The initial judgment was that the Cheyenne and Arapaho people had it coming. It wasn't a massacre but a "battle." There weren't victims, only "savages." And the butchers were heroes.That was the view of the Rocky Mountain News in 1864, shortly after Col. John Chivington led 700 members of the Colorado milita in the unprovoked slaughter of 160 Native Americans camped on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado.
The feat of "warfare" involved the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans, many of them elderly, women and children, who'd been told they would be safe encamped on this spot. Even when the Indians unfurled the American flag and the white flag of surrender, the militia men continued the killing.
"If there were any savages that day, it was not the Indian people," said former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, the Associated Press reported.
On Saturday, Campbell was among those who gathered to dedicate the newly opened Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. That is fitting, as Campbell sponsored legislation that led to the official site's formation.
The wonder is that it took so long. Even in the 1860s - before Colorado attained statehood - the attack at Sand Creek was recognized as a massacre. Congress launched an inquiry and later condemned Chivington. President Lincoln fired territorial Gov. John Evans, who sanctioned the massacre.
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But many Coloradans were loath to accept what really happened. Capt. David Nichols, who was instrumental in founding the University of Colorado at Boulder, joined Chivington at Sand Creek, yet Nichols' name was memorialized on a doritory until 1989. (The dorm is now called Cheyenne Arapaho Hall.)
At the state Capitol, a Civil War memorial listed Sand Creek as one of several "battles." A corrective plaque was not added until 2002. In Longmont, the name of Chivington Drive was changed to Sunset Drive in 2004, at the urging of local activists. Still, one of Colorado's mighty fourteeners retains the name of Evans.
Confronting our past doesn't require the scouring of all references to monsters and their supporters. But it should include an open, unvarnished acknowledgement of what happened. The Sand Creek historic site will make that statement. And though late, it is critical.
Clint Talbott, for the editorial board.
© 2006 Daily Camera and Boulder Publishing, LLC.