There is no simple way to explain what most people cannot understand. And after 135 years, there is no simple way to heal a wound that still bleeds. Yet on Thanksgiving weekend, Otto Braided Hair will try.
If the good weather holds and plans proceed on schedule, he will spend the holiday on the rolling plains of southeastern Colorado, some 700 miles from his home in Lame Deer, Montana. While others enjoy pumpkin pie and football, he will stand on the banks of Big Sandy Creek and pray to the 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children who were massacred there by U.S. troops on November 29, 1864. And as the sun rises before him, he will lace his Asics cross-trainers, take a deep breath and begin to run.
His name was Braided Hair, and he was Otto's great-grandfather. He was also at Big Sandy Creek that morning when Colonel John Chivington rode up with 800 soldiers and four mountain howitzers. He was there when Chivington's troops attacked a village of mostly old men, women and children. And he was there when Chief Black Kettle waved an American flag and a white flag of truce and the soldiers charged anyway.
When the killing began, Braided Hair roped one of the horses that had stampeded through the village and lifted his wife onto it. Her name was Medicine Woman, and she was seven months pregnant with their first child. While she escaped with the herd, Braided Hair stayed and fought.
He fought all morning and into the afternoon as Chivington's men, a collection of mostly hundred-day volunteers from Denver, showered the village with more than a ton of bullets and cannonballs. Those who were not killed outright fled up the creek and burrowed into the sand for cover. Many were trapped in the crossfire. Braided Hair was shot in the elbow, an artery severed, but he survived.
After the killing stopped and the soldiers left, Braided Hair returned to the village looking for survivors and supplies but found only smoldering ashes and the stench of "burning human flesh," he would later tell his children and grandchildren.
Several days later, Cheyenne men went looking for the herd of horses and found Braided Hair's wife. She had survived the attack and the frigid weather by clinging to the horse's back. It took three men to pull her off.
Otto Braided Hair and his family have heard the story many times. But no matter how often it is repeated, hearing the story is never easy.
"I don't like to talk about it," he says. "I don't like to think about all the pain and suffering our great-grandparents went through. Most people don't understand the close familial ties of our tribe. We are very close. It's like you know someone or were related to someone -- to a hundred people -- and all of a sudden, they get lost. All the emotions you go through. Rage. Anger. Hurt. Extreme loss. It's just unexplainable."
To the Cheyenne and Arapaho, Chivington's attack was an act of genocide, the equivalent of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam or the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo ("Battle Cry," May 28, 1998).
"Those people at Sand Creek were trying to continue their way of life the best way they knew how," Otto Braided Hair says. "In a spiritual way and an emotional way, we feel that massacre every time something is taken away from us, or people don't accept how we look, or we can't practice our religion. We just ask that you respect our way of life and what we'd like to be, but those things are still not respected. It's still going on."
And so he and others are planning a spiritual run November 25 through November 29. It will begin at Big Sandy Creek near Eads and end at the State Capitol in Denver. They are running to commemorate the 135th anniversary of the massacre, to raise support for the preservation of the Sand Creek land, and to promote a sense of healing.
"This is only the very, very beginning," says Steve Brady, president of a Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek descendants' organization and Otto Braided Hair's older brother. "It's still unresolved. I don't think our people have ever been given, nor have they had, the opportunity to begin this type of healing. We have to address this. There needs to be healing."
But there also needs to be education, Brady says. There are still people in Denver who consider Chivington a hero. They don't know that he deliberately attacked a peaceful village, that his men mutilated women and children, and that in 1865 Congress condemned the attack as "a gross and wanton outrage" and promised reparations that have never come.
"It was a national disgrace and was recognized as such," Brady says. "Our people were studied extensively, mostly as a subspecies, for intelligence and for the effects and the impacts of ballistics. And there were probably many other tests and experiments we will never know about. It's no different than what Hitler did to the Jews. That story needs to be told."
Although the healing run is planned for Thanksgiving weekend, the schedule is more coincidental than symbolic, Otto Braided Hair says; the holiday just happened to fall four days before the November 29 anniversary. Still, the timing is important. The National Park Service is about to complete its study confirming the location where the attack occurred. Although a stone memorial has stood for decades on a privately owned bluff overlooking the Big Sandy, historians have not been able to verify the coordinates of the massacre. Artifacts that might have marked the spot have been plucked from the ground or buried beneath layers of sediment. Military records are vague and eyewitness accounts contradictory. Even Cheyenne and Arapaho oral histories conflict.
But after poring over mountains of documents, archaeological data, oral histories and scientific evidence, the park service now believes the massacre happened more or less where the marker says it did: along a wide bend of the Big Sandy some ten miles northeast of the withering town of Chivington ("Shifting Sands," June 10).
The official results won't be released until this winter, however. And after they are, the park service, following a bill signed into law last year by President Bill Clinton, must then study ways to preserve and manage the land. The organization has until next summer to report back to Congress.
But as far as the Cheyenne are concerned, the massacre site has never been lost. From time to time, Cheyenne elders have held ceremonies near the marker and felt a strong spiritual presence. "We know where it is," Brady says.
To the Cheyenne, spirits are very much alive. They are part of the everyday world and connected with all living things. When someone is killed suddenly or dies violently, their souls become lost, Otto Braided Hair says. With the healing run, which is part of a long-standing tribal tradition, the Cheyenne hope to bring some rest to the people who were massacred.
"It's not a jog down the street. It's a ceremony," Otto Braided Hair says. "We're a spiritually based tribe. Ours is a way of life that honors, respects and reveres elders, no matter if they are with us or not. Even though it's been 200 or 400 years, we acknowledge their prior existence through prayer. With this healing run, we are honoring our ancestors."
And that is why several dozen members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe are expected to attend. Nelson Tall Bull, who's 76, plans to be among them.
"I'll join in the beginning," he says. "I know my limits. But it's not based on a contest. It's not a sport. I'm interested in the acts of prayer and talking to the spirits there. I also believe it's time the whites recognized the plight of the Indians, especially the Cheyenne. The healing means between the white and the Indian."
Otto Braided Hair agrees. "There needs to be healing on both sides," he says. "There are descendants of Chivington, the volunteers and the government who are still here. They're welcome to take part if they allow themselves to."
Members of the Southern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Southern Arapaho tribes have also been invited. If all goes as planned, the healing run could be one of the largest spiritual gatherings at Big Sandy Creek.
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"It's real big," says David Halaas, chief historian with the Colorado Historical Society. "This is very special. For me, it's a statement that the location area is known. It's a statement that there are still people who don't know about Sand Creek and its meaning. And it's a statement that it's time to start healing."
That healing will not be exclusive to the Big Sandy. According to Otto Braided Hair, the route will match as closely as possible the 180-mile path that Chivington's troops took back to Denver. Because some soldiers carried home the scalps, genitalia and personal artifacts of dead men, women and children, prayers will be offered along the way.
"We believe those people's spirits were lost down there at Sand Creek and stayed with the body parts and belongings that were taken up to Denver and the Smithsonian and other places," Otto Braided Hair says. "We don't know where all of them were taken. They could be in some laboratory somewhere, or they could have been sold. But those people who were traumatized are still wandering around out there. With this healing run, we're cleansing that."
After 135 years, it's time.