Some would prefer to sweep away memories of the massacre, but forgetting the dead is not the traditional—or honorable—way.
Otto Braided Hair was about 12 years old the first time he heard about the Sand Creek Massacre, his great grandfather, Braided Hair, and how he, his wife and unborn child survived the horrific massacre at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864.
“It hit in my gut. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t believe it.”
As a youngster on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, he had to leave the room where his grandfather was reciting details of the attack. “How could people do such terrible things to other people?” the youngster wondered. “Why did this happen?”
These were unanswerable questions, even for elders.
As he grew older and could handle more of this history, his family’s history, the hurt just got worse.
“I heard it from my grandparents and my elders. I respected them. And to think that those were elders down there, and someone would do such a thing to old people… It was a deliberate attack on the leadership of the Cheyenne Nation—nearly all of the Cheyenne Chiefs Council of 44 were present at Sand Creek. On that day, a third of our leaders were killed and to this day the Chiefs have been unable to fully re-establish leadership, it is one reason why Cheyenne still suffer today, they not only killed our Chiefs, the keepers of our way of life, they silenced generations of wisdom and knowledge.”
“They” were the soldiers of the First Colorado and Third Colorado regiments who rode to Sand Creek, an encampment of mainly Cheyenne and Arapaho people directed there to wait for word on peace negotiations by the very military establishment now bent on slaughtering them. For eight hours on November 29, the nearly 700 soldiers would shoot, hack with swords and mutilate bodies for “souvenirs” from the mostly women, children and elderly people murdered there. Some soldiers refused to attack and testified later about the horrors.
Of the 500 to 600 people camped at Sand Creek, nearly 200 were killed; about 18 soldiers died. Those who survived felt compelled to guard the memories of the murdered and to pass the story down through the generations.
Now, it is Otto Braided Hair’s responsibility to pass on his family’s memories, to tell of the barbarity—and the acts for bravery that helped some survive—in honor and remembrance of those who died. Though he is just one of many descendants of Sand Creek survivors.
In the events leading up to the 150th anniversary, he has been called upon not just to speak to his own family, but to outside groups. He often finds people are shocked by this history. “I tell them what I’ve been told… Usually their emotions get the best of them. They are overcome by emotion and have a hard time trying to have a conversation about it.”
In tribal cultures with a long tradition of oral history and of respect for the lives of ancestors, ignoring even this most painful past is not an option.
Among the broader American culture, however, acknowledging this shameful episode in history has not been readily embraced. As we conclude the 150th year anniversary of the massacre with a day of remembrance at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and a four-day Sand Creek Spiritual Healing Run, many see a dawning of recognition.
How to present the atrocities, even whether to call it a “massacre” became part of the controversy in creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near Eads, Colorado.
“The whole question of what does it mean: Was it a battle or a massacre? It brought up that whole thing again,” site Superintendent Alexa Roberts said of the site creation process, from 1998 to its 2007 opening. For Roberts, “massacre” is the proper word. “It couldn’t be called anything else; that’s what it was. That was acknowledged in 1865. Congress designated it as such.”
The importance of creating such a site, preserved in perpetuity, has become even more evident this year as the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre has become hostage to its private owner’s desire to sell it at the highest price. Getting acceptance of the Sand Creek site—and even first finding the proper location—was not easy.
Author/historian Ari Kelman tracked the history of the massacre and the controversial development of the historic site in his book A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek. “This historic site is going to prompt visitors to grapple with the American past, [which] is filled with deep and painful ironies…
“We all crave stories that are relatively simple and linear, but unfortunately that is not how our history proceeded.”
Roberts has seen the site develop into a place for memory and mourning, for education and reflection. At this year’s 150th anniversary remembrance, she believes the site will serve as a focal point for healing, too.
“The most striking thing, and this was clear immediately, was that Sand Creek, to the descendants, is not a matter of history. It’s a matter of present-day life,” Roberts said. “They still carry it with them… Even in telling these stories, particularly among the elderly, there’s still a great deal of angst and fear and sadness. Sand Creek and everything about it is regarded, as sacred.”
Braided Hair, who also has long been involved with creation of the historic site, agreed. “It’s such an important point in our history and with our people. Our people are buried there, killed there. Our blood is in the ground, in the place where our people fell. It’s hallowed, sacred and is respected.”
Since the 2007 opening of the site, remains of nine victims have been returned and reburied there, with proper ceremony. These were body parts taken as unspeakable trophies by the soldiers that ended up in public museums or had been handed down within families. The return of such remains can help with closure.
“It was so important to be able to begin putting spirits to rest. There’s been so much prayer there, and so much evidence of the power of that prayer that I think it’s just super important. It will be there for perpetuity,” Roberts said.
“It seems the healing has started for those of us who are actively participating in the efforts, we must provide opportunities for the youth and others to connect with ancestral homelands” Braided Hair said.
For 16 years now, one way to heal has come through the Sand Creek Spiritual Healing Run. This year the run/walk starts November 30 at the historic site, the day after the anniversary remembrance, and continues to December 3, when the participants and others gather at the Colorado State Capitol. The final day of the run starts at the Denver gravesite of Capt. Silas Soule, one of the soldiers who refused to participate in the massacre and who vocally denounced it and testified at the investigation.
Braided Hair will be one of those running from the site to the Capitol, as will his grandson, Kaden Walksnice. Many from the Northern Cheyenne will join the journey this week down to the 150th anniversary remembrance, too, as well as from the Cheyenne and Arapaho communities in Oklahoma.
Beyond this year’s anniversary, the historic site will continue to undertake its most ambitious charge, Roberts said.
“Part of our legislative mandate is to manage the site so as to prevent these atrocities from ever happening again—that’s big. If we forget, how will we ever prevent them from happening again,” Roberts said.
“Creating a better future requires that we remember the failures of the past,” echoed Andrew Hollinger, director of communications for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum was one place visited by tribal representatives while developing the Sand Creek site. “The question the museum seeks to inspire people to ask is not, ‘What would I have done?’” according to Hollinger. “The past cannot be changed. But, now that I know, ‘What will I do?’”
For Braided Hair, this 150th anniversary will bring opportunity to do critical things: “To continue to remember our people—we’re specifically told not to forget—to honor our ancestors, provide an opportunity for descendants to pay their respects and to bring awareness about the Sand Creek Massacre… and provide that education to everyone.”
On November 29th, even for those not at Sand Creek, Braided Hair has one request: “For people to continue prayers for the event and future efforts… and for strength and healing for the people.”