Skip to main content

Sand Creek Massacre - a year after dedication

  • Author:
  • Updated:

SAND CREEK, Colo. - The grass is green and the days warm at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, where ambiguities about its collective meaning linger like the occasional cool nights on the plains of southeast Colorado.

Sand Creek is the only National Park Service-managed ''massacre'' site, though others - the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in western Oklahoma, for example - are places where numbers of Native noncombatants were killed by the U.S. military in what are termed ''battles.''

''This was the first designated 'massacre site,' although others [among federal landmarks] probably should be,'' said Tom Thomas, a cultural resources specialist for the NPS at a public hearing in Denver on the site's proposed management.

Designations are legislated, not determined, by the NPS, said James Doyle, public affairs specialist for the Intermountain Region. He noted that former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell insisted that the Sand Creek memorial be termed a ''massacre.''

Since its dedication last spring, the Sand Creek site has been the recipient of no fewer than three official - if sometimes guarded - apologies for the 1864 murder of up to 240 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, primarily women and children, by U.S. Cavalry volunteer militia.

Separate apologies by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., the 2008 session of the Colorado Legislature, and the United Methodist Church may affect the ultimate status of the Sand Creek memorial in a positive way, said Gordon Yellowman, the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma representative on the Sand Creek consultation team, which includes members of the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal nations.

Brownback said at the site's dedication, ''I acknowledge and admit the wrongs that were done and tolerated by the federal government here and across the nation.'' The sentiment, also attached to the pending Indian Health Care Improvement Act, does not ''cast the blame for the various battles on one side or the other'' and disclaims any reparations.

The Colorado Legislature in its recently concluded session issued a nonbinding apology that split the state Senate, some of whose members worried that it condemned all settlers equally and failed to acknowledge instances of peaceful coexistence.

The United Methodist Church in April authorized a $50,000 contribution to the development of a Sand Creek research and learning center in light of the role played by Methodist lay preacher Col. John Chivington, who led the Colorado Cavalry at the massacre and where children were not spared because, in his words, ''nits make lice.''

Some Methodists expressed concern, however, because the amount was not included in the $642 million church budget. The contribution awaits final approval.

With the school year concluding, family tourism visitation may increase at the Sand Creek site.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

More solemnly, Cheyenne, Arapaho and members of other tribal nations may come to the site to pay their respects to those who died there.

Some tribal members will visit the site in July on their way to a tribal Sun Dance on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Yellowman said. Sand Creek is approximately halfway between Oklahoma and the Wyoming destination.

Since 1999, a Sand Creek Spiritual Healing Run has been held near the Nov. 29 massacre date, beginning at the site and continuing through nearby Eads before going on to Denver, where remembrances are held for two cavalrymen who objected to the slaughter. One of the men, Capt. Silas Soule, was later assassinated in Denver, apparently in retaliation for his public indictment of the massacre and Chivington's role in it.

Eventually, Yellowman said, there may be an annual ceremony for Cheyenne and Arapaho members at Sand Creek, because ''there was a good feeling from people who camped there'' at the dedication last year.

''We're currently in the process of working on general management planning,'' he said by telephone. ''History is very important to us - it has made us a very strong people. That kind of survival is very important to us.''

Ultimately, 20,000 to 30,000 Native and non-Native visitors may come annually to the site, according to NPS estimates based on visitation at nearby Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site.

Public comments and concerns are being gathered to develop an NPS preferred alternative for a management plan and environmental impact statement, required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Although the preliminary stage was concluded in mid-May with a public meeting in Lame Deer, Mont., the final plan/EIS is not expected until 2011.

Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members are working with the NPS, the state of Colorado, area landowners, and others on the consultation team for the Sand Creek site.

Within the 12,500 acres of the site's outer boundary, land has been purchased for the tribes and taken into trust by the federal government. More land could be purchased - from willing sellers only - and taken into trust there.

An authorized massacre-related cemetery established under federal repatriation law will be closed to the general public and ceremonial areas may be temporarily restricted.

In addition to cultural preservation and interpretation, the site's purpose is to ''enhance public understanding of the massacre and assist in minimizing the chances of similar incidents in the future,'' according to the NPS purpose statement.