The mood was somber and the details were sobering at a Dec. 3 ceremony at the Colorado Capitol, marking the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, in which dozens of American Indians were …
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The mood was somber and the details were sobering at a Dec. 3 ceremony at the Colorado Capitol that marked the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, in which dozens of American Indians were slaughtered by U.S. Cavalry troops.
On the west steps of the Capitol, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a formal apology on behalf of the state to descendants of the victims in an attempt to clean wounds that may never fully heal within tribal communities.
“I am sorry for the atrocities of our government,” Hickenlooper said.
On Nov. 29, 1864, in what is now eastern Colorado's Kiowa County, as many as 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians — mostly women and children — were killed by U.S. troops.
Most of the Indian warriors were away hunting bison when Col. John Chivington gave attack orders. Many of the victims were sleeping or were trying to surrender to Chivington's army of 600 troops.
Hickenlooper provided graphic details of the slaughter — which he described as an “unthinkable nightmare.” They included the killing of an Indian boy who was used as “target practice” and the slaying of tribal leaders by troops who ignored the American and white surrender flags they hoisted.
The massacre was the culmination of territorial conflicts that grew more intense as Rocky Mountain gold drew large numbers of white settlers to the West.
The Indians thought they were protected by federal treaties that recognized Indian-controlled land in parts of the West that included much of eastern Colorado.
However, the discovery of gold intensified relationships between Indians and white men seeking riches. Shortly thereafter, the Civil War erupted, bringing cavalry troops led by Chivington to Colorado to fight Confederate armies.
Chivington's army remained in the state after fighting off the Confederates and, with the backing of then-Gov. John Evans, began taking a hard line against the Indians, leading to a series of attacks that culminated with the violence at Sand Creek.
Hickenlooper said Evans had a culpable role in the attacks and his lack of leadership resulted in a “deep moral failure that warrants condemnation.”
“We should not be afraid to criticize and condemn that that is inexcusable,” the governor said.
Cornell Sankey, lieutenant governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, said what happened that day “will not fade from history.”
“For some, it would be too convenient to forget the darkest moments of our history,” he said. “For others, it would be too easy to hold on to anger, resentment and bitterness. Instead, we are here today to honor those lives that were lost and to remember the evil of which men are capable.”
Lawmakers in attendance included state Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton. Salazar plans to sponsor bills during the upcoming legislative session aimed at furthering American Indian causes. They include bills that would offer in-state tuition for students living outside of Colorado with tribal ties here and separate legislation that could do away with Indian-themed mascots at state schools.
“It's very important to think about tomorrow,” Salazar said in a private interview. “We need to make a commitment to rectifying these inequities.”
Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth, said in a separate interview: “We cannot tomorrow forget about this remembrance.”
“If humans are to survive, we have to be able to live together in a peaceful manner,” Dore said.
In an eerie moment when history overlapped, ceremony attendees were temporarily distracted by student marchers who were protesting police actions in Ferguson, Mo., where a black man was killed by a white officer, causing controversy and fury in black communities.
As the Ferguson protesters marched across the street from the Capitol (the two events were unrelated), they chanted, “Hands up, don't shoot.” The chant was intended to evoke the events from Ferguson, but it was not lost on some in the audience outside the Capitol that the chant also applied to the Sand Creek Massacre — where some Indians were killed trying to surrender.
The ceremony at times proved to be overwhelming for Cheryl Wanstall LittleBird, a Northern Arapaho tribe member who made the trip from Wyoming to attend the event.
LittleBird wiped away tears and clutched a young family member while the governor provided details of the slaughtering.
“How could I not?” she said, when asked what brought her to tears. “These were our people. We were here way before others were. As long as I'm alive I'm going to remember.”
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