Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre: The Past Is Always With Us

The past is always with us.

Since I first started writing about the Sand Creek Massacre — and, specifically, the extraordinary difficulties some Colorado organizations have had dealing appropriately with this very black chapter in Colorado history, when Colonel John Chivington and his volunteers slaughtered 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne, most of them women, children and the elderly, in their peaceful camp on the Big Sandy on November 29, 1864 — people have asked why it matters, why we should remember.

Because the past is always with us.

Yesterday I was in Evanston, Illinois, the town where my father had been born exactly ninety years earlier, visiting some of the landmarks in his extraordinary life. One was Northwestern University, the school where he’d gotten his engineering degree after serving in WWII. Back in 1850, physician/real estate investor John Evans and fellow Methodists had proposed creating this school on the shores of Lake Michigan, founding the first university in Illinois. A dozen years later, Evans was named the territorial governor of Colorado, where in November 1864 he co-founded the Denver Seminary, which grew into the University of Denver. His partner in that project was another Methodist: Chivington, whom Evans had already appointed to head the Colorado Volunteers and charged with keeping control of Indians in the territory.

Chivington took his charge seriously: too seriously. His action at Sand Creek was so egregious that, after numerous investigations, Congress declared it a massacre. Evans was forced to resign his role as territorial governor, although he remained a prominent figure in Colorado politics and business.

As the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre approached, Northwestern students demanded that the school investigate Evans’s role; DU followed suit several months later, and its report released last year determined that Evans had created the climate that made the massacre possible – and held him culpable.

Last month, the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance at Northwestern launched a petition drive demanding that everything at the university honoring Evans – including buildings and honorary professorships, ranging from the John Evans Alumni Center to the John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy – be renamed, essentially wiping Evans off the campus map. With those would go the annual John Evans Award, which my mother, who met my father while she was attending Northwestern, was given for her work as an alumni. (So far, there has been no demand to change the name of Northwestern's hometown, Evanston, also named for its founder.)

The past is always with us. While 151 years might seem distant, the trip back in time is short. For my father, ninety years has flown by in a flash. His own father was born in 1863, two years before the Sand Creek Massacre, and the truths he told my father, and the memories — most very happy — still hold strong.

So it should be no surprise that for the descendants of the Sand Creek, the horrific wounds of the massacre are still very fresh. The inability of today's institutions to deal with them just rubs salt in those wounds.

Still, name changes are not going to erase past horrors. All they might do is make it easier for some people to forget that the horrors ever happened, make it possible for others  to never learn of them at all. The descendants of those killed at Sand Creek recognized that last year, when they declined to join a campaign to change the name of the town of Chivington, just southeast of the massacre site. It’s a ghost town today – precisely what Chivington deserves. Let people remember, they said.

In the late ‘90s, there was a move to remove the plaque on the circa 1909 Civil War Monument at the Capitol, which lists Sand Creek among the battles that Coloradans fought during that war. The tribal descendants resisted that, too. It was more important that there be an explanation of what had truly happened at Sand Creek, they said. So a second plaque was installed below the first, describing Chivington’s surprise attack.

Now, if Governor John Hickenlooper and other supporters are successful in their campaign to create a dedicated Sand Creek Memorial on the Capitol grounds — a campaign that will hold a fundraiser at the Governor's Mansion tonight — there could one day be a fitting monument to those who lost their lives at Sand Creek, a reminder for the future.

Because like it or not, the past is always with us.