DENVER – Frontier history endures in present-day Native Colorado, where bloodshed on the state’s southeastern plains is something elders today can recall their grandparents telling them about – Sand Creek, the peace camp where at least 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women, children and old men, were killed by the Colorado Cavalry.
Yet in 2009, 145 years later, the 11th Annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk, headed by a Cheyenne spiritual advisor and two Cheyenne men descended from traditional societies, invited gratitude for continuity, and, unexpectedly, remembrance of a cavalryman’s bravery that aided the survival of present-day tribal members.
Photo courtesy Fairmont Heritage Foundation Army Capt. Silas Soule, Company D, 1st Colorado Cavalry, was gunned down on the streets of Denver after he testified against his commanding officer, Army Col. John Chivington, whom he disobeyed Nov. 29, 1864, refusing to fire on unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho people who were told by the Army that they were in a safe camp at Sand Creek.
The choice this year to honor a white cavalry officer who disobeyed shoot-to-kill orders at Sand Creek was approved by Lee Lone Bear, a spiritual advisor who initiated the Healing Run, and co-chairs Bill Tall Bull, Cheyenne, Dog Soldier Society descendant, and Otto Braided Hair, Northern Cheyenne, a headman of the Crazy Dog Society, both traditional societies that included guarding the camp among their functions.
“This year’s Healing Run is dedicated to the memory of Captain Silas S. Soule whose courageous acts led to an investigation of the actions of the Colorado Cavalry by a congressional committee,” planners said, underscoring what was to be the theme of this year’s run. Soule, 26, later was gunned down by a soldier who disagreed with his stance on Sand Creek.
“We want to recognize him some way by remembering what he did for the Indian people,” Tall Bull said.
Cheyenne and Arapaho runners left Eads, Colo. after a prayer ceremony Thanksgiving morning and followed the run’s eagle staff nearly 200 miles to Denver, where they gathered on American Indian Heritage Day at an outdoor sculpture depicting tribal histories. The following day they went to sites related to Soule’s death, to the state capitol, and to the Colorado Historical Society, a sponsor of the run.
The run was dedicated to Soule, 1st Colorado Cavalry, as one of the “people who recognize us as human,” said Braided Hair, who noted that Soule and a fellow cavalry officer spoke out “bravely” after the massacre. “If it wasn’t for Soule, there wouldn’t be a Sand Creek Massacre National Historic site.”
Soule refused to follow orders of his commander, Army Col. John Chivington, to fire on unarmed Indians who had been promised safety by the Army and he later testified against Chivington for atrocities committed that day, Nov. 29, 1864, as did Lt. Joseph A. Cramer, 8th Ohio Cavalry. In part because of their testimony, Chivington was officially condemned for his actions at Sand Creek.
But Soule was later shot to death by a soldier from Chivington’s command at a location in downtown Denver where the Cheyenne and Arapaho Sand Creek descendents hope to place a memorial plaque in his honor. Although the commemoration is currently stalled in the bureaucratic process, supporters expect it to be resolved in coming months.
“They were all horribly mutilated,” Soule wrote an Army companion in an account of the massacre that graphically depicts murder and suicide and that raises problems Lone Bear tried to address.
Lone Bear, who stresses the run’s value to young tribal members, said a prayer cloth had been carried by runners from the massacre site through the streets of Denver where victims’ body parts had been paraded as trophies.
A ceremony was held for the Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk at an outdoor sculpture at Denver Art Museum that commemorates Cheyenne/Arapaho ancestral homelands with the Cheyenne inscription “nah-kev-ho-eyea-zim” (“We are always returning back home again”) on a curved wall. Cheyenne/Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds addressed Sand Creek and other events from the history of Indian peoples on 10 red, forked tree forms in a 50-foot circle aligned to the sunrise at summer solstice.
“We ran from Sand Creek to Denver to wipe the blood,” he said, noting that those who returned it back to Sand Creek had spiritual experiences at the site.
The past intrudes upon the present in that some victims’ body parts are still being kept as military trophies by cavalry or other white descendants or for a lucrative black market in such items, he said, but there is great hope that they will be returned.
Although the event stressed survival, some ambivalence was present as well. Chris Yellow Eagle, Southern Cheyenne, said remembrance “doesn’t have to be in a revengeful way” although “we have feelings about what we’ve been through.”
Ambivalence marked the three-day commemoration in other ways.
Rev. Jerry Hoytt Boles III praised Soule for disobeying Chivington’s orders to kill, even though, as Boles pointed out, he is pastor at the Trinity United Methodist Church, Colorado Springs, which was founded by Chivington himself, a former missionary and leader in the Rocky Mountain District of the Methodist Church.
When plans were being made for the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, the Cheyenne and Arapaho refused to obtain the site by condemnation “because they knew how it was to have their land taken away, so it would only be acquired by a willing seller,” said David Halaas, a Colorado historian.
Widespread denial about Sand Creek and other atrocities has “allowed the population of Denver to live in grateful oblivion of how many Indian lives it took to establish a white city in Denver and a white state in Colorado,” said Prof. George “Tink” Tinker, Osage, of the Iliff School of Theology.
State Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, Comanche, read a gubernatorial proclamation declaring Nov. 27 – 29 Sand Creek Spiritual Run and Remembrance Days that notes the run “will be preserved through the oral histories of American Indian storytellers, who serve as the sentries of America’s indigenous culture by sharing the legacies, legends, and stories of America’s Indians.”
In addition to Colorado Historical Society, participants or event partners included the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Northern Arapaho Tribe, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Byron Strohm, who represented the Soule family, city and county of Denver, City Auditor Dennis Gallagher, Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, Denver Art Museum and Jay Alire, Taos Pueblo/Mescalero Apache, who coordinated event details.