Cultures taught to consider the impact each decision has on seven future generations know that the reverse is also true—choices from past generations reverberate today. That is one explanation—the one perhaps most understood in Indian country—for how a man first discovered the unsettling significance of a Native American artifact passed down from his great-great grandfather and then how he may have lost the rare opportunity to help make amends for the past.
The silver amulet has a larger top portion adorned with a floral pattern and a crescent shape piece attached beneath. Described by experts as a spiritual talisman for the warrior who wore it, it was one of perhaps thousands of plundered items taken from the murdered victims of the Sand Creek Massacre more than 150 years ago.
The amulet was lost in Branson, Missouri in the beginning of February during a trip that Michael Allen was taking from New York to Oklahoma. It was one of two “trophies” taken by his great-great grandfather, William M. Allen, who joined the nearly 675 soldiers in slaughtering some 200 Arapahoe and Cheyenne people among the 700 peacefully encamped along the Sand Creek in Colorado on November 29, 1864. The other item, remembered in Allen’s family but long since disappeared, was a scalp that hung on his great-great grandfather’s wall.
While he lived, William Allen did not seem bothered by his involvement in a massacre, but his actions now haunt his great-great grandson. Michael Allen described the loss of the amulet as harrowing. “This has been a nightmare. I haven’t slept. I feel like I’ve been taught a lesson by the cosmos.”
Karen Little Coyote, a cultural representative of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, has another explanation: “It wasn’t meant for him to keep.”
The full story of Michael Allen’s journey to this part of his family’s history started in 2014 when he traced his great-great grandfather’s link to the Sand Creek Massacre, inspired by the 150th anniversary of that tragic event.
Allen wrote about his discoveries, the massacre and his visits to the Sand Creek Historic site for the Wall Street Journal, where he works as an editor.
Along the journey into the past, he first learned the significance of the amulet when he pulled it from a bag and presented it to former Colorado chief historian David Halaas and massacre expert Gary Roberts.
“Dr. Halaas, his eyes welling up, fled the room,” Allen wrote. “When he recovered his composure, he said, ‘That’s explosive. To the Cheyenne, that’s a sacred object.’ He cleared his throat. ‘It seems pretty clear that your great-great-grandfather was among the worst of the atrocities.’”
“That was the first time that I really realized the power of this,” Allen said of the amulet in a recent interview with ICMN.
Allen’s family—including his siblings and parents—decided to either give the amulet to the Sand Creek National Historic Site or return it directly to Cheyenne descendants of Sand Creek survivors. Such an act would separate his family even farther from the atrocities connected to his great-great grandfather.
“The only remnant we had was this,” Allen said. “We never wanted to keep it; we had no interest in keeping it.”
He approached the National Historic Site with the idea and also the survivor descendants. Allen said the descendants told him that the amulet, which held spiritual significance for the Cheyenne man from whom it was taken, was “to bury it at Sand Creek, to treat it as a human remain.”
That suggestion made the family hesitate. The idea of forever burying an item of historic significance rather than place it into a reserved collection challenged their Western European cultural mores.
The family was still committed to turning it over, though, Allen said, and wrestled with what might be the final disposition. “I spoke with several members of the intertribal committee that makes these decisions … to try to reach a deeper understanding of their point of view. I took the amulet to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to hear the opinion of curators there.” The superintendent of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site advised him to keep those conversations going.
Several non-Native families have approached the tribes with sometimes gruesome reminders of Sand Creek and of their ancestors’ shameful involvement, Little Coyote said. “Back in 2010, we had a family from San Diego who had a Cheyenne scalp taken from one of the warriors up there (Sand Creek), and they didn’t want to keep it, they wanted to return it.”
A group journeyed to San Diego to accept those remains and then escorted it to the Sand Creek Historic Site, where it was given the proper burial.
“There are objects or things that came from Sand Creek,” Little Coyote said. “They should be given back so they can be put to rest.”
Alexa Roberts, superintendent of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, said calls about Native American artifacts have also come there. The staff addresses three main things with people who believe they have items connected to the Sand Creek Massacre.
“We ask the person if they’ve spoken with any of the tribal representatives. … If this is really looking like it’s going be a serious conversation, we ask what documentation there is,” Roberts said. If a connection can be found, tribal representatives are consulted to suggest whether an item should be in the site’s permanent collection or interred.
Currently the historic site holds about 1,000 items in its collection, such as firearm fragments and munitions, military equipment, military and Native personal items, camp equipment and utensils, tools, horse tack and harness fragments and fasteners of various kinds—nails, tacks, strap iron, etc.
These items, none currently on display, were collected in consultation with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as detailed in the 2000 report “Sand Creek Massacre Project Site Location Study, Volume One.”
Allen’s family had not yet come to a final decision on how to pass along the amulet when he took it with him on a trip with a more upbeat Sand Creek connection.
During his 2014 research, Allen became acquainted with the story of Tom White Shirt, an Arapaho child who hid in soldiers’ wagons and was discovered on their route back to Denver after the massacre. He was allowed to live, against the opinion of some soldiers, perhaps with the idea of exploiting him as a sort of “carnival” act, Allen speculated in his Wall Street Journal story. After several years, White Shirt was returned to the Arapaho people and his descendants now number at least 330.
Allen was headed to Oklahoma to help out some of those descendants, to gift them with a car the family needed, when he made his stop in Branson. His next stop in Tulsa was to another of Tom White Shirt’s descendants. When Allen offered to show him the amulet, he discovered it was missing. They both searched the car thoroughly, and Allen realized it must have been lost in Branson.
The amulet was in a plastic CD case inside a white nylon drawstring bag. Allen does not suspect theft; nothing else was removed from the car. It might simply have fallen out of his pack in a parking lot, he said.
Allen has contacted the hotel and did interviews with Branson Lakes News and KY3 television station to try to get the word out about the lost amulet. He first offered a $500 reward, upped now to $1,000, for its return and has published his email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Last week, a couple from a nearby town who heard the story volunteered to retrace Allen’s steps to see if they could locate the item, but for now, nothing has turned up.
Should the unlikely happen and the amulet is found and returned, Allen said he will not hesitate to turn it over to the survivors’ descendants. “I feel so terrible about losing this thing; I wish to God I’d just given it over to them.”
Little Coyote said she, too, hopes for the unlikely to happen, especially if the amulet can be buried at Sand Creek. “As long as that’s out, there’s still a spirit attached to that. It can’t be at rest until it’s taken back where it came from.”
In deference to his ancestor, Allen tries not to judge William Allen for past turbulent times and based on what little he found in his research. “I really don’t know what he did there. He was not one of the guys making the decisions.”
Indeed, his great-great grandfather’s 1925 obituary in the Denver Post, quoted by Allen, alluded to the turbulent settler history without any guilt: “Perhaps none of the army of pathfinders had a more thrilling story to tell of how a civilization is built on savagery than Allen. But with him a job was done when it was done, and that was the end of it.”
But many know, especially among the Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants, that was not the end of it.
Ripples continue to reach across a century and a half, reverberations felt by Native and non-Native today and in the future. The pain felt today may be for lost opportunities to help heal the past.