Sand Creek decisions create hope

EADS, Colo. – Two separate events that target a dark place in the United States’ past contain both solemnity and hope as a historic event near this southeastern Colorado community nears its 150th anniversary.

For the first time at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, a cavalry descendant family living far away has returned the partial remains of a massacre victim, said Alden Miller, superintendent of the National Park Service-maintained site.

Another decision – this one by the NPS and others – may make the lessons of the massacre globally lasting and purposeful through the creation of a Sand Creek Memorial Research and Learning Center to be located in this community of 600 on the plains near the Kansas border.

Miller does not know if any other cavalry descendants would decide on repatriation, but said “many of those included in the discussions felt that could be an outcome.”

The family returning the remains requested anonymity. Descendants of the massacre have repatriated the remains of six other individuals killed at Sand Creek, but the remains were released from museums.

All the deaths occurred during a surprise attack by some 700 Colorado cavalry volunteers under Army Col. John Chivington that killed nearly 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women and children, at a peaceful encampment Nov. 29, 1864.

“One of the things that may come of this is that people who have not been previously returned home would be able to come home,” Miller said.

In this instance, “the partial remains were obtained from a descendant of one of the soldiers and returned directly to the tribes,” Miller said on a website that described an earlier formal interment at Sand Creek.

“The Sand Creek massacre profoundly affected families, Cheyenne tribal leadership and traditional structure, and intercultural relations across the West,” said Otto Braided Hair, Northern Cheyenne, and Bill Tall Bull, Cheyenne, co-chairs of the annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run, which commemorates the tragedy.

This year, participants in the healing run left the site early on Thanksgiving Day, continued the 186-mile relay during American Indian Heritage Day, and completed the memorial at Denver’s capitol Nov. 27. They were primarily from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, and the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming.

Gail Ridgeley, Northern Arapaho, noted that youth and other participants ran and walked through the very Denver streets where 146 years ago the returning cavalry marched triumphantly with massacre victims’ body parts.

This year the participants paused at a downtown intersection where a new plaque was dedicated by William Convery, state historian, who said he is “proud that History Colorado commissioned this long overdue marker” to Capt. Silas Soule, 1st Colorado Cavalry, who refused to follow Chivington’s orders to kill unarmed Indians and who later testified against Chivington for atrocities committed at Sand Creek.

Soule was killed near the location of the plaque, apparently by a Chivington partisan. He “gave his life supporting humanity and justice,” Convery said. “I am glad that we have finally recognized his sacrifice.”

At the state capitol, Dr. Alexa Roberts, of NPS, announced plans for a Sand Creek Memorial Research and Learning Center “that will allow people to study Sand Creek and its implications” for the present and future.

Although the center is still in the planning stages, it will be a place where “people can go and study and put it (the massacre) in a global context.” Federal funding will be augmented by a planned nonprofit organization.

The Methodist Church is expected to play a part in the center, said Elaine Stanovsky, bishop of a four-state conference of the United Methodist Church, who described the church’s 1996 apology for the massacre “a step to raising awareness.” In addition to being an Army officer, Chivington was a Methodist minister.

After city and state proclamations of Nov. 25 – 27 as Healing Run and Remembrance Days by Dennis Gallagher, city auditor, and Carol Harvey, executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, other speakers included Byron Strohm, a Soule descendant who read his ancestor’s account of the atrocities against women and children at Sand Creek; Karen Little Coyote, Southern Cheyenne; Reginald Kills Night, Northern Cheyenne; and Jay Alire, a key Denver organizer of the event.

The ceremony began a decade ago by LaForce Lone Bear, Northern Cheyenne, closed this year with the Journey Song, a prayer song for the victims of the Sand Creek massacre.