Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

A century and a half later, the wounds of Sand Creek are still fresh

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Beyond the Barrel Man costumes, beyond the zombies that end the Denver A to Z show (what, no Zebulon Pike?), a sign warns that Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre, 1860s-Today may not be suitable for children, despite the fact that the spanking-new History Colorado building where it is located was clearly designed to appeal to kids.

But this exhibit is dedicated to one of the cruelest chapters of Colorado's history. On November 29, 1864, "in an unprovoked attack, U.S. soldiers killed more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers who were living peacefully on their own reservation. Most of the slain were women, children and elderly men, and many of the two tribes' most influential leaders lay dead," the entrance sign notes. "A congressional commission concluded the massacre was 'foul, dastardly and cruel.'

"But something larger was lost after Sand Creek: the chance for peace. The massacre intensified anger and mistrust among American Indian residents and those settlers who wanted to take their lands, hardening the divisions between competing nations. A generation of warfare ensued throughout the West, claiming many more victims."

And the battle is not over yet.

The Sand Creek Massacre took place almost 150 years ago. But for the tribes that lost their ancestors there, the wounds are still very fresh. And this exhibit has poured salt on them, stirring more anger and mistrust. The concerns start with the exhibit's very title: Collision. That implies the Native Americans slaughtered that day were on the move, were confronting the troops. But they were in a peaceful camp, a camp that they thought was protected by the United States flag raised by Black Kettle, the chief who had met with military and territorial leaders just two months earlier to discuss peace. He survived the massacre. "My shame is as big as the earth," he later said.

Black Kettle is featured in Collision. So is Captain Silas Soule, who was at Fort Lyon at the end of November 1864 when Colonel John Chivington rode up with the 700 men who'd volunteered to serve with the 3rd Colorado Cavalry for 100 days, "for immediate service against hostile Indians.... The company will also be entitled to all horses and plunder taken."

Days after the massacre, Soule wrote General Edward Wynkoop, the officer who'd escorted Black Kettle to the September 1864 peace talks, then was transferred from Fort Lyon: "The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain. One squaw with her two children were on their knees, begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing — when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children and then killed herself.... They were all horribly mutilated. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did."

Soule's refusal to fight that day was widely reported: He was branded a coward, testified against Chivington when Congress took up the case in early 1865, and was murdered on the streets of Denver that April. His letter to Wynkoop detailing the massacre, and another one written by Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, were lost for more than a century, turning up in a trunk in Evergreen in 2000, just before then-Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was to argue for the establishment of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Congress. He read the letters from the podium, and the proposal passed.

But the battle is not over yet.

In 1999, as the National Park Service was working on the Sand Creek proposal, Lee Lonebear, a descendant of White Antelope and other victims, envisioned a ceremony that would transcend the massacre; since then, members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe have gathered at Sand Creek every November for a run that stretches the 180 miles to Denver. It was during the 2011 run that members of the Northern Cheyenne realized that History Colorado, the successor to the Colorado Historical Society, was far along with plans for a multimedia display on Sand Creek that would be part of the new building going up on Broadway. So Joe Fox, vice president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, sent this reminder to Colorado state historian Bill Convery on December 5, 2011: "History Colorado, along with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Northern Arapaho Tribe, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, and the Park Service are by federal legislation recognized as partners in the development and management of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

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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