Shortly after sunrise on Thanksgiving morning, we spot the eagles a few miles from the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, standing sentinel over the rolling prairie where more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho — most of them women, children or elderly men — were slaughtered by volunteer troops led by Colonel John Chivington on November 29, 1864. Our caravan just passed the town of Chivington, today a ghostly reminder of a time when this man was celebrated, then turned off on Chief White Antelope Way for the eight-mile drive to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, the only federal site dedicated to a massacre, where the fifteenth annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run will soon begin.
The run got its start in 1999, the year after President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill that would help set the stage for the creation of the site — but long before the actual 2007 dedication ceremony. The late Lee Lone Bear — who'd been with a group of tribal representatives that went to Washington in 1998 to meet Clinton, made the president wait and then commiserated with him on the "tough times" he was facing — had the idea for the healing run, which would be a "ceremony that would heal the land, heal the spirits that were stuck there." But the run wouldn't end on the banks of Sand Creek, where the tribes had camped in the fall of 1864, certain that they were living with a promise of peace from Territorial Governor John Evans and under the protection of the U.S. government. It would go all the way to Denver, along the route that Chivington's troops took as they headed to that frontier town, carrying body parts of the natives they'd slaughtered. The run would "clean the area, the path all the way to Denver, to help if any spirit is along the way," remembers Otto Braided Hair, a Northern Cheyenne who was on that first run and organizes the event today.
For the first four years, the healing run was only open to Native Americans — though Bill Dawson, the rancher who owned the property where the massacre site was located, came out to greet the runners that first day...wearing an Army topcoat. And he came out every year after that. By the fourth year, Braided Hair remembers, Dawson told the tribal members that "you guys changed me." And that wasn't the only change, Dawson said: "You know, I'm starting to see animals around here again." Land that had been dead was coming back to life.
After that year, the run was opened not just to members of the tribes — the Northern Cheyenne, Southern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Southern Arapaho that had resulted when their ancestors who survived the massacre fled to Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana — but to anyone who wants to participate in the healing.
And the eagles watch over it. It is a sign.
There are signs all around the Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site, some of them natural, some manufactured. The oldest of those, a circa 1950 stone marker commemorating the "Sand Creek Battle Ground," is on a hill overlooking the actual site of the massacre: sacred ground that's now off limits to the public. It is on this hill that the runners and other supporters convene, as Braided Hair urges them to "gather up closely, remember our ancestors and what happened here in 1864." Braided Hair, who has traveled 800 miles from the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, acknowledges members of other tribes who have traveled almost as far to be here — Hopi, Navajo, Yaqui — and explains the ceremonial painting, cedar blessing and pipe ceremony that will precede the run. "The Cheyenne, we believe individuals have spirits, people who have passed on have spirits; the paint protects the spirits from bad things. It's possible the spirits of the old people are here. We want them to recognize us. We want protection. We want the creator and spirits to recognize the things we're doing," he says. And he wants them to hear the prayers: "An individual prayer is strong, more individuals is stronger, many people is strongest."
There is still much to pray for. "We've accomplished a lot," Braided Hair says, "but we have a long way to go." He's not just talking about the 180 miles between Sand Creek and Denver. He's talking about "issues we're facing at home: alcohol, drugs. Things that prevented some people from getting to the run." And he's talking about the hard work in the year ahead, before the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. "We're thinking about our ancestors," he says. "We're thinking about our future."
The National Park Service knows how far they've gone — and what a long way there is still to go. In 1998, the NPS — which already operated Bent's Fort to the south — joined with the tribes and the State of Colorado to help create the national historic site. "And all that time the National Park Service and the tribal reps worked together hand in hand," proclaims Braided Hair. In the applause for site superintendent Alexa Roberts, there is a backhanded slap to other officials who have not been as sensitive to what is still a very raw wound.