“All citizens of Colorado . . . go in pursuit of all hostile Indians on the plains . . . to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” – Colorado Territorial Governor, John Evans, August 11, 1864
Our culture is great at denial. Well, let me clarify. By “our culture,” I am referring to the dominant White, Christian Patriarchy that has controlled the values and direction of the culture in which we live since its inception. Maybe, as Derrick Jensen offers in his stirring book The Culture of Make Believe, it’s more that we live in a culture where we must make believe that all is well, that tremendous atrocities have not been committed and are not being committed with blood on our hands . . . we have to pretend to be able to sleep at night.
After all, I would imagine that if you asked the average Coloradan what took place at Sand Creek in Eastern Colorado, they would not really be able to respond. In fact, I would wager that if you asked the average American to recount the acts of genocide that had occurred in their county (considering that you’d be hard pressed to find a U.S. county where at least one Native American massacre took place), they would likely respond with confusion and indignation . . . “Genocide in my county? No no . . .”
The unfortunate reality, though, is that the land that we occupy today is bloodied land. The Native American population of the United States was estimated, by some accounts and measures, to be nearly 20 million, yet today there are approximately 2.5 million left. This is no accident. This is by the direct actions of the U.S. government and its people through direct violent extermination and through unintentional and intentional spread of disease.
I thought about this a great deal as I drove through South-Eastern Colorado on my way to speak at the Southwest Plains Regional Service Center’s Student Leadership Academy in Garden City, Kansas. Along the way, I saw signs for the Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Site. Realizing that it is pretty rare that I drive through that area of Colorado, I decided to stop.
The terrible hurt of that place was palpable.
For those who are not aware, the Sand Creek Massacre refers to the events of November 29 and 30, 1864 along the Sand Creek basin in Eastern Colorado. On that fateful, cold day on the Great Plains, Colonel John M. Chivington led a group of approximately 700 soldiers and four howitzer artillery cannons attacked a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. The Chiefs of the village, Black Kettle and White Antelope, immediately surrendered, raising a U.S. flag and a white flag, upon the arrival of the troops, but Chivington, a man known for saying “Damn any man who is in sympathy with an Indian,” commanded the troops to attack. When all was done, approximately 160 Indians lay dead, two thirds of whom were women and children (Source).
In thinking over these events, though, I can’t help but think of the words of Andrea Gibson in her amazing poem “See Through.”
“You are white . . .
Breathe in our story.
Force yourself to hold in your lungs
’til you can hear our hymns sung beneath white sheets.
’til your can feel your own finger on the trigger of the gun.
Feel yourself fire as they shout.
Do not look away as bullet enters heartbeat.
Now breathe out.
This is where we come from.
This is still where we are.
Now where will we go from here? “
In order to breath in the story of Sand Creek, to hold it in our lungs, to understand the role that our people played in this massacre, it is important to look at more than the very sterile description above. We need to look at the atrocities committed, to imagine the horror experienced as unarmed men, women, and children were hunted down, killed, and mutilated. Silas Soule, a soldier present at the battle but who refused to participate, described the horrible atrocities committed that day:
“It is hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be ‘civilized.’ One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, she held her arms up to defend her, and he cut one arm off and held the other, and dashed a hatchet through her brain. I saw two Indians hold one another’s hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and were both shot together. One woman was cut open and the child inside of her taken out, scalped” (Source).
Women and Children dug holes in the sand of the creek bed, trying to hide themselves, but they were mowed down by musket fire and shelling from the howitzers. After the murder had stopped, the survivors were moved to military camps or continued their journey West and North, looking for land where they could be safe from these atrocities.
“Chivington and his Colorado Third troops returned to Denver and proudly displayed Cheyenne scalps and other body parts they had removed from men, women, and even children. Newspapers and citizens alike exulted in the soldiers’ victory. The intensity of hatred became apparent when Senator Benjamin Doolittle later addressed a Denver crowd regarding Indian policy. His audience shouted him down, exclaiming, ‘Exterminate them! Exterminate them'” (Source).
My point in writing this is not to encourage us to simply say, “Wow . . . what horrible things were done back then!” or to encourage us to “look how far we’ve come.” No . . . As I stood on the site memorializing the event, I realized that we live this legacy every single day. We live the legacy in our policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, the South Side of Chicago, in New Orleans, and in each and every reservation within the boundaries of these United States. We live this legacy in our decisions to ignore the genocides taking place today around the world, as in the current conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where 5.4 million people have been killed since 1996.
We need to live our history. We need to breath our history . . . but even this is not enough. We must ensure that the atrocities of the past are not allowed to be repeated, and in this, sadly, we are failing. Instead, we barely know our history . . . and we know even less of what goes on today.
“I don’t believe we’re hateful.
I think mostly we’re just asleep.
But the math adds up the same.
You can’t call up the dead and say,
‘Sorry, we were looking the other way.’
There are names and faces behind our apathy,
eulogies beneath our choices.
There are voices deep as roots
thundering unquestionable truth
through the white noise that pacifies our ears.
Don’t tell me we don’t hear.
Don’t tell me we don’t hear.
When the moon is slain,
when the constellations disperse like shrapnel,
don’t you think it’s time,
– Andrea Gibson