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History in the Making

The battle over the Sand Creek massacre just won't end.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. In May, when state senator Bob Martinez stood before the General Assembly and asked lawmakers to strike Sand Creek from a state capitol statue commemorating Colorado's Civil War battles, he was commended. After all, what happened on the banks of Big Sandy Creek on November 29, 1864, was hardly a battle.

At dawn that day, 800 cavalry troops and militiamen led by Colonel John Chivington unloaded two tons of bullets and cannonballs on the peaceful camp of Cheyenne chief Black Kettle, who had been told by military officials to settle in southeastern Colorado under protection of the U.S. flag. When the smoke cleared six hours later, at least 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children lay dead, many mutilated, with ears, scalps and genitalia cut away as trophies and later displayed in Denver. Ten soldiers also died.

"It's an embarrassment to the citizens of Colorado to have a statue honoring the Civil War dead, and to have underneath it an inglorious massacre," says Martinez, a Democrat from Commerce City. "By including Sand Creek, other soldiers who fought honorably have been besmirched. It's an inaccurate inscription on a monument on state grounds. A mistake was made when they inserted those words and it should be corrected. Sand Creek should be removed."

His colleagues agreed, unanimously approving Martinez's resolution in the final days of the session. When the gavel sounded, the only remaining questions about the 91-year-old bronze monument were how Sand Creek would be removed and when. But this week, as lawmakers prepare to discuss the logistics of the measure, historians, Sand Creek descendants and even some legislators are saying, "Slow down."

"I can appreciate that it's not a battle, but a massacre. But if each generation erases monuments and topples them, it makes history short-sighted," says Denver historian Tom Noel. "You lose track of one generation's heroes. It seems more important to present both views, and to do it carefully."

"It's absolutely stupid to take it off," says Duane Smith, a Durango historian. "The people who put it there put it there intentionally. These people weren't devils incarnate. They felt that for the future of Colorado, Sand Creek was a tremendously important Civil War battle. The best way to remember Sand Creek is to never let bigotry, racism, intolerance and ignorance control our lives. And you're not going to learn that lesson if you say it didn't happen."

"You're dishonoring people who fought in the Civil War," adds military historian Mike Koury, whose Old Army Press published the Chivington defense, I Stand by Sand Creek. "Whether it was a massacre or not, these were soldiers. They went where they were ordered to go and did what they were ordered to do. Taking it off the statue is not going to make it disappear. You gain nothing by hiding it under a blanket."

Even Laird Cometsevah, president of a Sand Creek descendants' group, says modifying the statue is not the best way to commemorate the massacre, which was condemned by an 1865 congressional committee as a "gross and wanton outrage." After that, Territorial Governor John Evans was removed from office and the U.S. promised reparations to the Cheyenne and Arapaho. (Colonel Chivington, however, went unpunished.)

"I've never seen the statue myself, but it's my own opinion that it was placed there for a reason," Cometsevah says. "It's part of Colorado's history. You can't deny the fact that [Sand Creek] was a massacre. It seems to me that a man ought to be able to stand up and accept what he did, to live with it, and try to use the statue as a symbol for teaching young people that we don't want that to happen anymore. Colorado ought to be big enough to leave it there and try to improve its statehood. It ought to be left alone."

Martinez's measure was approved during the final rush of the legislature and caught in the scheduling grind. There wasn't time to hear extensive testimony from Cometsevah, Noel and others. Had there been, legislators might have heard a compromise offered by David Halaas, Colorado Historical Society chief historian. Halaas, a Sand Creek authority, considers Chivington's attack "a shameless act of genocide." Although he admires Martinez's effort, he, too, prefers that the monument remain intact.

If Sand Creek were erased, Halaas says, so would the names of soldiers such as Joseph Aldrich, a private from Fort Lyon who refused to participate in the slaughter. He died at Sand Creek, possibly by friendly fire. Then there's Captain Silas Soule, who also refused to fire. He testified about the atrocities before Congress and later was assassinated in Denver by Chivington supporters. Both men's names appear on the monument.

"I understand the good intentions of the resolution and applaud Senator Martinez for what he did," Halaas says. "It took courage for him to stand up. But there are various things wrong with tempering history for today's audience. Once you start monkeying with one incident, where do you stop? If you take off Sand Creek, why not Smokey Hill, where a peace chief was shot down? Or Fremont Orchard, when Colorado cavalry fired on dog soldiers who were returning horses? Those are on the statue, too. Where would it end?"

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