EADS – The site sits hundreds of miles from any major city. There are no statues to admire, no gift shops to buy postcards, and no cheery activities for the kids. To get there, one must drive through hours of farm and dirt roads amid potholes and sometimes ice patches in winter littering the journey like land mines.
And when you arrive at the Sand Creek Massacre site, you’ll find open plains and a few markers. The rest is up to you.
This quiet piece of land tucked away in rural southeastern Colorado seeks to honor the 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe members who were slaughtered by the U.S. Army. It was one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history.
My wife’s grandma, Sally, said I shouldn’t visit unless I’m ready to meet ghosts. She meant it not to scare, but as a warning: The ghosts will have something to say, and if you want to venture out there, you need to listen.
On Nov. 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington led around 700 U.S. volunteer soldiers to a village of nearly 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped along the banks of Big Sandy Creek. The Ohio-born Chivington had earned praise two years before by helping Hispanic Union soldiers in New Mexico beat back a Confederate supply train in the Battle of Glorieta Pass during the Civil War.
But on that November day, he ordered his men to attack and kill mainly women, children and elderly at the camp. The village under the care of Chiefs Black Kettle and Left Hand had believed they were under the protection of the U.S. Army and even approached the unit with white flags.
For two days, the troops shot and hunted fleeing women and children about a 35-square-mile region. Troops then cut off the body parts of those killed and kept human remains as trophies.
An Army judge would later call the unprovoked attack amid tensions with white land speculators and Native Americans “a cowardly cold-blooded slaughter” and Territorial Gov. John Evans would be forced to resign. Chivington never faced a trial for his actions.
Like most massacres against people of color in the U.S., the event was passed down by victims to family members, but the atrocities faded from the memory of the nation’s narrative. Instead, it appeared in school books as a victory for Colorado “settlers” despite the slaughter being the equivalent of the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War during its time.
Today, the reflective Sand Creek Massacre site has become a place where indigenous people from across the U.S., Latin America and New Zealand come to pray for indigenous populations affected by genocide. And it serves as a model for advocates seeking to turn historic sites connected to racial violence against people of color – from the 1921 slaughter of African Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the mass murder of Mexican Americans in Porvenir, Texas – into places of remembrance.
A trail leading to a top of Monument Hill allows visitors to peek below toward where the village once stood. Most of those killed didn’t die in the village; they were slaughtered by running in various directions. Today, its an open and quiet field.
“This is a crime scene,” Jeff C. Campbell, a volunteer ranger at the site, told me during my recent visit. “And it should be treated as such. But it’s also a place that represents something else to some people.”
In 2007, the National Park Service established the location as a national historic site to “protect the cultural landscape of the massacre, enhance public understanding and minimize similar incidents in the future.” The agency says it’s the only national historic site with the word “massacre” in its title.
Some people of color in the U.S. believe there should be more.
Walking on the premises, I was reminded what civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson said in the HBO documentary “True Justice.” As a lawyer in Montgomery, Alabama, he used to walk along the Alabama River outside of downtown and hear the cries of slaves from previous generations, asking the living not to forget them.
I’ve heard a similar sound when the late civil rights leader Benny Martinez took me to a tree in Goliad, Texas, where mobs once lynched Mexican Americans. I heard it again when I visited the remains of the Amache Japanese American Relocation Center in Granada, Colorado – the site of the former World War II-era Japanese American internment camp. I recognized the cries when I was taken to the site of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
For me, coming to the Sand Creek Massacre site is not part of the dark tourism movement – visiting places connected to human tragedy just for the thrill of it. It’s part of what some scholars call “memory work,” where one engages with the past to revise accounts of history.
The raw wind whiffed as I stood alone on Sand Creek Massacre’s Monument Hill. I closed my eyes and tried to listen to the words that history hasn’t said.
Russell Contreras is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/russcontreras