One hundred and forty-one years after a tragic massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians are reconnecting with their heritage and history in Colorado.
Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, December 8, 2005 (republished in Indian Education Today, February 2006)
By Joshua Zaffos
Allen Joe Black Wolf and Steve Brady listen to a soundtrack of traditional Indian songs—known as “49s”—as they drive a rental car southbound on Colorado Highway 71 through the heart of their ancestral homeland. Voices cry and sing, and hands slap and beat drums in the car’s speakers, and the Northern Cheyenne men look out at bundles of hay, small herds of cattle and their tribe’s former territory, which appears to extend forever across the plains beneath stretched-out clouds and the setting sun.
Otto Braided Hair steers a rented minivan just ahead on the highway, and fellow Northern Cheyenne LaForce “Lee” Lone Bear and Floyd “Bucky” Glenmore ride along. The remains of a final member of the tribe—one of about 150 victims murdered at the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864—rest in a cedar box in the cargo space of the van. The Northern Cheyenne are on a journey from their reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, to La Junta, Colorado. In between, they traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect their displaced relative in order to return the remains to the banks of Sand Creek.
Many historians consider the Sand Creek Massacre the most brutal and deliberate attack on an Indian village in American history, and the raid initiated almost three decades of brutal warfare up and down the Great Plains between the United States Army and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The massacre also marked the onset of the tribes’ cultural decline.
“Our people never did recover from that. [The massacre] completely fractured, broke down the traditional government of the Cheyenne tribe,” says Brady, who occasionally chants with the recorded 49s between sentences. “[By 1890,] it was about to the point where our own people were nearly exterminated.”
One hundred and forty-one years after Sand Creek, the northern and southern bands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho are scattered between reservations and other lands in Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma. They are physically and spiritually separated from the territory and traditions of their relatives, and trying to reconnect with their history and maintain their identity.
In the dawn light of November 29, 1864, 700 Colorado soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho camp along Sand Creek, about twenty miles outside the present-day small town of Eads.
Chivington was a Methodist minister turned Civil War hero, and he had no tolerance for or interest in the tribes. His troops were mostly volunteers who had signed on for 100 days of service specifically to kill Indians. A few weeks earlier, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had followed Chivington’s orders and left the area around a military fort on the Arkansas River, camped along Sand Creek and flew an American flag over their village as a sign of peace.
That November morning, many of the tribe’s warriors were hunting for game — under the instruction of the U.S. military— leaving about 500 mainly Cheyenne women and children in the encampment. As the militia approached, an American flag waved over the lodge of Black Kettle, one of the Cheyenne chiefs.
Black Kettle believed the flag would spare the lives of his people, and he encouraged them to gather around his lodge as he also raised a white banner of truce. The militia fired indiscriminately on the Indians, and the chief and the others fled for their lives along the creek.
“My great-grandparents were still in bed, and they woke up to the sounds of guns and howitzers raining down on them,” says Brady, a former high school teacher on the rez who chairs the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project Committee.
His great-grandfather, Braided Hair, was one of the few warriors in the village, and he lassoed a stampeding horse for his pregnant wife and got her to safety.
The American soldiers slaughtered without mercy. They hacked off limbs with hatchets, and scalped the wounded without killing them. Defenseless groups of women and children who burrowed into pits along the stream banks were raped and shot. One pregnant Indian woman was cut open and her unborn child left lying beside her.
“Squaws’ snatches were cut out for trophies,” wrote Silas Soule, a captain under Chivington who refused to participate in the massacre and positioned his division to prevent more deaths. “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I have told you is the truth.”
About 150 Indians, mostly women and children, died at the Sand Creek Massacre. Black Kettle and his wife, who survived nine bullets, managed to escape up the creek, but many other tribal leaders did not.
White Antelope, another Cheyenne chief, stepped out of his lodge when the soldiers first approached the camp and yelled, “Stop! Stop!” in English. Chivington’s troops shot the unarmed 75-year-old man. One soldier then scalped White Antelope, cut off his nose, ears and genitals, and boasted that he would make a tobacco pouch of the chief’s scrotum—as he still lay dying.
In those final moments of White Antelope’s life, surrounded by the dead and wounded of his band, the old chief repeated the words of a tribal “journey song” over and over — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever.”
The soldiers of Chivington’s regiment left Sand Creek with scalps, bones and gruesome tobacco pouches. They paraded through Denver as heroes when they returned. A few days before Christmas 1864, the Rocky Mountain News reported, “Cheyenne scalps are getting thick here as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one, and is anxious to get another to send east.”
Army surgeons returned to Sand Creek in 1867 to gather bones—usually the skulls—for ballistics studies and an “Indian cranial study” in the name of the pseudo-science of phrenology. Those samples ended up in the Smithsonian museum, which eventually housed about 18,500 Native American remains including 4,500 skulls.
This status as souvenirs and specimens has represented a tragic fate for the remains, which the government, museums and tribes have begun to address only in the last fifteen years. In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law established a formal process to catalog and return certain cultural items, including human remains, to affiliated tribes and descendants. Museums across the country have since repatriated, or returned, such artifacts to tribes.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes know of seven human remains from Sand Creek held by the federal government and state museums. The Colorado Historical Society repatriated a scalp lock to the tribes in 1997 through NAGPRA. Representatives of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes took custody of the individual this past October. The widow of Major Jacob Downing, who fought under Chivington at Sand Creek, originally donated the long lock of hair to the state in 1911.
On this trip, the Northern Cheyenne have picked up a skull fragment of a Sand Creek victim from the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln. The museum knows the cranium was donated in 1927 but not much else: A staff member accidentally discovered it in a drawer with some old paper money.
“I think it’s certainly one of the most important [repatriations] because of the historical interest” in Sand Creek, says Priscilla Grew, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. “Every time we have one of these repatriations, it brings back a lot of history. It’s a very emotional experience, I think, for everyone involved.”
The Northern Cheyenne have brought the skull fragment to Denver where the Colorado Historical Society has stored it for the night. The next morning, before driving down Highway 71 to La Junta, the Indians meet with historical society officials, who invite the men to a basement vault to view a table of artifacts claimed from Sand Creek. There’s a bow and two arrows, a warrior’s buckskin shirt colored with yellow ochre and decorated with beads and scalp locks like tassels. Two war bonnets, lost in the chaos. A single buckskin moccasin.
The Historic Site
The two vehicles arrive at Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta—a National Park Service historic site where Sand Creek remains are being held. This past August, President Bush signed a law officially creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Previous laws approved a study to confirm the location of the massacre and O.K.’d the acquisition of private lands for the site. To date, the federal government and the tribes have purchased almost 2,400 acres along Sand Creek, which the Park Service will manage once the massacre site is finalized.
Park Service Superintendent Alexa Roberts says Sand Creek will be the first unit in the National Park system recognized as a “massacre” site. The agency and tribes are now considering a visitors center and interpretive trails and the placement of a cemetery for the repatriated remains before opening the area to the public.
Steve Brady says he’d like to see a simple monument inscribed with the message of White Antelope’s journey song. Roberts and the Northern Cheyenne representatives envision very little development, and hope visitors will recognize the site as a place of life and activity, and not just a historic relic.
The day after the Indians arrive in southeastern Colorado, they head out to the massacre site with Roberts and other Park Service staff, and the connection between past and present is evident in the prayers of Lee Lone Bear, a Northern Cheyenne spiritual adviser.
Like the others who have made this journey from Lame Deer, Lone Bear is a direct descendant of Sand Creek victims. His paternal grandfather married a daughter of White Antelope. His great-grandfather was Lone Bear, or One-Eye, a chief who also died at Sand Creek.
On this November afternoon, Lee Lone Bear is leading a prayer on a bluff overlooking the cottonwoods and dry creek bed of the massacre site. He chants in the Cheyenne language, and Allen Joe Black Wolf, who is learning the spiritual ceremonies from Lone Bear, stands at his side.
Lone Bear later explains that his words are part of an ongoing invocation that began before he left Lame Deer.
“I started the prayer at home and told them [the ancestors whose remains will be repatriated] we were coming and asked them for a good trip,” says Lone Bear. “At Lincoln, I prayed and said, ‘I’m taking you to Denver and La Junta, and we’ll bring you to where you’ve fallen.’”
His prayers include words for the young people of the tribe, and those in the Armed Forces fighting in Iraq. “We even pray for our president, President Bush. We pray that he makes the right decisions, even though he’s not well liked anymore,” continues Lone Bear. (“I even asked the Creator to watch over you,” he tells this journalist, “to make a good report and get it right.”)
“And I asked the spirit world for good health for the tribe and families, and to get a cemetery and reparations.”
Thirteen years before Sand Creek, the United States government and the tribes signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, establishing the first reservation for the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The territory encompassed 51 million acres across four present-day states, including 27 million acres in Colorado. The Indians retained rights to hunt, fish, travel and live on the land, and the tribes and the U.S. both agreed “to maintain good faith and friendship in all their mutual intercourse, and to make an effective and lasting peace.”
The peace lasted about seven years until the 1858 Pike’s Peak gold rush, when 140,000 prospectors flooded into Colorado. Conflict erupted, ultimately leading to Chivington’s aggression at Sand Creek in 1864. One year after the massacre, still reeling from the devastation and violence, some Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs signed a new treaty on the Little Arkansas River in Kansas, surrendering claims and rights to Colorado Territory.
But the U.S. government also accepted blame for Sand Creek. Article 6 of the treaty recognized “the gross and wanton outrages perpetrated” that day, and the government agreed to pay reparations in the form of land grants and “securities, animals, goods, provisions, or such other useful articles” to the survivors and victims’ families.
Fast-forward a century when the U.S. Indian Claims Commission negotiated land-claims settlements with Indians whose territory was taken without compensation. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes gave up any outstanding claims in exchange for just $15 million. But Sand Creek descendants still retained the right to unpaid reparations.
For the 5,000 Northern Cheyenne members who live on the reservation in Eastern Montana, per-capita income is less than $5,000 and unemployment hovers around 70 percent. Similar to other reservations, alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and other poverty-related problems cast a dark shadow over the tribe’s future.
“This is where we [the Northern Cheyenne] always wanted to live,” says Norma Wolfchief Gourneau, over a cup of coffee at her home on the rez. A huge home theater TV towers over the living room, and a litter of kittens bounce around her back porch amid rows of old cars and trucks.
“But there’s not a lot of opportunities for jobs here,” continues Gourneau, a descendant of chief Black Kettle and a former tribal vice president. She now works for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, an hour’s drive away.
The Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho of Oklahoma face similar challenges. The tribes don’t have a reservation; instead, the 11,400 members live within “service areas” in the panhandle, where they’re eligible for government services. Per-capita income is less than $9,000, and the unemployment rate is around 60 percent.
Any compensation or reparations could make a huge difference in the lives of these people, which may be why Steve Hillard, CEO of the Golden-based investment firm Council Tree Communications, approached the tribes in 2003 with a proposition for a casino in Colorado—in the name of retribution.
“It was a departure from what we normally do,” says Hillard, a Colorado State University graduate, whose company has worked mostly with Alaskan tribes on telecommunications deals. “We just did it because we believed it was the right thing to do for the Cheyenne and Arapaho.”
Hillard struck an agreement with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho and then unveiled his proposal to Colorado in December 2003: The Indians wanted to open a casino on 500 acres outside Denver International Airport and, in exchange, would abandon any claims to the 27 million acres of Colorado—40 percent of the state—under the Fort Laramie Treaty.
The supporters of the “Homecoming Project,” as the $150 million casino complex was named, suggested the gaming revenue could serve as reparations. Backers estimated a metro Denver casino would create 10,000 jobs and bring in up to $500 million a year for the tribes, plus $100 million in taxes for Colorado.
Despite the economic potential, Sand Creek descendants among the tribes took offense.
“We don’t care if you build a hundred casinos,” says Gourneau. “But we say, ‘Don’t use Sand Creek to get your casino and don’t use Sand Creek as a hammer [to hold] over the state of Colorado.’”
“When they first came out with the offer, they included Sand Creek as a bargaining chip,” says Joe Big Medicine, a Southern Cheyenne Sand Creek descendant. “When we met with Council Tree, we demanded that Sand Creek be left out.”
Hillard relented on the association, but he still tried to talk about “genocide” when the Homecoming Project got a hearing from the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee in September 2004. But after a chilly reception from Congress and continued opposition from Gov. Bill Owens and the northern tribes, the investors regrouped and targeted the city of Pueblo for the casino site. The project received approval from county commissioners this August before the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal council ultimately rejected the land exchange a month later.
Hillard says the casino is “at best, on hold,” but adds that the swing in support among southern tribe members “reflects honest and very deep divisions.”
Still, Hillard’s venture created confusion—over the creation of a Park Service unit and the tribal casino proposal—and stalled the legislation to designate the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
Hillard “sidetracked us enough as it was. It almost completely derailed us,” says Steve Brady, who adds that Congress, not a casino developer, should move ahead and finally pay reparations for Sand Creek descendants.
Braided Hair — the great-grandfather of brothers Steve Brady and Otto Braided Hair — was hurt during the Sand Creek massacre but escaped that morning. He found his pregnant wife alive and riding the same horse for warmth a few days later.
“[Braided Hair] was among those delegated to go back and look for survivors and horses,” says Brady, who has kept the Anglicized name Indian Affairs later gave his family while his brother uses his ancestor’s given name. “He went back to the village and…unbelievable carnage, mutilated bodies, the whole village burned. So, they were left totally destitute. My great-grandfather never forgave the white people for that.”
Braided Hair lived to be 102 years old, dying in 1934. By then, most of the old ways of life had disappeared.
In the years following the massacre, bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho alternately pushed for peace and war with the United States, losing either way. By 1890, the government had relegated the northern and southern tribes to scrawny reservations, scraps of their once-expansive dominion.
Members of the tribes needed permission from the government Indian agent to leave a reservation. Elders were discouraged from sharing their heritage, and many chose to suppress stories of the past. Children learned little about their native language, culture and history. Few residents of the Northern Cheyenne reservation have ever journeyed to Sand Creek, and the tribes had even lost track of exactly where their ancestors had camped and been attacked.
“I didn’t learn about Sand Creek in elementary school or high school,” says Otto Braided Hair, coordinator of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Project.
“For us, everything is healing. The repatriations. This [the massacre site] becoming a national historic site,” says Braided Hair, as he walks around Sand Creek and speaks of the role of the tribe’s prayers in their accomplishments. “Everything seemed almost impossible [in 1999]. Even the healing run.”
Since 1999, a group of runners, children and adults, commemorate the Sand Creek Massacre every year by jogging from the site to Denver during the week of Thanksgiving—and the anniversary of the attack.
Lee Lone Bear, the spiritual adviser, conceived of the healing run as another way to actively remember and reconnect with the history of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Both northern and southern tribes say the run is a centerpiece for education for their members and the American public, and it’s even helping them to connect with each other.
In the early morning of the run that first year, Lone Bear held a pipe ceremony along the creek with Braided Hair and a private landowner. Lone Bear says the men heard a woman crying, only to realize it was a chorus of coyotes circling them. The landowner later said that deer and elk—long absent from the area—returned after the ceremony.
A few weeks after the repatriation, both Braided Hair and Lone Bear return to Colorado for the seventh annual healing run.
The night after Thanksgiving and the run at Sand Creek, members of the northern and southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Denver Art Museum. There are about 40 people at “the Wheel,” an outdoor art exhibit of a circle of ten forked “trees” painted red with messages of history and hope for Native Americans.
Lone Bear recounts the story of White Antelope chanting his journey song as he died at Sand Creek, and then begins to sing those words in Cheyenne — “Only the Rocks Live on Forever” — with Braided Hair and others. Braided Hair follows with a long yelp that gives chills even on a 30-degree night.
The massacre site is on the verge of becoming a national historic site run by the federal government. The healing run is bringing attention, and receiving support from the city of Denver. The Colorado Historical Society is planning a major exhibit on the state’s Native American inhabitants. The Cheyenne and Arapaho are learning how to make sure their heritage and their stories live forever with the rocks.
“In our writings, we say it is our tribal history,” Braided Hair tells the group at the vigil, “but it is not. It is the history of the land.”