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Colorado’s Unhealed Wound: Cheyenne and Arapaho seek repatriation and greater recognition for 1864’s Sand Creek Massacre

Over 150 years removed from the Sand Creek Massacre, the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed by police, is giving Cheyenne and the Arapaho in Colorado an opportunity to finally see the removal of ceremonial names of Colorado landmarks associated with the tragic events of that fateful November day.

“What happened in Minnesota [the death of George Floyd] kind of opened everything up, in terms of reconsidering the names of places” said Fred Mosqueda Arapaho coordinator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Culture Program. “I hate to see it come about from something as bad as that, but at the same time we have been working for many years to get these names changed.”

On November 29th, 1864, the chill of an autumn dawn had just settled over the flatlands surrounding Big Sandy Creek, east of modern-day Eads, Colorado, when the first sounds of gunfire reached the Cheyenne and Arapaho peace camp settled there.

Over the course of the next day, 675 soldiers of the Third Colorado Cavalry, under the direct command of Colonel John Chivington, would murder and mutilate at least 150 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho citizens living peacefully within the camp’s confines. Most of the victims were unarmed children, women and elders.

Thirteen chiefs of the Cheyennes’ Council of Forty-Four were lost that day, but that was only the beginning of the tragedy for the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples. Even today, nearly 156 years later, the descendants of those lost at Sand Creek continue to mourn their dead as deeply as ever.

“Imagine if 50% of the United States’ Senate was immediately killed,” says Shannon Voirol of History Colorado, “that’s the kind of leadership loss we’re talking about [at Sand Creek].”

“As I was growing up, there would be times that the elders would get together to mourn, and some of them would cry,” says Mosqueda, the Arapaho coordinator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Culture Program, “but the others would say to leave them be, and to not talk about it.

“For a long time, the Arapahos were basically hiding what happened to them at Sand Creek, because they were afraid that soldiers might still come,” said Mosqueda.

The Cheyenne have been similarly impacted.

“Soldiers used men and womens’ body parts as trophies after Sand Creek, and that was a part of the atrocity that the United States government had inflicted on our people,” says Chester Whiteman, the Cheyenne representative for the CACP. “So we still have what you might call ‘generational trauma’ today.”

Repatriating Sand Creek

The Cheyenne and Arapaho have been fighting to draw attention to this fact has been the fight for repatriation, and the Sand Creek National Historic Site is among the foremost battlegrounds on that front.

Little can be done to make up for the Sand Creek Massacre, and there is still less that can be done to change the lasting impact it has had on the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples.

Following the massacre, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho nations agreed to several treaties that spoke for the lands they occupied, beginning with the short-lived Little Arkansas Treaty of 1865, which was overturned less than two years later when the Medicine Lodge Treaty reduced tribal lands by over 50%.

Since then, the Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation has been the subject of several reductions and settlements, and today represents only a fraction of both nations’ original lands.

The Cheyenne and the Arapaho continue to recognize the site of the Sand Creek massacre as part of their tribal lands, despite the fact that the area is now a national park that sits north of an unincorporated community called Chivington, named after the colonel in charge of the massage.

“The people of Colorado need to realize that the Arapahos still feel an attachment to that area,” says Mosqueda. “We still feel as though our homeland is in Colorado.”

So far, the longest struggle the Cheyennes and Arapahos have faced has been to place a monument at Sand Creek, as a way of commemorating the people and remains lost from the massacre.

“Since 2006,” said Whiteman, “we’ve been trying to get a monument put up at the actual massacre site of all the names of the victims according to our War Department.”

“The monument is a marker for a tragedy that happened to us without cause,” continued Whiteman. “It needs to be put in the ground there, where it belongs.”

The monument is now finally being engraved after fourteen years of bouncing around the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal government due to a lack of funding, and will bear the names of all those lost at Sand Creek. The finished product will be displayed throughout the casinos of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Nation beforehand so that its people can admire and add the names of family members to it.

The monument, when completed, will be placed at the current Sand Creek Massacre site managed by the National Park Service in Kiowa County, where several remains of Cheyenne and Arapaho are buried already exist at the site, and is likely where the monument would go once approved.

“This monument has been a long time coming,” said Mosqueda, “but we’re gonna get it done this year, so we’re really happy about that.”

Plans for the future

Several items are on the agenda of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, including various renaming efforts and commemorative monument projects.

Among plans for the future is the genealogical mapping of the ancestral survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, a monument dedicated to Snake Woman, who also survived Sand Creek, and even discussions about changing the name of Mount Evans in Colorado, which is named for the governor of Colorado that instigated the Sand Creek Massacre.

In July of this year, Governor Jared Polis created the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board, which will rule on renaming various controversial locations throughout the state, including Mount Evans, Redskin Mountain and Squaw Mountain.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho, who have sought the renaming of Mount Evans to “Mount Blue Sky” for several years now, are pleased with recent progress on renaming such problematic locations.

Several advocacy groups have also been vocal about the renaming of Mount Evans.

Paul Spitler, the director of Wilderness Policy at the Wilderness Society, says his team has committed to identifying various locations on public lands with inappropriate or offensive names, and that Mount Evans is a major candidate on that list.

“Mount Evans is named after the former Colorado territorial governor John Evans, who facilitated the Sand Creek Massacre,” said Spitler. “That was one of the most atrocious massacres in American history, and to have a mountain and a wilderness area named after someone who committed such a horrible atrocity is both inappropriate and offensive.”\

According to Spitler, the Wilderness Society has worked closely with the Cheyenne and Arapaho to garner support for changing the name of Mount Evans, and is now seeking federal legislation to change the name as well.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho Culture Program has also been involved with the development of a new exhibit about the Sand Creek Massacre with History Colorado that will premiere in the fall of 2022.

The reason for the prolonged opening date, according to History Colorado’s staff, is largely a result of the challenges brought along with exhibiting such a sensitive event.

“It’s hard to work on this exhibit,” said Shannon Voirol of History Colorado. “You have to wrestle with ‘how can humans do this to each other?’”

Voirol and History Colorado also want to make sure that the Cheyenne and Arapaho get to tell their story in their own words, and that by its completion they hope the nations can take pride and feel a sense of ownership in the exhibit.

“We’re just facilitators, so we take the backseat and let them tell the story and what is important about it,” said Voirol.

“For them, it’s incredibly important that folks know this was a massacre, not a battle,” continued Voirol. “Before the massacre, the tribes had a good life—they were civilized, and they were not ‘savages.’”

Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho hope to communicate the same message they tried to communicate even before that morning in 1864, when they flew a white flag over their Sand Creek encampment: that they are peaceful, and that they have a right to be here.