Sand Creek Massacre
I attended a pilgrimage to Sand Creek on June 20, 2014 with the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference. We had the opportunity to learn in depth about the Massacre, to go to the site (about 2 ½ hours from Pueblo, CO where the annual conference was in session), and to talk with descendants of the Arapaho and Cheyenne villagers who were massacred 150 years ago.
As the resident bishop in the area that includes Northwestern University, I was asked to participate in the Acts of Repentance in relation to the role of John Evans—the founder of Northwestern, the territorial governor of Colorado and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and an active Methodist—in the Sand Creek Massacre.
The Sand Creek Massacre occurred on November 29, 1864 when approximately 675 US soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington, an elder in the Methodist Church, killed about 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers, mostly elderly men, women, and children near Eads, Colorado. The villagers had been told if they camped at Sand Creek, they would be safe. When the soldiers attacked before dawn, Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle raised both a US and a white flag symbolizing peace but the soldiers were ordered to attack anyway.
The soldiers shot, scalped, savagely cut fetuses from the wombs of mothers, used a child essentially for target practice, and mutilated the dead bodies in horrific ways. Adding insult to injury, body parts were taken like trophies to Denver’s Apollo Theater and put on display.
There were several military officers who refused to participate in the massacre and wouldn’t let their men—who were volunteers enlisted for 100 days to put down any Indian attacks—open fire. Captain Silas S. Soule was one of them but he was later shot in downtown Denver. It is suspected that it was due to his criticism of how Sand Creek was handled and that Chivington had something to do with his death.
This gives a little history on the Sand Creek Massacre; more can be read in the Northwestern University’s Report on John Evans’ role. You can read that at: http://www.northwestern.edu/provost/committees/john-evans-study/study-committee-report.pdf
This pilgrimage that included education, a community of people willing to face and repent of the actions of our forefathers, and the interaction with Descendants of the survivors who escaped was a profound experience. Although, if someone was just driving by the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, didn’t really know too much about it but decided to go into the national park, might find it to be a very different experience. As you can see by the picture, it’s a large “empty” space, filled only with sagebrush and cactus, a few cottonwood trees, and a small bluff around the bed of the creek where the Arapaho and Cheyenne set up their village. Some markers tell briefly what happened. But the impact would be quite different, most likely making the event seem like “ancient history.”
The history of Sand Creek is alive in the hearts and minds of the Arapaho and Cheyenne still today; it’s visible and real to them. They still carry the pain. Talking with an elderly tribal chief from the Arapaho who is a Descendant, he told me that sometimes he could “see” those who were killed on site, still wandering without resting in peace. And they wouldn’t rest in peace until the Descendants found healing. This pilgrimage was a good start toward healing.
For many of us United Methodists, the travesties, broken treaties, and prejudice that has been directed against Native people seems so long ago and it makes the pain of the people invisible to us; the landscape of the history is as “empty” as the landscape at Sand Creek. It makes it difficult for us to participate in Acts of Repentance.
Yet as United Methodists who have promised to make Acts of Repentance across our country, we are called to learn the stories—to see them in our hearts and minds—in our own areas and to recognize how what might seem like “ancient history” to us is real, contemporary and continues to haunt our relationships with Native peoples.
As I looked over the “empty” landscape of Sand Creek, I tried to fill it with some other reflections. What had I learned in school regarding Native people in Washington State where I grew up? What attitudes was I taught as I learned about their lodging, food, and way of life? How did my family regard Native Americans? Did I know any Native Americans? All of these memories and reflections began to fill this “empty” landscape and I began to imagine Sand Creek filled with Arapaho and Cheyenne on a cold morning in November 1864. I didn’t “see” them like the Arapaho tribal chief, but I could imagine them and their story haunts me.
Please join the Northern Illinois Annual Conference on September 20, 2014 in Naperville for our first Act of Repentance. More information is forthcoming.