. And that hasn't happened. Is that frivolous to bring up? No. That's justice."

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