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?"

Halaas would rather see a new sign beside the Civil War monument that explains Sand Creek in all its controversial complexity. In fact, the Historical Society already has a sign program in place. If approved by the legislature, a Sand Creek placard could be raised within a year.

"We'd tackle Sand Creek head-on," he says. "We have money available. If approved by all the parties involved, and we'd certainly work with a lot of partners, we'd like to do it."

Problem is, the legislature has already spoken. Although a resolution doesn't carry the weight of law, any change in direction should be approved by the General Assembly, which doesn't convene in regular session until January. In the meantime, officials have decided to allow historians, Sand Creek descendants and others to speak at committee meetings that begin this week.

"I'm listening," says Russell George, a Republican who sponsored Martinez's resolution in the House. "I'm open-minded on this. I still feel the same way I always have about Sand Creek, that there's a mistake or a problem on the monument. But I'm not wanting to hurry. No one wants to impose something on others that doesn't make sense. If that means reconsideration, if that's where the information leads, then I'm willing to go back to my colleagues."

Dottie Wham, a Republican senator who heads the committee discussing Martinez's resolution, also wants to make sure lawmakers do the right thing.

"I want to hear from the people who want to talk to us," Wham says. "I totally believe it wasn't a Civil War battle but an unfortunate incident that happened during the Civil War years. For all of our benefit, the history ought to be right."

Even Martinez, who stands behind his measure, welcomes suggestions.
"We're not trying to change history," Martinez says. "The Native Americans who were massacred should not be remembered under that statue as a battle. But I'm always open to a better idea."

In a less controversial move, a bill declaring the Sand Creek massacre site as a national historic site has passed the U.S. Senate. The measure, sponsored by Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, also directs the U.S. Park Service to study the current site in southeastern Colorado to make sure it is indeed the place where the massacre occurred.

Although the 1,425-acre field near the town of Chivington might be the spot, a search last fall sponsored by the Colorado Historical Society failed to unearth artifacts that would confirm the location. Two to three tons of ammunition were fired during the attack, historians say, yet only two bullets and a picket pin used to tie a horse were found during the survey. Artifacts could be buried beyond the reach of metal detectors or they may have washed downstream. Historians just don't know. If Campbell's bill is passed by the House and signed by President Clinton, it would allow a more extensive survey by state officials, historians and Native American leaders. It also would include a more thorough examination of historical records.

To read Fletcher's recent feature on the Sand Creek controversy ("Battle Cry," May 28), visit www.westword.com.

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