By Leo Killsback -- Today correspondent
LA JUNTA, Colo. - Tribal leaders from the Northern Cheyenne, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, along with the National Park Service and nearly 500 others, gathered April 28 to dedicate the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
After a prayer from Cheyenne Chief Gordon Yellowman, various Indian and non-Indian dignitaries spoke on the tragic event.
''Imagine a place of where families eat, sleep, learn; a place where people share knowledge, live in peace and where children run and play; a place where flags are flown to represent protection; a place of safety and security,'' said Northern Cheyenne President Eugene Little Coyote. ''Now imagine this place disturbed by chaos, gunshots, cries and pleas from the innocent; peace disrupted by attacks of inhumanity. I could be describing the violent events that occurred a few weeks ago on a college campus; an event described as 'the most tragic event in American history,' but I am not. I am talking about the Sand Creek Massacre.''
On Nov. 29, 1864, the Colorado Territory Militia, under the command of Methodist minister Col. John Chivington, attacked the camp of Southern Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle. Although Black Kettle raised an American flag and a white flag of peace, the militia were instructed by Chivington to ''kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.'' Nearly 240 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were murdered, mostly women and children. Women were raped and the dead were mutilated. Body parts of the slain Indians were paraded though Denver in celebration of the massacre.
''The Cheyenne witnessed unimaginable acts of savagery from the volunteers that cold November day. Our people still remember what happened and still brings tears to our eyes,'' said William Walks Along, executive administrator of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., was also present. Campbell worked for more than 25 years with the Northern and Southern Cheyenne tribes to gain more public attention as well as federal recognition of the site and event. James Druck eventually purchased nearly 1,500 acres of land on the site as a gift for the tribes. Campbell was also prominent in passing congressional legislation to protect the site and eventually establish it as a national historic site, which now can manage nearly 2,500 acres of the 12,500-acre Sand Creek Massacre site.
''Most Americans during this time perceived American Indians to be savages,'' Campbell said. ''But if there were any savages that day, it was not the Indians.''
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., made a formal apology of the atrocities committed by the United States.
''I acknowledge and admit the wrongs that were done and tolerated by the federal government here and across the nation. They were wrong and they were deadly. As a senator from a Plains state, I deeply apologize and I'll work to right this wrong,'' Brownback said.
Northern Cheyenne Tribal Councilman Jace Killsback said, ''The Northern Cheyenne are proud and thankful that Sand Creek has been made into a national historic site. It shows that the U.S. and the state of Colorado are taking responsibility and recognizing their past acts of genocide and policies of oppression against American Indians, as well as working to protect and preserve this site.
''Today, the Cheyenne people are currently fighting to protect another site, Noavose or Bear Butte, the birthplace of our nation and the center of our worldview and philosophy. We hope and pray that it will not take the lives of 200 Cheyenne people and 150 years for the U.S. and the state of South Dakota to afford the same responsibility, recognition and protection to Noavose.''