Three hours from Denver, in the bleak, scrubby flatlands of eastern Colorado, is the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Here, in November 1864, a volunteer militia commanded by Col. John Chivington descended on a winter camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. Some said 70 died; others more than twice that number. No one took the trouble to do a body count. It’s now conventional to refer to slavery as America’s original sin; Sand Creek is a reminder that there were two. Left unsaid is how closely the two were intertwined.
Many of the mass killings during the Indian Wars are now memorialized in National Battlefields, National Historic Sites, and National Monuments. The way in which they are recorded and interpreted is an attempt to express some rough national consensus about their meaning, something only the federal government can ultimately hope to articulate. It will no doubt happen one day with monuments to the Confederacy and slavery, even if it takes more decades of bitter rancor and sporadic violence.
Sometimes the consensus over the Indian Wars has been near-impossible to reach, even a century and half later. When the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument was created 20 years ago, there was furious opposition to the idea that it should honor the Indian dead as well as the 263 cavalrymen who died under Gen. George Armstrong Custer. In the end, there was an awkward compromise: in addition to the rows of American tombstones, a skeletal sculpture of three Indian warriors on horseback. Yet the Sioux and Cheyenne still bitterly resent the very name of the monument. Was it the Battle of the Little Bighorn or, as they call it, the Battle of the Greasy Grass?
At Sand Creek, there is no such dispute. The visitor center makes no attempt to say that there were “very fine people on both sides.” Sand Creek was the My Lai of the Plains Wars. The chief of the defenseless camp was friendly to the whites. Chivington was a fanatical preacher and a murderous psychopath. The brutality was extreme. Chivington’s men, many of whom were falling-off-their-horses drunk, excised the genitals of Arapaho women and displayed them later on the stage of a Denver theater to wild applause.
Yet less than ten miles away from the battlefield on Route 96 is a small, unincorporated community, largely abandoned but with a few modern homes and doublewide trailers. The town has never changed its name, which is Chivington.
In other words, no matter how unequivocal the verdict of the federal government on Sand Creek, the memory of Colorado itself is another matter. While our attention has been riveted on the states of the Old South, Colorado too has been caught up in the turmoil over Confederate monuments because it has six of them, including two on public land. Governor John Hickenlooper has promised to “continue the conversation” about what should be done about them. More surprising, however, is the debate that has simmered for several years now in Colorado over a monument that shows how intimately the Civil War and the Indian Wars were connected.