OKLAHOMA CITY – National recognition of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes for their work on the Washita Battlefield in Oklahoma is just one more step in a long process toward accurately portraying the deadly clash between Native Americans and the U.S. Army more than 140 years ago, according to two men who helped develop the area into a National Parks Service unit.
The National Trust presented the Preservation Honor Award to the tribes Oct. 15 at the 2009 National Preservation Conference in Nashville, Tenn., for their work on the Washita Battlefield.
The battlefield was the site of the Nov. 27, 1868, attack launched by Lt. Col. George Custer on Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s winter encampment along the banks of the Washita River. Historical accounts differ on a death toll, but some say 100 Cheyenne and 21 soldiers were killed and dozens of others were taken prisoner. The tribe’s lodges, teepees and other belongings were burned and their herd of 800 horses were shot.
Also Oct. 15, the National Trust recognized the tribes for their efforts to preserve the history of the Battle of Sand Creek in Colorado four years earlier, when 100 Cheyenne were killed.
“One reason I worked so hard and many Cheyenne worked to get the battlefield as a unit of the National Parks Service is we need to understand the clash of cultures and when people can’t learn to live together and find peaceful ways out of a dilemma,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, and one of the people who worked to preserve the site.
Blackburn said the Battle of Washita River was part of a strategy by the military to stem the tide of raids by Indian tribes on westward-migrating settlers.
According to historians, Black Kettle wanted peace, but some tribal warriors participated in deadly raids on white settlements before the Washita battle.
Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, Custer’s superior, decided to “teach them a lesson,” Blackburn said.
“Custer was assigned to attack the tribe in the winter camp because they had such trouble engaging southern Plains tribes during the spring, summer and fall,” Blackburn said. “The tribes had horses, they were mobile and knew the land.”
Some Cheyennes escaped across a large field toward some hills. One 13-year-old, Magpie, got away when he shot a soldier who was trying to decapitate him and another boy, said Lawrence Hart, director of the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton.
“Magpie stuck the pistol in the trooper’s abdomen and fired, then he and his friend got on the soldier’s horse and escaped,” Hart said.
Magpie returned and found the bodies of Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman Later, in the river. He and others buried them in unmarked graves, Hart said.
“We have lots of stories like that in our oral tradition and we’re really glad that our stories can be told,” Hart said.
Hart accompanied Blackburn to Washington twice to testify before a House subcommittee about the importance of preserving the area’s history.
“When I went to testify before Congress the first time, I spoke over their heads,” Hart said. “When I started trying to find a parallel, it was difficult and so they couldn’t understand and had no concept of a massacre.”
Just before they returned for the second visit, the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building happened.
“Because of the Murrah building bombing, they understood what I was talking about.”
Since that visit 14 years ago, the 315-acre site has been developed into a modern visitor’s center that includes artifact displays and interactive exhibits and trails leading to the battle site. The site is about 140 miles west of Oklahoma City near the town of Cheyenne.
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