November 29 marked the 150th anniversary of one of the most violent episodes in American history—a massacre of Native Americans so horrific that it prompted two Congressional investigations; forced the resignation of two leaders—Colonel John M. Chivington and the governor of Colorado Territory, John Evans—and launched years of battle with the Plains Indians following the Civil War.
The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 was the topic of a November presentation by Ned Blackhawk at the Radcliffe Institute, held in partnership with the Harvard University Native American Program. Blackhawk, a Western Shoshone, is a professor of history, American studies, and ethnicity, race, and migration at Yale University, where he is also faculty coordinator of the Yale Group for the Study of Native America.
In his introduction of Blackhawk, Daniel Carpenter, the director of the social sciences program in Radcliffe’s Academic Ventures and the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said, “A university is a conversation—a highly bureaucratized conversation, to be sure—but a vital dialogue nonetheless. And it is vital to the future of Harvard—and in deep consistency with Harvard’s Native past—that the voice of Native American and indigenous people be amplified and strengthened.”
On the morning of the Sand Creek Massacre, Chief Black Kettle—considered the leading peace chief of his day—was camped in an isolated area of southeastern Colorado Territory with about 700 Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians. The residents that morning were mainly women and children and older men. The young men were off hunting buffalo, the main source of food for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and the Sand Creek area had none.
Colonel Chivington, a bloodthirsty Methodist minister—“the mad preacher,” the writer Larry McMurtry calls him—approached Black Kettle’s camp, ignoring the flags that waved from the chief’s tipi. Black Kettle had hoisted a United States flag that a former commissioner of Indian Affairs had given him; it flew above a white flag of peace that he had been told would alert the soldiers that his camp was peaceful.
Another respected Cheyenne chief, White Antelope, had, like Black Kettle, trusted the US soldiers and convinced his people to do so. When he saw the troops shooting at the Indians, he folded his arms across his chest and began singing the death song—Nothing lives long/Only the earth and the mountains. Nothing lives long/Only the earth and the mountains. He was among the first of 163 to die.
The killing went on for eight hours. Some of the dead were scalped several times, and all of the Indians’ bodies were horribly mutilated. Mercifully, one captain under Chivington, Silas Soule, ordered his men not to fire on the helpless Cheyenne and Arapaho. Soule later told about a soldier who chopped off the arm of an Indian woman as she raised it in self-defense and then held her by her remaining arm and beat out her brains.
Following the massacre, Chivington led his troops in a grisly parade through Denver, where the soldiers brandished Cheyenne scalps and other war trophies.
But the jubilation didn’t last long. The residents of Colorado Territory soon realized that Chivington had put them at greater risk than ever. Their governor, John Evans, was called before Congressional committees and interrogated, and soon both Chivington and Evans were forced to resign their positions.
The horror of the Sand Creek Massacre has never disappeared—it persists today as a symbol of the white man’s violence against Native Americans.
In 2013, with the 150th anniversary approaching, Northwestern University decided to investigate John Evans’s role in the massacre, appointing four senior scholars from within the university and four from outside—including Blackhawk—to a study committee.
In his talk at Radcliffe, Blackhawk described the committee’s exploration of Evans’s actions. A resident of Chicago for many years before President Lincoln appointed him governor of Colorado Territory, Evans helped to establish Northwestern; and the town of Evanston, where the university is located, was named for him.
Although Evans didn’t give approval for the attack at Sand Creek and was out of the territory when it occurred, he never apologized for the atrocity or took responsibility for it. One of the Congressional committees that investigated the massacre said Evans’s appearance before them “was characterized by such prevarication and shuffling as has been shown by no witness” they had seen in their four years of investigation.
The Northwestern report criticizes Evans for "a deep moral failure," saying "his response to the Sand Creek Massacre was reprehensibly obtuse and self-interested." The report also criticizes Northwestern for ignoring Sand Creek. “For a long stretch, the university participated in and perpetuated a collective amnesia that not just disconnected John Evans from the massacre but erased it entirely. No one at Northwestern seemed to notice or record Evans’s refusal to condemn the massacre and the shameful way he minimized and justified it.”
Blackhawk’s aim is to call attention to what happened at Sand Creek. “The ‘genocide by attrition’ of Colorado’s Cheyenne and Arapahoe communities remains poorly recognized and commemorated within regional and national spheres,” he said, “a gross negligence of intellectual, historical, and moral proportions.”
Miraculously, the peace chief Black Kettle and his wife survived the attack at Sand Creek. She was severely wounded, but Black Kettle rescued her and the two escaped.
Still believing that peace was possible, Black Kettle led the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a reservation in present-day Oklahoma, along the Washita River. Almost four years to the day after Sand Creek—on November 27, 1868—Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry attacked Black Kettle’s camp. This time the soldiers shot the peace chief and his wife in the back as they tried to flee on horseback. There’s no reliable estimate of the number of Indians and soldiers who died that day, but Custer’s army is known to have destroyed almost 700 ponies and horses.
Eight years later, when 10,000 Cheyenne and Arapahoe and Sioux were camped along the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory, the Native Americans took their revenge. They killed General Custer and five of the 12 companies of the Seventh Cavalry, a shock to the nation that McMurtry compares to 9/11. How could that have happened? He believes Custer’s defeat marked the beginning of the end of Native culture. The Indians were now prisoners, where they had once roamed free. Fortunately, it also marked the beginning of the end of the Indian Wars.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the entire Seventh Cavalry was killed during the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.