Legacy of the Sand Creek Massacre

On the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, 700 peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahos gathered in their tipis on the bend of Sand Creek. Legendary peace chief Black Kettle believed he was leading his people into safety under the protection of the US Army, but instead found his home the site of one of the most atrocious massacres in the history of the West.

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The survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre spent years fighting a last stand for their traditional way of life before settling on reservations – none of them in Colorado. The Northern Cheyenne reservation is in Montana, the Northern Arapaho in Wyoming and a shared Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation is in Oklahoma. Colorado has remained in their hearts, with Sand Creek taking on a sacred significance. But it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the U.S. government acknowledged the significance of the massacre by authorizing the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site – a recognition that came thanks to years of hard work by tribal members, the Colorado Historical Society and the National Park Service. The historic site officially opened in 2007.

“I think by locating these spaces and having actual places to go and pay homage to people who died there, for us it’s going to bring closure to a lot of tribal pain that we are presently experiencing,” said Northern Arapaho Gail Ridgely.

The annual Sand Creek Spiritual Healing run is one of the ways the tribes seek closure. Begun by Northern Cheyenne Lee Lonebear in 1999, the healing run starts at the massacre site, where spiritual leaders perform the cloth ceremony to remove the negative spirits that have haunted the land for nearly 150 years. The tribal members then set out on a 180-mile relay run to Denver, cleansing the path taken by Chivington’s men. The finishing point is the State Capitol. “We do this run to honor and commemorate the bloody trail of our ancestors, whose bodies were taken to the streets of Denver and paraded as trophies,” said Northern Cheyenne Steve Brady.

The healing run also is an opportunity to teach their young people about the old ways, and to ensure that Sand Creek is never forgotten. It has become Thanksgiving weekend tradition, and non-tribal members have been invited to join in recent years. Leaders of the Methodist Church now participate – atoning for the sins of the Methodist preacher, Chivington – and have donated $125,000 to fund a Sand Creek research center.

The return to Sand Creek is a way to reunite the tribes, drawing them back to Colorado, Ridgely said. “When our elderly people go to Sand Creek, when they cross the Wyoming-Colorado border and go into the Poudre Valley, they say thanks – we’re home again.”

(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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