It is strange that the Americans should complain that the Indians kill buffaloes. We kill buffaloes… for food and clothing… to keep our lodges warm. Your young men shoot for pleasure… What is this ! Is it robbery? You call us savages. What are they ?
– Tatanka Yotanka, bka Sitting Bull
Besides the fact that this past month is very important for Lakota Indians, Native American awareness and appreciation in general is celebrated at this time as Native American Heritage Month. With the U.S. being an Indian nation from the onset we are a treasure trove for the various cultures of Northern American Indian tribes. Waniyetu Wi is the Lakota name for the month of November and means Moon of Falling Leaves. Quite an appropriate name for an autumn month and since most of the trees are bare now we have a perfect situation for investigating the various activities held at this time on the reservations.
Back in 2002 the day of the Anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, which happened late in November of 1864, was sandwiched by two holidays- one adopted national and one Jewish- which were Thanksgiving Day preceding and the first day of Chanukah the day after. I have a very interesting recollection of the holidays that year in which they all seemed to merge into a concoction of proverbial oil and vinegar. In retrospect it’s difficult to believe that such a convergence was ever meant to happen. Three consecutive days of completely different holidays from utterly diverse ethnic groups was an interesting episode in my life. I have often wondered if any one else noticed. Being a short year after 9/11 it caused a storm of emotion in me and I looked a little further into the Sand Creek Massacre more recently. Such subjects are not the type which I dwell on but I decided I had to know.
In the mid-19th century Cherry Creek in Denver was a hotbed of activity for prospectors and population growth because of the gold and silver rushes. The deluge of migrants and desperation for money was disturbing the Cheyenne and Arapahoe hunting grounds and they, of course, reacted with tension and anger. The time of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush brought the situation to the human limit and a faction of Dog Soldiers (white opposers, actually) from two different tribes began to fight back by raiding mining camps, attacking long wagon forays to the area and stagecoach trails. An outbreak of violence wasn’t altogether unusual except for the fact that Indian tribes were usually peaceable and worked with the white traders and homesteaders as they came into the region. However, this was an area of their most precious hunting grounds and white people were coming in by the tens of thousands. The area in question is in Kiowa County which is a regular size county seated about a hundred miles east of Pueblo with its eastern border touching that of Kansas State.
When push came to shove, Governor John Evans (who had been appointed by eastern government officials as a territorial governor) allowed a volunteer militiaman, Col. John Chivington to quell the increasing rebellion problem. This was a large mistake, in retrospect, since his compassion as a former member of the clergy didn’t extend to the Native Americans who had made so many peaceable treaties with the government and miners- many of whom were recent European émigrés. Since this was the time of the Civil War which was raging in the eastern and southeastern states it wasn’t difficult to recruit a campaign which was called the Third Colorado Calvary and by themselves as Hundred Dazers because they were only in it on a short term basis.
Once again, the numbers tell a story all by itself but another factor is that much of the incident was sparked by the fact that the white population kept redefining their treaties every time they sighted something of value and never missed an opportunity for greedy consumption over being fair. The Plains Indians, by contrast, were extremely fair and tolerant up to the time of this horrible destruction of human life. Trust was killed along with an estimated 70 to 163 Cheyenne – most of whom were women and children- brutally mutilated, including scalping, bashed brains and other atrocities too awful to mention. This was done by troops numbering between 600 to 1,000 against a peaceable encampment of perhaps 300 under Chief Black Kettle who had previously reported to Fort Lyon along with Arapaho Chief Niwot and war Chief White Antelope, settling at Sand Creek, less than forty miles north, at the request of Gov. Evans and the commandant of Fort Lyon. By checking in with the U.S. Fort they were establishing that there were no Dog Soldiers among them who were the responsible faction of the raids on whites. At the time of the attack most of the warriors were off hunting buffalo along the Arkansas River which was the reason they were in the area. To clarify their purpose and intent, Black Kettle posted an American flag in prominent view to show that the encampment was friendly. When Chivington gave the order to attack, ignoring the flag, they immediately posted a white flag as an additional signal that they were there in peace. This stopped only two officers, Capt. Soule and Lieutenant Cramer who told their men to hold fire. However, Chivington and the troop under his direct command ignored the second flag as well and went in for the slaughter showing no mercy whatsoever. A Cheyenne warrior by the name of Morning Star said that many of the Indians at Sand Creek were killed by cannon fire which was shot from the south bank of the river toward those who were retreating up the creek. Black Kettle’s wife was shot nine times but survived and he was removed from the camp and survived the massacre. Weeks after Chivington reported the incident as a victory against an uprising several investigations were conducted by the U.S. military and one by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War who declared:
As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the fiercest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenseless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man.
Whatever influence this may have had upon Colonel Chivington, the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities, and then returned to Denver and boasted of the brave deed he and the men under his command had performed.
In conclusion, your committee are of the opinion that for the purpose of vindicating the cause of justice and upholding the honor of the nation, prompt and energetic measures should be at once taken to remove from office those who have thus disgraced the government by whom they are employed, and to punish, as their crimes deserve, those who have been guilty of these brutal and cowardly acts.
As investigations continued the gruesome stories came forth in the details of the attack. Capt. Soule, who had ordered the men under his command not to fire their weapons was later murdered in Denver a few weeks after giving his testimony. Despite the investigations no charges were ever brought against those who participated in the unprecedented attack on the Indian camp. Today, a monument placed on the Colorado State Capitol grounds in Denver lists Sand Creek as one of the battles and engagements fought by Colorado troops in the American Civil War. The actual site, however, was made a national historic site as late as April 28th in 2007 with a marker 142 1/2 years after the massacre. In addition, the incident has been featured in several films through the years which includes Little Big Man in 1970 which starred Dustin Hoffman, Young Guns in 1988 played by the Brat Pack and has been illuminated in songs such as that of the Italian singer Fabrizio de André with Fiume Sand Creek. Dances With Wolves premiered in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1990, a landmark film which truly celebrated and illuminated Native American heritage in a more positive light.
To find out more:
The American Heritage Book of Indians by William Brandon (Chap. People of Dreams)
The Native Americans The Indigenous People of North America Colin F. Taylor & William C. Sturtevant (Chap. The Plains)
“When we forget great contributors to our American History- when we neglect the heroic past of the American Indian- we thereby weaken our own heritage. We need to remember the contributions our forefathers found here and from which they borrowed liberally.”
– former President John F. Kennedy
Every year Christian Relief Services provides Thanksgiving dinners free to thousands of Native American Indians.
To help them continue to contribute to the health of Native Americans please visit www.christianrelief.org