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150 Years since Sand Creek: The Limitations of Apology

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

A depiction of one scene at Sand Creek by witness Howling Wolf
A depiction of one scene at Sand Creek by witness Howling Wolf

Stuck them
on their hats to dry. 

Their fingers greasy and slick.

           —Simon Ortiz, from Sand Creek

A part of US Civil War history largely ignored, the Sand Creek Massacre, received national attention on its 150th anniversary when Colorado governor John Hickenlooper apologized for the atrocity that occurred on November 29, 1864.

On that date, John Chivington, an ambitious politician known as the “Fighting Parson,” led 700 members of the Third Colorado Volunteers in the grisly deed, attacking Cheyenne and Arapaho civilians who were restricted to a refugee camp near the military post of Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. Without provocation or warning, the Union army authorized militia attacked, leaving dead 105 women and children and 28 men. In its 1865 investigation, the Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War recorded testimonies and published a report that documented the aftermath of the killings, when Chivington and his volunteers burned tepees and stole horses. After the smoke had cleared, they had returned and finished off the few surviving casualties while scalping and mutilating the corpses—women and men, young and old, children, babies. Then they decorated their weapons and caps with body parts—fetuses, penises, breasts, and vulvas—and back in Denver they displayed these trophies to the adoring public in Denver’s Apollo Theater and in saloons. Yet, despite the detailed report of the deeds, neither Chivington nor any of his men were reprimanded or prosecuted, signaling a free field for killing.

The Sand Creek massacre was not an anomaly; massacres of unarmed civilians and destruction of their villages and food supplies had long been the policy of the genocidal wars carried out by militias and the US Army from the birth of the United States.

At the end of the Civil War, the US government declared total war against the Indigenous nations of the West, under the leadership of Civil War hero, General William Tecumseh Sherman. In adopting total war against civilians, Sherman brought in its most notorious avatar, George Armstrong Custer, who proved his mettle right away. On November 27, 1868, Custer led the 7th Cavalry against unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho survivors of the Sand Creek massacre at the Southern Cheyenne reservation on Washita Creek in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to which they had been moved. In the earlier massacre, the great Cheyenne leader and peacemaker Black Kettle had escaped death. When Black Kettle received word from Cheyenne spies within US army ranks that the 7th Cavalry was headed for the Washita reservation, he and his wife rode out at dawn in a snowstorm, unarmed, to attempt to talk with Custer and assure him that no resistant fighters were present on the reservation. Upon Black Kettle’s approach with a hoisted white flag, Custer ordered the soldiers to fire, and a moment later Black Kettle and his wife lay dead. Custer and his 7th Cavalry proceeded to the reservation and murdered over a hundred Cheyenne women and children, taking ghoulish trophies afterward.

So, it was a touching gesture for the Colorado governor to apologize, and the apology was received graciously by Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants. But Custer’s mopping up of the survivors four years later goes unheard. The massacre on the Washita remains listed in US Army annals as a victory in “the battle of the Washita.”

Apologies serve no purpose unless the full hundred year US war against the Indigenous inhabitants are reckoned with.


Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, at Memorial for Shulamith Firestone at St. Marks Church, NYC, Sunday, September 23, 2012Professor Dunbar-Ortiz has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades, and is author or editor of seven books including the recently published An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.