The Echoes of Sand Creek
An American flag flutters over the camp of 500 sleeping Cheyenne and a few Arapahoes. The U.S. Army had promised them sanctuary on their reservation, along the creek's sandy banks 200 miles southeast of Denver. So no guards are posted, and many of the young men are away hunting buffalo.
It's daybreak on Nov. 29, 1864. Nine hundred soldiers, mostly volunteers, move four howitzers into place on a hill overlooking the camp.
"I have come to kill Indians and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians," their leader, Col. John M. Chivington, had said.
Chief Black Kettle rises before dawn, hears the soldiers and carries an American flag to welcome the troops.
And the sky spits bullets.
The troops storm the encampment. Chief White Antelope extends his hands in peace. Rifles reply. Wounded, White Antelope begins to sing.
"Nothing lives long, only the earth and the mountains."
He is among the first of 163 to die.
Outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded, the Cheyenne and Arapahoes dig into the creek's sandy cliffs. Some wade into the icy water and hide under the bank.
For eight hours, the killing goes on. Howitzers lob shells into tepees. The big guns are turned on the sandy cliffs.
Capt. Silas Soule refuses to let his men join the attack. "It looked too hard for me to see little children on their knees begging for their lives, (having) their brains beat out like dogs," he would say.
Chivington and the Colorado 3rd return to Denver on Dec. 22. The city declares a holiday. Hundreds line the streets as the volunteers parade through town, men's and women's genitals on their hats as trophies. At the Denver Opera House, the scalps of 100 men, women, and children are strung across the stage. The crowd rises in a standing ovation.
American Indians still hear the echo of Sand Creek.
They hear the echo when museums refuse to return the bones of their ancestors.
They hear it when the federal budget cuts violate century-old treaties, when parades celebrate Columbus, when murals in government buildings portray them as barbarians.
And they hear the echo of Sand Creek when cartoon savages are used as sports mascots.
For American Indians, the massacre is one event in a holocaust that the nation, as a whole, rarely thinks of. Now, Indians are working to get reparations that the government promised them more than a century ago.
The bloodletting that punctuated the Indian Wars of the 1800s wasn't exclusive to whites. Indians killed settlers with ferocity across the West.
But the massacre of Indians was often sanctioned as policy in newspapers, in the halls of territorial governments, even in churches. Manifest Destiny was the elegantly named creed of westward expansion. The Homestead Act of 1862 enlisted people to fill all that empty land. For the immigrants, the West was a miracle. But westward expansion had a dark side: The gospel of growth used racism to justify the removal and, ultimately, the killing of Indians who wouldn't get out of the way.
"Shall we not go for them, their lodges, squaws, and all? (We support) a few months of active extermination against the red devils," the Rocky Mountain News editorialized in 1862. "The tribes by which we are surrounded are our inferiors physically, morally, mentally," the News said (a year earlier) in 1861.
American Indians say a cultural genocide pursued
them in the century that followed.
Mann's great-grandmother survived Sand Creek... After she moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, missionaries and assimilation policies stalked her language, family and identity. "My great-grandmother always slept with her moccasins on because there could be another massacre and she'd have to run."
An 1892 federal law took the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma, gave each family 160 acres of waterless land and opened the rest to homesteading, she said.
Children as young as 3 were taken to mission schools for up to 10 years. Families that refused were starved.
At school, long hair was sheared and Indian clothing burned. The Cheyenne language and family contact were forbidden.
The practices lasted into the 1930s.
Bureau of Indian Affairs policies in the 1920s overturned by the courts 30 years later-continued to rip at the fabric of Cheyenne culture. Traditional ceremonies were banned. Those under 50 were barred from attending rituals.
For the past generation, government programs, well-intentioned privately funded ventures and Indian-led initiatives have tried to improve the standard of living of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.
But how do you heal a wound of the soul?
The massacre has stalked Colorado like no other event in the state's history. In 1940, Denver officials wanted to name a new street Chivington Boulevard. A blistering protest changed the plans. In the 1960s, anti-Indian sentiment crushed an attempt to make Sand Creek a National Park Service monument. In the 1980s, years of protest forced the University of Colorado to rename a dormitory named for Capt. David Nichols, a commander at Sand Creek. In 1992, Iliff School of Theology students protested commencement ceremonies at Trinity Methodist Church, where Chivington's funeral was held. The location wasn't changed, but speakers focused on the killings.