‘Part of America’s story’: Colorado expanding Sand Creek Massacre memorial site

By: - October 20, 2022 4:16 pm

Patrick Spottedwolf, a member of the Arapaho tribe, speaks at a ceremony marking the expansion of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in southeast Colorado on Oct. 5, 2022. (Chase Woodruff | Colorado Newsline)

The federal memorial marking the site of one of the worst atrocities committed by the United States against Native Americans will more than double in size with a new land acquisition, federal officials announced in Colorado earlier this month.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, the Kiowa County location where in 1864 hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho people were murdered by a regiment of U.S. Army volunteers dispatched from Denver, was first opened to the public by the National Park Service in 2007. The addition of 3,478 acres to the NPS unit will bring a total of about 6,500 acres surrounding the massacre site under federal ownership.

The acquisition, financed in part by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, is part of an effort by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — a member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American cabinet official in U.S. history — to “tell a more complete history of America.”

“I see it as my responsibility to raise the visibility of Indigenous peoples, our cultures, our heritage, and the traumatic history that we continue to live every day,” Haaland said in a ceremony at the Sand Creek site on Wednesday. “We have persevered through colonization and through cruel massacres like the one that took place here.”

Drawn by promises of peace from territorial officials, an estimated 750 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes were encamped along Big Sandy Creek on the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, when a cavalry regiment commanded by Col. John Chivington launched a brutal assault on the camp.

An estimated 230 Native people were killed in the slaughter, most of them women and children. U.S. Army soldiers mutilated their victims and collected body parts as souvenirs as the surviving Cheyenne and Arapaho fled in terror.

“I’ve thought deeply about what happened to our people on the killing fields at Sand Creek,” said William Walksalong, a tribal administrator for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a descendant of the massacre’s survivors. “Humans can be cruel, and do horrific things to other humans.”

In the aftermath of the massacre, many in the fledgling frontier town of Denver greeted Chivington and his men — who portrayed the action as a defeat of a much larger force of fighting men — as heroes. But dissenting accounts from soldiers who refused to take part in the attack soon reached federal officials, prompting several investigations. Despite a congressional panel’s recommendation in 1865 that Chivington and his men be punished for their “brutal and cowardly acts,” no perpetrators were ever charged.

The Sand Creek Massacre had a devastating, generations-long impact on the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who today are part of several federally recognized tribes with reservations in Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana. But the atrocity was largely forgotten or mischaracterized in Colorado’s official histories; for many years, a marker at the site commemorated it as the “Sand Creek Battle Ground.”

“Words matter,” said NPS Director Chuck Sams, a member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes. Like Haaland, he is the first Native American to hold the position in the agency’s 106-year history.

Under Haaland’s leadership, the Interior Department has launched a Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, which last month announced the renaming of nearly 650 place names across the country that formerly contained the word sq***, a slur for Indigenous and Native American women. Earlier this year, the department also released the initial findings of its investigation into federal Indian boarding schools, where many Native American children were abused or went missing in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Stories like the Sand Creek Massacre are not easy to tell but it is my duty — our duty — to ensure that they are told,” Haaland said. “This story is part of America’s story.”

“We recognize and acknowledge our history, no matter how dark and painful, and obviously Sand Creek was only one part of the abuse and turmoil that Native Americans suffered and endured,” Hickenlooper said. “We can’t change that past, but we can ensure the story and the victims are remembered.”

But some members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who traveled to the Sand Creek site Wednesday said that remembering the horrors of the massacre isn’t enough. Patrick Spottedwolf, an Arapaho hereditary chief, spoke of the need for Native people to “start businesses out here.”

“We as Cheyenne, we as Arapaho, this is our homeland. We were here,” Spottedwolf said. “We ought to be charging Denver rent.”

Cheyenne tribal member Michael Bearcomesout suggested that land around the site could become the location of a university or a retirement center.

“We’re here all day listening to people talk about saving this site so that we remember,” Bearcomesout said. “But not once did we hear anything about paying back the Cheyenne and Arapaho people for what happened here.”

This story was originally produced by the Colorado Newsline which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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