posted by Amy on Jun 23
On Friday, June 20, 2014 I participated in a pilgrimage conducted by the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Early that morning I and approximately 700 other United Methodists loaded into buses in Pueblo, Colorado and made the journey to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site outside of Eads, Colorado. We went at the invitation of descendants of the people who were attacked without warning before dawn on November 29, 1864. The descendants all know that the Methodist Episcopal Church (predecessor to the United Methodist Church) had an especially significant, and especially shameful, role both in the massacre itself and in the social and historical context out of which the atrocity arose. Most Methodists don’t.
John Evans, the second territorial governor for Colorado, was a Methodist. He believed the “Indian problem” needed a final solution not unlike Hitler’s “Final Solution” for Jews. John Chivington, the leader of the attack, was a Methodist minister. He was the Presiding Elder for the fledgling Methodist congregations that were founded almost simultaneously with the gold rush into the Colorado area that began in 1858. Chivington and Evans were among the first trustees of “First Methodist Episcopal Church of Denver,” which was organized on July 22, 1863. By 1888, this congregation became known as Trinity United Methodist Church, and is still in existence. Chivington was politically ambitious, and he held Indians in extreme contempt. He wanted a brilliant military victory so he could become a general and then a United States Senator. When ordering his troops to kill and scalp everyone in the encampment on Sand Creek, he famously said, “Nits make lice.”
Our bishop, Elaine Stanovsky, has been working diligently since her appointment in 2009 to educate herself and others about Sand Creek. She began blogging about the pilgrimage on January 15, 2014. Here from her first post is her succinct, brutally honest framing of the issues:
The 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre falls in 2014. On November 29, 1864 Methodist leaders, committed to living in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ, wielding government and military power, planned and led the slaughter of nearly 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people peacefully encamped where they were promised they would be safe. Many of the victims were women, children and the elderly. For some descendants of the massacre the word “Methodist” means only massacre of innocents. This year we have an opportunity to change that and to enter into a relationship of honor and respect with people who know us only as the source of their scars.
This is a history of atrocity; a history that has been hotly debated for 150 years, despite definitive findings by congressional and military investigations; a history that has been largely untaught in our schools, lost from the consciousness of the church, and distorted in its telling. It is a history in which respected Christian leaders failed utterly to uphold God’s love for creation and Jesus’ promise of abundant life. It is a history that casts a long shadow of doubt that people who bear the name “Christian” or “Methodist” can be trusted to cherish and protect life at all.
[You can find the blog at http://www.mountainskyumc.org/sand-creek-massacre-journey/previous/2. For some reason my software is no longer allowing me to create links to URLs, but I highly recommend that you visit.]
I prepared for the trip by reading three books recommended by Bishop Elaine. My bachelor’s degree is in history, and I welcomed the opportunity to delve deeply into the history of the massacre itself, the lives of some of the key witnesses (especially George Bent, one of four children of William Bent, a white man, and Owl Woman, a daughter of The Cheyenne Keeper of the Sacred Arrows), and the “back story” behind the 2008 establishment of the National Park Service Historic Site. A large percentage of the time allotted to Annual Conference was devoted to educating the attendees about all of this context. A movie about the massacre was shown on each of the thirteen buses that traveled from Pueblo to Eads. Each bus was accompanied by either a Cheyenne or Arapaho person or a historian whose role was to teach and to answer questions. We also watched a National Park Service video at the movie theater in Eads, and had an opportunity to talk to a Park Service representative.
Until last week I had never made the connection between the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Both were caused by the relentless westward expansion of white settlers. The Civil War arose from arguments about whether or not new territories would allow slavery. Chivington was a hero of the battle of Glorietta Pass, where the Union Army stopped the advance of the Confederate army. Sand Creek is listed on a Civil War monument that was erected in 1909 on the grounds of the Colorado State Capitol. The 1950s-era historical marker at the site of the massacre describes it as a “battle.” As the Civil War ended, the U.S. Army was able to dedicate more military resources to protecting wagon trains and white settlements, and to attacking Indians. Sand Creek was the most famous atrocity, but by no means the only one. Four years later, George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry attacked a Cheyenne encampment at Washita, killing Black Elk, one of the few “peace chiefs” who survived the Sand Creek Massacre. At every step of this slow-motion genocide, Methodists played significant roles.
The buses took pilgrims to the site in three groups. It was quite hot by the time I got off my bus. Pastors were available to impose ashes on anyone who wanted them, on forehead or hand, as we do on Ash Wednesday, but in the shape of a circle rather than a cross. We also each received a “prayer card” to use as an aid to contemplation or prayer. Each prayer card was different, and we were invited to trade them with other pilgrims. I got a smudge of ashes on my forehead and the first of several prayer cards.
In the heat and wind I walked out to the end of the trail, stopping frequently to look and listen. The large leaves of cottonwood trees blowing in the stiff breeze rattled together loudly. Although it seemed barren and desolate at first, the land actually teemed with life. Little lizards darted across the path, sometimes getting confused about which way they should go to escape all the tramping feet. Birds called from the scrubby brush on either side of the path. Cacti sported large yellow blooms. Dry-looking grass, almost the same color as the sandy soil, grew in clumps all around. Cottonwoods marked the dry creek beds, where their deep roots found underground springs. Since I had done so much background reading, I didn’t need to spend much time with the informational markers along the trail. Several times I swapped prayer cards with other people. When I got to the end of the trail, after standing awhile in silence, I began chanting “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One have mercy upon us.” Tears rolled down my cheeks as I chanted, and the hot wind dried them. The guide on our bus had told us that her Arapaho spirits don’t speak English, and four octogenarians are the only fluent speakers living on the Southern Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma. I thought, “The spirits don’t speak English, but surely they understand tears, and ‘sighs too deep for words.’” I fervently hoped that they did.
At dinner that night the descendants were asked to reflect on the day. They thanked us for what we had done. They said it helped them. They said it gave them hope. Some said they had found peace. Some said they felt that healing could now begin. I was incredibly moved by their graciousness, gentleness, sincerity, and dignity. Tears kept welling up in my eyes.
There is no way to make amends for the Sand Creek Massacre. It happened because white settlers invaded Indian lands, killed or drove off the buffalo, put up fences, and murdered Indians. Some died quickly by shooting and infectious diseases. Others died more slowly from starvation, whiskey, poverty, and cultural genocide. It was by no means a one-way street. Indians raided, killed, scalped, and terrorized whites. But they were defending their homeland and their way of life. Before white people started taking over land and other resources, relations between the whites and the Cheyenne/Arapaho people had been fairly peaceful. And, of course, the whites had, as Jared Diamond puts it, “guns, germs and steel,” as well as a lot more people.
I, a white person, was born in Denver less than 100 years after the massacre. I went to public schools that taught about “Manifest Destiny” without interrogating its racist, genocidal foundations and its roots in the Catholic Church’s “discovery doctrine,” which unilaterally declared it lawful for Europeans to steal any land not already occupied by “civilized” people, and to slaughter or enslave any “savages.” Cowboy and Indian movies perpetuated the stereotypes of stupid, savage, murderous Indians and their brave, innocent white victims. Nobody told the Indians’ side of the story.
We can’t forge a new path forward without knowing where we’ve been. The descendants were not seeking apologies, and they emphasized that they were not seeking to assign blame or make us ashamed. But they wanted us to know their story. They also wanted us to know that, despite the best efforts of our white ancestors, they survived and they are still here. They spoke of their strength and resilience as a people. They seek recognition as people of equal dignity, people of sacred worth. They want sovereignty. I want that for them too, and I agree that they deserve it.
But they’ve lost so much. I’m especially sorrowful about the impending extinction of the Arapaho language. Language is not just a “tube for communication.” It carries lifeways and culture. It would be tragic to lose the knowledge, wisdom, and goodness embedded in Native ways of life and perspectives on what’s really real and what really matters.
No culture is all good or all bad, and all cultures adapt to specific circumstances and contexts. But we heirs of the European/Enlightenment project of conquering and transforming Creation, treating it as a lifeless machine, have much to learn from peoples who believe that everything the Creator made is alive. As Moses said to the Israelites before they crossed into the Promised Land, “Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut 30:19) Our Indian brothers and sisters can help us choose life, for humans, for other creatures, and for the Earth herself. I pray that we put aside our hubris, cure our amnesia, and decide, finally, to choose life.