Remembering the sand creek massacre
by Claire Duncombe
Despite the freezing temperatures of early morning, a crowd gathered in the snow of Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. They stood before Captain Silas S. Soule’s gravesite and began the last day of the 21st Annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk.
Every year around November 29, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members pay tribute to ancestors who died during the Sand Creek Massacre and those who survived. They follow a route that represents the path of U.S. troops who committed atrocities against their tribe, and in doing so, seek healing: for the land, themselves, and everyone involved.
“It’s about our spirits,” said Otto Braided Hair, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and organizer of the run.
The yearly event is coordinated by the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, and is attended by the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. Their ancestors historically ranged over vast parts of the Midwest and Plains.
In the 19th century, western expansion encroached on Native American land. Their presence brought wars with the Plains Indians and affected tribes’ ways of life. Treaties were signed with the U.S government, but they were rarely honored and tribal lands were siphoned off and tribes were forced out.
Tensions continued to escalate in the 1850s and ‘60s as thousands of settlers moved onto land that the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie had promised to the tribes indefinitely. In 1858, a “Colorado Gold Rush brought [a new] onslaught of whites to… Cheyenne and Arapaho lands,” said Dr. Donna Martinez, a CU Denver professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies.
In November 1864, the Cheyenne Council of 44 chiefs led by Chief Black Kettle and some Arapaho chiefs made peace with the government. They camped at Sand Creek, about 180 miles southeast of Denver, and it was widely known that their camp was peaceful.
But on the morning of November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington and a force of 675 U.S. troops attacked the camp despite the raised American flag and white flag of truce. The massacre killed more than 200, mostly women, children and the elderly.
After the massacre, Dr. Martinez said, the “troops spent the afternoon mutilating the bodies of slain Cheyenne and Arapaho.” Over the next two days, soldiers returned to cheering crowds in Denver, “displaying the mutilated body parts on their gear and clothing.”
Cheyenne McAllister, a CU Denver student and a Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal member, is a direct descendent of massacre survivors. Her great-great-grandfather lived because his grandmother “tied him [and another baby] in saddle bag[s] on the side of a horse,” she said. “They hit the horse, and it ran off to the other camp, and so, they survived.”
McAllister said that her grandmother, Virginia Allrunner, found the history hard to talk about. “You could imagine,” she said, “you have to think when they massacred them… they took fetuses out and body parts, and they came from [Sand Creek] to Denver, and they had a parade.”
Last December at the gravesite, tribal members raised the 33-star American flag and white flag of truce in honor of the flags their ancestors raised 155 years ago. In doing so they also honored Capitan Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Kramer because they and their companies refused orders to shoot. Many descendants attribute their ancestors’ survival to that decision.
Soule’s testimony led the U.S. Government to condemn the Army’s actions at Sand Creek. He was assassinated shortly afterward, at 15th and Arapahoe, and his killers, though known, were never brought to justice.
During the commemoration, the runners left the gravesite first, and everyone else followed in a procession of cars. They honked their horns and yelled as an acknowledgement and expression of emotion. Everyone met at 15th and Arapahoe to walk the final steps to the State Capital together.
“For me,” said McAllister, “you’re running for them… mourning them.”
Every year, elders, runners, and tribal members “bless the massacre site and the roads to Denver,” said Braided Hair. “Acknowledge, recognize, respect. Everyone can use an ounce of that.” Those are values that “came from those people who were attacked at Sand Creek. Those have always been our ways,” said Braided Hair.
Many tribal members are still healing from the history of the Sand Creek Massacre within a greater legacy of persecution. However, many Colorado residents don’t know the history.
“This is very important history to students at CU Denver because our campus and downtown Denver sit on lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho,” said Dr. Martinez. “Most of our students are from Denver, and the majority are from Colorado, so it is our responsibility as educated citizens to learn about this part of our history.”
“You know, everyone says historical trauma and I get it,” said McAllister. “It’s a very difficult thing to have your culture taken away and your way of life.” She said many tribes are still dealing with repercussions from the past that have continued into the present; adding that alcoholism has deeply affected her family, and many family members have died from liver failure.
“When it’s such high numbers … it’s hard to say it’s just them,” said McAllister. “That’s a big thing, and that’s with all the tribes. All the tribes were massacred. All of them have their own stories.”
The Sand Creek Massacre commemoration is one way to create awareness about that ongoing trauma and history.
But it’s “not only the Cheyenne and Arapaho that need healing,” said Braided Hair. “It’s about everybody’s spirit. It’s everyone’s history, and people who don’t acknowledge it are actually helping to diminish that history.”
Dr. Martinez encourages students who are interested in learning more to enroll in ETST/HIST 3396, an American Indian History course she teaches every spring.
To learn more about Sand Creek visit: https://www.nps.gov/sand/index.htm