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.
Sand Creek Massacre
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.
"Here's the place the U.S. caused a great tragedy," Roberts says, "then takes responsibility to manage the place where we will never forget." Today, the NPS has three missions, she tells the group: "to honor those killed here, to honor those in the present generation, and to the future." To that end, she says, "we're trying to create a research center that will be in Eads. It is a global story; it is a story about humanity."
And there are more stories. Henry Little Bear is representing the Southern Arapaho; his great-great grandfather, Mixed Hair, survived the massacre. "That's why I'm standing here today," he says. His great-grandmother, who was born in 1885 and lived until 1966, passed the stories she'd heard from her father to her grandchildren, who told them to Henry Little Bear. And now he's telling them again. "This place has a haunting spot in our hearts," he says.
Joe Big Medicine is here representing the Southern Cheyenne; his grandfathers were killed at Sand Creek. He's been part of the run from the beginning.
Together, the tribal representatives gather to sing the White Antelope song, in honor of the chief who was killed just down the hill.
And then, after many admonitions to be careful, the runners circle the Sand Creek Battle Ground marker four times and head off toward Eads, which may be the future home of a global research site but today is closed up entirely except for the Kiowa County Fairgrounds building where the National Park Service employees will serve a Thanksgiving dinner to those on the run.
Healing takes many forms.
Unlike that first healing run, and a few others over the past fifteen years, the 2013 run will not cover the full 180 miles. Not on foot, anyway. That first year, the runners risked their lives on highways; now cars will take the runners along the busiest stretches.
Many of those runners are children who've come from the reservations. They run in half-mile and mile intervals, between van rides, taking turns carrying the Northern Cheyenne flag (the girls) and the eagle staff made by Lee Lone Bear (the boys). Vanessa Braided Hair, now 29, has been running since the very start; this year she drove a vanload of kids down from Lame Deer, Montana. Kaden Walksnice has been running for the past seven years; last year, he organized a group of students — Blackfoot, Flathead — who came down from Missoula. This time, he took the bus up from Albuquerque, where he's now in school. One year, he remembers, he ran seven miles straight without even knowing it, while singing a prayer song he'd been taught by the elders.
On the second day, the actual anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, this relay of boys and girls makes it fifty miles, running from morning until dark on the back roads of the dusty plains, Pikes Peak to the side, Denver ahead. They're running for their past. They're running to their future. They are the future.
On the last day of November, the runners gather at Riverside Cemetery on Brighton Boulevard in Denver, between the train tracks and the South Platte that brought so many settlers to a land where once just the tribes gathered, to again be painted and protected. And again Otto Braided Hair greets those who have come out, a crowd that now includes professors from the University of Denver (which is studying Evans's role in the Sand Creek Massacre), Methodist representatives (who are doing the same regarding the church's role in the massacre), historians, more tribal representatives and even more runners. "We appreciate your support on this last day of our healing run, which is dedicated to Captain Silas Soule," Braided Hair proclaims. Soule, who is buried at Riverside, but also Lieutenant Joe Cramer: "They were at the Sand Creek Massacre, they didn't participate, they didn't shoot. They witnessed the massacre, then provided affidavits," he says. "If not for them, there might not be any Cheyenne and Arapaho here today. If they had done what they were ordered to, there might not have been any Cheyenne and Arapaho who survived."
And without their letters, there might not have been any Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, former Colorado state historian David Halaas, now a consultant with the Northern Cheyenne, tells the gathering. Soule and Cramer were so outraged and shocked by what they'd witnessed on November 29, 1864, that they wrote their commander, Major Edward "Ned" Wynkoop, asking him to use his influence. He did, and those letters led to two congressional investigations and an Army hearing that determined "the so-called battle was a slaughter of women and children and old ones," and officially declared a massacre 149 years ago, says Halaas. "No other battle of the Civil War was investigated like Sand Creek." Even so, only one perpetrator was punished: Territorial Governor John Evans, a Methodist who'd founded the forerunner of the University of Denver with Methodist minister Chivington that year, was removed from office after committee members branded him the "biggest liar" ever to come before them.
Soule was punished in a different way. "He knew his letters would make him a target," Halaas says. And sure enough, in April 1865, when he was serving as provost marshal of Denver, which was then under martial law, Soule was shot dead at the corner of 15th and Arapahoe streets; his assassins, although known, were never brought to justice. And then those letters disappeared, "lost to history."
But in 2000, when the next step in the move to create the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was stalled in Congress, a woman appeared at the Colorado Historical Society and told Halaas she'd found some old documents; she wondered if they were worth anything. Buried in the trunk were the Cramer and Soule letters. Two weeks before the Senate hearing on Sand Creek, Halaas sent them to then-senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who read the letters aloud on the Senate floor. The bill passed; the site was a done deal.
Halaas tells this story over the clatter of a train. But then silence: another sign.
Braided Hair leads a traditional warrior song in honor of Cramer and Soule: "You are gone today, but the people remember you."
At 9 a.m., the Denver Police Department escort lines up to take the runners along Brighton Boulevard to the corner of 15th and Arapahoe, where a plaque commemorates the spot where Silas Soule was killed. Then the runners — sixty or seventy strong — turn up 14th Street and head to the State Capitol.
Standing a mile high on the Capitol steps, Braided Hair thanks the DPD for its help — just as he's thanked everyone who's supported the run, from the people who prepared the meal in Eads to the manager of the Comfort Inn in Limon, where the runners stayed. He thanks the representatives of the tribes who have gathered here, and again names the nations represented. The list has grown to a dozen.
Roberts congratulates the runners on behalf of the National Park Service. "You're an important part of history, but an important part of the future, too," she says. "The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is the same." Elicia Goodsoldier reads a proclamation from the City of Denver welcoming the runners to Denver; Ernest House, head of the Commission of Indian Affairs, reads one from Governor John Hickenlooper, dedicating November 28 through 30 to the Sand Creek Massacre Healing Run. "Cheers for Colorado," Braided Hair urges.
Across from the steps is a century-old monument to the Civil War battles in which residents of what was then the Colorado territory fought. The list includes Sand Creek. Back in 1998, even as the move to create a federal site commemorating the massacre was gaining momentum, there were demands that Sand Creek be removed from this list of Civil War battles. Joe Big Medicine argued against pulling down the monument, saying, "You'll be changing history if you tear it down," he tells the crowd. Instead, he pushed for a plaque explaining the massacre on the side of the monument that is there today, another sign of the times.
"Remember, we're healing the site, healing the land," says Braided Hair. "We're doing it for the ancestors, victims, survivors, descendants — those who can't be here today."
"History is not dead," Halaas says. "Sand Creek is not dead. The Arapaho and Cheyenne have not gone away."
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And they'll be back in force next year, for a healing run that commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre.
A few blocks down from the Capitol is History Colorado, which included Collision, an exhibit dedicated to the Sand Creek Massacre, when it opened in April 2012. But even before the building made its debut, members of the tribes were concerned about its contents and sent letters to History Colorado asking that the exhibit not be opened until their concerns were addressed. Instead, Collision opened on schedule, and it took three rounds of letters and, finally, a story in Westword before History Colorado agreed to consult with the tribes on the exhibit's contents — the least controversial portion of which was devoted to the healing run. While those consultations took place, Collision was locked up tight, a sign explaining that the exhibit was closed for tribal consultations.
Those consultations are now under way, and the tribes are considering the memorandum of agreement that has emerged from the discussions, considering how they want their story told. In the meantime, the exhibit remains closed off, with no sign at all of what was once there. But the tribes remember.