DENVER—“Lessons Learned at Bloody Sand Creek” was the topic proposed for a panel of experts, but the participants spent much of a three-hour discussion analyzing unfinished issues in the tragedy that has haunted Colorado history.
“For 146 years, people have been trying to understand why and how seemingly civilized people could perpetrate such a grisly act,” panel planners described as the underlying question.
The Sand Creek massacre took place in 1864 when as many as 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women, children, and elderly were slaughtered at a peaceful encampment in southeastern Colorado by 700 state cavalry under the command of Col. John Chivington.
The wide-ranging panel discussion, before a packed audience April 17, was sponsored by sculptor Craig Bergsgaard of Windsor, Colorado, whose 2010 bronze, Memorare Sand Creek, was the impetus for the event.
Panelists were George E. “Tink” Tinker, Clifford Baldridge Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions, Iliff School of Theology, Denver; Rose Frederick, curator of the Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale; Tom Noel, professor of history and Director of Public History, Preservation and Colorado Studies, University of Colorado-Denver; Col. Ronald G. Macholan, Director of International Programs and Assistant Professor of Military & Strategic Studies, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs; and Prof. Glenn T. Morris, Director, Fourth World Center for the Study of Indigenous Law and Politics, CU-Denver.
Tinker, who is Osage, condemned America’s lack of an accurate sense of history, pointing out that “Christians were violent people when they came to these shores” and later, in the West, they called for “extermination of the red devil.”
“How we tell history makes history, and covering this history in an unvarnished way is terribly important,” Tinker said. He is working with the United Methodist Church, which wants to make amends for Sand Creek because Chivington was a member of the Methodist clergy. “Don’t accept any apology that comes without land,” he said, noting Christians ended up with all the land and then created a “feel-good history.”
Macholan described an early emphasis on social progression, creating a “cataclysmic impact in the clash of civilizations” that occurred when white society saw itself as further along in social progress and felt it was preordained that Native culture would be pushed aside as at Sand Creek, which “played out these social contrasts.”
Rather than a “clash of civilizations,” there was an “invasion of another peoples’ country,” Morris said, objecting to what he called an effort by “people eager to sanitize what happened there (Sand Creek)” and generally to settle land claims for pennies on the dollar, affecting tribal sovereignty which “means nothing without territory.”
Morris, of Shawnee descent, described the “normalization of colonialism” and said he hoped the panel might be “the beginning of a process” like that taking place elsewhere of truth, justice, reconciliation, and peace.
Noel said Chivington was not the “devil incarnate,” but also founded churches and held off Confederate forces at Glorieta Pass in present-day northern New Mexico during the Civil War.
Art is “a great unregulated industry in the U.S.,” but the work coming out of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. and other colleges and universities is important and can record the artists’ own mythologies, Frederick noted. She and others described art as having a healing potential.
One attendee, Antoinette Red Woman, Northern Cheyenne, said she had traced her ancestry back to Chief White Antelope, who died at Sand Creek, and she read a poem about the tragedy written by her Cheyenne husband, John Paul Medicine Elk.
Another Native in the audience said during a question-and-answer period that there is “still the Chivington mentality, still the Custer mentality” in the U.S., where there is “greed for land and resources.”
The panel was moderated by J. Wendel Cox, senior special collection librarian in the Western History and Genealogy Department at Denver Public Library, where the event took place.