Sand Creek Massacre: Governor John Hickenlooper's Apology, Story Behind It

"This has been too long in coming," said Governor John Hickenlooper, after 180 miles and five days that really stretched back 150 years -- to November 29, 1864, and the Sand Creek Massacre, when up to 200 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were killed at a peaceful camp, a chiefs' camp, by Colonel John Chivington's volunteers. "On behalf of the State of Colorado," he continued, "I want to apologize."

See also: Photos of the 16th Annual Spiritual Healing Run on the 150th Anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre

Hickenlooper was standing on the steps of the State Capitol, the final stop of the sixteenth annual Spiritual Healing Run, designed to heal the wounds of 150 years and cleanse the 180 miles between Sand Creek and Denver, the route that Chivington's men had taken as they left the killing fields, loaded with trophies that included scalps and other body parts. Just two weeks after the slaughter, Captain Silas Soule, who'd refused to have his regiment join in the killings by the until-then "Bloodless Third" volunteers, wrote about the horrors he'd witnessed at Sand Creek to his former commander, Major Edward "Ned" Wynkoop. He wrote about how he'd seen babies' brains bashed in. He wrote about how he'd seen mothers killed trying to protect their children. He wrote about the bodies being desecrated. And he later testified about what he'd seen before Congress, which conducted two investigations into Sand Creek (the Army held a third) and declared it a massacre in 1865. As thanks for his courage, Soule was killed on the streets of Denver in April 1865, shortly after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

After three days of running across the plains, the Spiritual Run had started out on the morning of December 3 at Riverside Cemetery, where Silas Soule is buried. In the military section of Denver's oldest cemetery, tribal members had joined in prayers and a song in Soule's honor as the smell of sweetgrass filled the air.

And then the runners had headed downtown for a quick stop at 15th and Arapahoe streets, where Soule was killed, and on to the Capitol. "Let's let Denver and Colorado know we're still here," said Otto Braided Hair, head man of the Crazy Dog Society of the Northern Cheyenne, whose brother, Steve Brady Sr., had played such a critical role in having the massacre site made a historic monument. Steve Brady passed away this fall; the sixteenth annual healing run was officially dedicated to him. But it also honored the ancestors who had been killed at Sand Creek as well as those who had escaped the carnage, fleeing up the dry creek bed and out of their ancestral lands in what had become the territory of Colorado, starting new lives in Oklahoma, Montana and Wyoming.

Now, 150 years later, their descendants were back home in Colorado, a state that hadn't even existed at the time of the massacre and whose statehood was set back a dozen years by the barbarity of that action. They were standing by a Civil War monument erected a century ago by the Pioneers' Association, which lists Sand Creek as one of the battles of that long and bloody war. Two dozen years ago, after a lawmaker suggested removing Sand Creek from that memorial, tribal members had stepped in and said that history should not be erased, but explained. And so a new plaque was added, clarifying what Chivington's action really had been.

In his speech, the governor made sure there would be no future confusion about the atrocities at Sand Creek, his words following the path of those who ran, "so that people would never forget what happened." Hickenlooper told how Black Kettle, who'd been taken by Wynkoop to meet with territorial governor John Evans just two months before, believed that the camp was under the protection of the U.S. government. He'd raised the American flag, the white flag. The soldiers fired anyway. Hickenlooper told how Chief White Antelope, one of the eleven chiefs killed that day, had stood his ground and sung the death song: "Nothing lives long, only the earth and the mountains." He read from Silas Soule's letters. He talked about the congressional committees. He spoke of the "deep moral failure" of Evans. "We should not be afraid to criticize and condemn," he said. And then he apologized.

The governor told the crowd that he did not make that apology lightly. In fact, he'd thought about it for months, since he'd appointed the Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission nine months earlier; in recent weeks, he'd contacted attorneys to talk about potential legal liability, reached out to others to discuss cultural and moral ramifications. "I wanted people who cared about the state and had a historical perspective, wanted to assess their response," Hickenlooper says now. He did not talk to political pollsters, but he did reach out to the four living former governors -- Richard Lamm, Roy Romer, Bill Owens, Bill Ritter -- whose time in office stretched back forty years, and told them what he wanted to do. "All had different takes on it, but each one was supportive," Hickenlooper remembers. And he worked and reworked his speech the night before the gathering at the Capitol; many of his staffers had no idea what he was going to say.

The speech included something that Lamm had reminded him of, the power of two simple words: "I'm sorry." When Hickenlooper repeated those words at the Capitol, many in the audience wept.

Continue for more on Hickenlooper's apology.
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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