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Weapon Used to Kill American Indians Now Arizona State Gun

On April 28, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law SB 1610, which designates the Colt .45 caliber handgun—a weapon that was used to kill many Indians, including women and children during the Indian Wars of the 19th century—to its roster of official artifacts. Ironically, this list includes turquoise, a gem used by many southwestern tribes and acclaimed by Navajos as one of their four sacred stones and the bola tie, a men’s neckware item almost exclusively crafted by Indians.

State Representative Albert Hale, D-Window Rock, noted that “The honoring of any gun is offensive to Native Americans.” Hale, who served as Navajo Nation president before being elected to the Arizona Legislature, added, “Guns were used to kill Native Americans and take everything that belonged to them. They were used to put Native Americans on reservations.” Hale made at least two impassioned speeches on the House floor before the bill came up for the first of two votes. After the first full House vote nixed the bill with less than the 31-vote majority needed, Representative Steve Montengro, R-Litchfield Park, asked for a revote. The bill passed with a vote of 32-25 and three representatives not voting. Five Republicans voted against the measure in the Arizona House, which is dominated by Republicans.

The original Colt pistol was patented by Sam Colt in 1836. In the following decades, the name Colt became synonymous with guns in the minds of millions in the U.S. and the world. Colt’s website notes that “During 1845, certain units of the U.S. Dragoon forces and Texas Rangers engaged in fighting the Indians in Texas credited their use of Colt firearms for their great success in defeating Indian forces. U.S. War Department officials reportedly were favorably impressed. “ The Army was so impressed that “when the Mexican War began in 1846, Capt. Samuel H. Walker, U.S. Army, traveled east, looked up Sam Colt, and collaborated on the design of a new, more powerful revolver.” The U.S. government subsequently ordered 1,000 of the newly-designed revolvers, which Sam Colt called the "Walker."

In 1871, the Colt .45 pistol was developed and in 1872, the larger caliber and deadlier revolver was issued for Army use.

The deadly little gun has starred in many Hollywood westerns, including the 1950 film “Colt .45” and has become embedded in the nation’s collective memory as the gun that won the West. There’s even a malt liquor named after the revolver.

However, the Colt .45 pistol, the darling of the Indian fighters, also gave the U.S. Army a way to quickly kill and wound Indian people. In just one incident, in the dawn hours of December 28, 1872, a 130-man force from the 5th Cavalry from Fort McDowell and Old Camp Grant and 30 Apache scouts under the command of Capt. William H. Brown conducted a surprise raid on a band of Yavapais hidden in a cave hideout deep in Salt River Canyon. The Yavapais refused to surrender, and the Army shot and crushed to death 100 Yavapai men, women and children in what is today called the "Skeleton Cave Massacre." The Yavapai consider this the most horrible massacre in their history, and newspapers and Army reports of the day describe it as one of the most "terrible battles in Apache history." Reports indicated 75 "hostiles" were killed and 25 captured. In 1925, the Fort McDowell Yavapais retrieved the bones of their massacred relatives and brought them home for burial in a mass grave on the reservation.

After hearing Hale’s speech, at least two Republican legislators changed their votes. Rep. Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix noted in an e-mail that, while she supports the Second Amendment and believes the Arizona Legislature should “pursue legislative policy that strengthens our right to bear arms,” she adds that “Representative Hale's impassioned plea to his colleagues to not memorialize a weapon that symbolized pain and destruction to his people convinced me that this bill was not in Arizona's best interests.” McGee also noted that “supporting one weapons maker over another is not the job of the legislature.”

That’s cold comfort to the descendents of the Skeleton Cave Massacre’s survivors. When told that the bill had been signed Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Vice President Bernadine Burnette remarked that “this is a disgraceful day for Arizona and to our ancestors and the Native people of today when a law is passed that honors a weapon used to kill so many of our people.”