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Sand Creek massacre: When Will We Do More Than Just “Remember?”
by Anthony Settipani | PULP
Sand Creek Massacre by Howling Wolf
Howling Wolf was a Cheyenne Warrier-Artist (1849 – 1927) who witnessed and survived the Sand Creek Massacre (Nov. 29, 1864)
November is Native American Heritage Month in the United States. However, like many during this time of year, I have trouble turning my mind to the celebration of First Peoples culture and history without also feeling weighed down by the tragedy of all that was brought upon them. This year in particular, I’ve had trouble turning my thoughts to Thanksgiving without also thinking of Sand Creek.
A recruiment poster for “Indian Fighters” from Aug. 13, 1864.
All this happened just 150 miles east of here, under the oversight of U.S. Army Colonel John Milton Chivington, and with the tacit blessing and overt encouragement of Colorado’s then-governor John Evans. The story of Sand Creek is one that’s been told and retold many times in recent years, gradually granted acknowledgement via monuments, services, museums and speeches. If I had to pick one thing to be thankful for this November, it would be that this dark chapter of American history is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves. If I had one caveat to add, it would be that we still have a long way to go.
I’ve grown up in an America that is slowly – so, so slowly – coming to terms with the demons of its past. I went to college at Northwestern University in Chicago – a school founded by John Evans. Far from being reviled for the role he played in the Sand Creek Massacre, the name Evans is honored widely throughout my former campus.
The university resides in the township of Evanston – Chicago’s first North Shore suburb. We have John Evans honorary professorships, a John Evans Scholars program, and the John Evans Alumni Center – where my freshman dormitory held its annual formal.
Sand Creek Massacre Site today.
For years Northwestern has debated the merits of changing the names of some of these institutions, and for years, they have done little more than talk. To this day, all of these mementos of Evans’ legacy remain.
Contrast this with the University of Denver, another university founded by John Evans. Several years ago, DU held its own inquiry into Evans’ role in the massacre, and found him instrumental in creating the climate that contributed to Sand Creek. That same year, the report prompted then-governor John Hickenlooper to issue a formal apology to the descendants of Sand Creek: “This has been a day too long in coming,” Hickenlooper said on December 14, 2014. “On behalf of the State of Colorado, I want to apologize.”
He continued with an admonishment to the future: “We will not run from our history,” he said, “I will make sure this history continues to be told.” Progress like this gives me hope that events such as the Sand Creek Massacre will not be forgotten. But remembrance is only a first step.
I worked for a time at a newspaper based in Johannesburg, South Africa. While there, I wrote about a student protest that was going on at the University of Cape Town, challenging the honor being given to a man named Cecil John Rhodes: colonizer, noted racist and founder of the university. Students had protested the fact that Rhodes’ statue still stood at the main entrance to the university, in seeming mockery of all the students of color who would never have been allowed to attend in Rhodes’ day. In a matter of a few short weeks, the statue had been tried and found guilty, put in a box and removed by the school’s administration.
I wrote at the time about how shocking it was for me that an African university that I had never heard of before could take such quick and decisive action, accomplishing in a matter of weeks what my own “top ten” university in the U.S. is still only talking about years later. I learned a lot about my own biases, and the reality that words without action are about as empty as an old tin cup.
If we’re ever going to truly reconcile with the past, we need to face it head-on, approach it honestly, and enact change where change is due. America has been party to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and yes, the near-extermination of an entire race of people. Healing those wounds requires acknowledging those events as fact, and taking real steps to both honor those who died, and ensure that such atrocities never happen again. The names that perpetrated and facilitated those acts should be relegated to museums and textbooks where they can stand as a lesson to future generations. They should not be given places of honor and prominence in modern society.
I conclude with this: we are not culpable for the sins of the past. We are, however, deeply responsible for the actions of the present, and the stewardship of the future. In that at least, the way forward remains as cliche, but no less sincerely, as ever: treat people the way you wish to be treated. More importantly, treat them the way they wish to be treated. The future requires action, change, reevaluation, and progress. We are the ones who will build a world in which we wish to live, and with a little luck, we’ll build one that’s better than the one we came into. If we can just accomplish that, then that’s something worth being thankful for.