Voices, long silenced, speak

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”
Robert Burns, Man was made to mourn: A Dirge (1784)

A monument sits on an overlook that greets visitors of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic site near Eads, Colorado. In November of 1864, Colorado militiamen killed over 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the site who were living peacefully along the creek in their village. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most ruthless and unnecessary “battles” in American history, when 675 Colorado militia slaughtered between 150 and 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, who were doing just as they were told: flying the Stars and Stripes to indicate their willingness to maintain peace on a scrap of land at the edge of a reservation. Sand Creek is one of many reminders that the American Civil War featured not one, but two sets of dispossessed peoples: Negro slaves and indigenous Americans. The sad part is the latter were largely forgotten for decades afterwards.

Under the leadership of Col. John Chivington, the cavalry functioned like a street gang that morning, descending upon the unarmed villagers at dawn on 29 November, 1864, gunning down women, children and the elderly, execution-style, while able-bodied tribesmen scrambled to find weapons they could use.  Militiamen cut off heads, scalps, limbs and genitalia, and later paraded them in the streets of Denver as trophies.

Capt. Silas Soule

Fortunately, there were some US cavalrymen who were still in possession of their humanity, and refused to attack. One man in particular, Capt. Silas Soule, dared to expose the horrific crimes perpetrated by the soldiers against largely defenseless victims by writing official letters decrying the military’s behavior. As a result, Chivington and Colorado Governor John Evans were forced to resign, but neither was ever tried for his role in the massacre.

Tragically, Captain Soule was himself murdered on a Denver street after the war, and while his assailants were known, they were never tried. Still, in a twist of righteous fate, Soule had the last word, many years after his death.

In 2000, the only first-person accounts of what really happened at Sand Creek were unearthed. In the form of two letters, written in sickening, gruesome detail, the tale was finally and painfully brought into full focus from the 135-year-old voices of Soule and his compatriot, Joe Cramer. The discovery of these letters, among other issues, impelled the Sand Creek historical commission in Colorado to reformulate its take on what happened, and indeed, to make things right.

I won’t expound today on the ocean-deep inequity shoved upon Native Americans as a result of the horror that lay at the heart of Manifest Destiny. Rather, I will hold out hope for our nation to be increasingly compassionate, forward-thinking and colorblind, so 150 years from now, our descendants will look upon eerily similar events of today with the same incredulous repugnance we experienced upon reading those letters, knowing that the country had finally learned its lesson.

A blessed, relaxing Sunday to you!

7 thoughts on “Voices, long silenced, speak

  1. Mavis

    It amazes me that our nation still ignores our Native American culture. They don’t slaughter and maim, but pretend the Indians aren’t part of our nation. It’s just as deplorable. Our grandmother was a Cherokee squaw. To think that someone could treat her like that – well, it just makes me sick. We never hear about what goes on at the different reservations in the US. I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject, and it makes me hang my head in shame.

    Thank you, Bird, for bringing up that huge part of our history. I pray for all the wonderful people on those reservations.

    Reply
    1. Rat Fink Post author

      I remember being completely aghast at reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. And I think of how we grew up totally ignorant of all of it — and how many (if not just about all) of my students don’t know what really happened, either, due to the slant on American history textbooks through the years (although, to be fair, I haven’t seen one in over a decade). While I don’t want to incur a flame war, I will say that the current state of the reservation culture is due in great measure to the overall neglect of their entire race by the US government, year after year. I’ve read where it’s improving — and that is encouraging — but some damage can never be reversed.

      It was Daddy’s grandma (our great-grandmother) who was the squaw, right? Her name was Pearl? What was her last name? I want to get going on our family research again one of these days.

      Reply
      1. Mavis

        Ack!!! I wrote “grandma” instead of GREAT grandma! Glad you caught that, hon. Yes, her name was Pearl, but I don’t remember her last name. Daddy told us, but it’s been a few years. I would love to find out more about her, though!

        Reply
  2. Ross Bonander

    Those letters are shocking, even in this day and age. Although I feel like I have to point out one curious line in Soule’s letter:

    “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings …” (‘White men’ being traditionally understood as a synonym for ‘civilized Christians’)

    It’s clear we’re not the only ones holding tight to a distorted and inaccurate view of history.

    Reply
    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Yep, as compassionate as Soule apparently was, he was still a product of his time: he likely pitied the poor “savages” (as they were often called back then), as opposed to identifying with them as equal human beings.

      Reply
  3. David

    Having lived in Arizona for nearly 25 years this is a subject that is simply heartbreaking for me. I have numerous friends from the 22 recognized tribes indigenous to my adopted home State. There are three Navajo and one Apache within the makeup of one of my crews and I have done countless work over the decades “up on the Rez.” In compliance with TERO laws I have hired and fired many Native Americans over the years. I have lived, learned and loved much of their culture.
    Chivington was a brute whose desire in life was to be known as the greatest Indian killer in history. He saw his life and actions to be in competition with Kit Carson. Sadly, Native American treatment at the hands of the U.S. Government was and is reprehensible; little has changed over the last 150 years except we brazenly kill fewer now than we did back then. We have whimsically changed Treaties throughout history to where White people are thought to have no honor.
    Finkster forgive the long rant on this; allow me to share one personal anecdote and I am gone.
    About five years ago I had a rather large project up in Fort Apache, an Apache Reservation founded in 1871. Lots of history there, with historically infamous villages like Cebicue and Fort Apache. In the course of the 18 month project I was on the Rez weekly from one to four days a week. Everyday for that time period I stopped in a convenience store and bought a coffee, sweet bread and a bottle of water; same elderly woman waited on me every time…she never spoke a word to me, made eye contact nor acknowledged me other than accepting my money. As the project was ending I went up with one of my crew, a Yavapai Apache, to take care of some “punch list items.” Marvin had worked for me for nearly ten years and we had a great relationship; he called me “blue eyes” and I called him “Marvin the Shaman.” I was curious about this lady as everything I tried to do to show myself friendly was a complete failure and in relating the story to Marvin I asked him “Why?” His response succinct and biting…”Because of her age, you are white and she has no history of whites being trustworthy, so she has no reason to be friendly.” Over the years I have had numerous opportunities to pass by that convenience store…I always stop. Yes, she is still there, a beautiful aging Apache woman with no reason to trust the smiling, blue-eyed white man across from her counter. Breaks my heart!

    Peace!

    Reply
    1. Rat Fink Post author

      What a sad story, Dave. I guess to some (especially the older people, who may have heard 1st-person accounts years ago from their great-grandparents talking about their great-grandparents & such), the wounds are too deep. It’s s shame though — who wouldn’t want to be friends with you?? :-D

      Reply

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