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Sand Creek returned to rightful owners

DENVER, Colo. ? Land is finally in place for the future Sand Creek Memorial, thanks to a donation by an operator of Indian casinos.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes will receive the final tract of privately owned land on the site where their ancestors were murdered in one of the worst massacres in western history.

A ranch owned by William Dawson of Chivington, Colo. is believed to be the location of a Cheyenne and Arapaho village destroyed in a November 1864 tragedy that ended with the bodies of more than 200 women, children and elderly strewn over some 12,000 acres of land.

Dawson was asking $1.5 million for his ranch, considered the most important part of the Sand Creek Memorial authorized by Congress in1998. The U.S. National Park system couldn't meet his asking price, and the tribes weren't able to come up with the money. Yet Park Service officials were optimistic that something would materialize that would be acceptable to all parties. And now it has.

Casino operator Jim Druck of Oklahoma stepped in to buy the land. He said he would turn it over to the tribes within three months. The actual transfer of the deed will be celebrated with traditional ceremonies. Druck manages Indian casinos in Oklahoma. No strings are attached to the transfer, he said.

The land purchase all but completes the entire land acquisition for the memorial authorized by Congress four years ago in legislation introduced by U. S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.

When the tribes take over the Dawson ranch, busloads of elders will visit the land and perform spiritual and religious ceremonies, said Robert P. Tabor, chairman of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma.

Much of the history told about the massacre was taught from the non-Indian perspective, which regards it as a battle. But tribal elders listened to their grandparents describe a horrific massacre. When Clara Bushyhead was seven, her father told about her great-great grandmother who was eight months pregnant at the time of the massacre. Bushyhead said that father recounted how his ancestor was slashed by sabers and her child ripped from her body. As her father told the story, she said, it was the only time she had seen him cry.

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Recently discovered journals by veterans of the Third Regiment of Colorado Volunteers also described the atrocities. The unit was commanded by Col. John Chivington, a Methodist minister.

Capt. Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer wrote the letters 138 years ago shortly after the fateful late November massacre. They described children begging for mercy only to have their heads bashed in with clubs and gun butts, pregnant women cut open and the fetuses removed and tossed to the ground. The two officers sought to force Chivington into a congressional hearing to answer to charges of misconduct.

Chivington told a gathering of Methodist deacons that he rejected any attempt to negotiate treaties with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. "It is simply not possible for Indians to obey or even understand any treaty. I am fully satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet in Colorado."

Chivington denied that any children were killed in the massacre, but his reputation was destroyed by the congressional hearings. Chivington had earlier thought of a political career in Colorado, but after the interrogations he abandoned that idea.

The slaughter at Sand Creek will now be told from the perspective of the victims. A stone marker carved 50 years ago stands on Dawson's land with the message that no battle occurred there.

The story that will be told from now on will reflect the violence and aggression against two of the west's most dominant tribes.

The offspring of the victims have more unfinished business, said Steve Brady, Northern Cheyenne and chairman of the Sand Creek Descendants committee. "There are human remains at Nebraska and Colorado from the Sand Creek Massacre," he said. "We would like to go through the Native American Graves Preservation and Repatriation Act to return them to the site. Those people that were murdered out there are sitting on shelves as lab specimens."

Black Kettle, a peace chief of the Cheyenne was present at Sand Creek. He escaped only to be killed later at the Washita River in what is now Oklahoma by Col. George Armstrong Custer in another massacre.