DENVER – It took 150 years for the state of Colorado to apologize to Native Americans for the unthinkable massacre of about 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho as they slept in present-day Kiowa County.
The Sand Creek Massacre long has been recognized as one of the darkest American acts of aggression on the Native American people. But until Wednesday, there long had long been a formal apology for the atrocity.
Gov. John Hickenlooper finally offered that bit of closure at a well-attended memorial outside the Capitol on a brisk, sunny fall day.
“We should not be afraid to criticize and condemn that which is inexcusable, so I am here to offer something that has been a long time coming,” said Hickenlooper, surrounded by Native Americans who wore traditional headdress and banged a large drum, as the smell of an incense stick wafted from the podium.
“On behalf of the good, peaceful, loving people of Colorado, I want to say we are sorry for the atrocity that our government and its agents visited upon your ancestors,” Hickenlooper said.
The memorial was buoyed by a Spiritual Healing Run organized by the Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission. The 180-mile run – in its 16th year – began Nov. 29 at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near Eads, and finished on the west steps of the Capitol.
“Today, as these runners complete their 16th Annual Sand Creek Spiritual Run, I want to assure you that we will not run from this history and that we will always work for peace and healing,” Hickenlooper said.
The Nov. 29, 1864, Sand Creek Massacre remains a black eye on the face of American civility and justice. In a strange twist of fate, hundreds of Denver East High School students walked past the memorial Wednesday during a march in solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. The crowd chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
Many at the Sand Creek memorial commented on the appropriate juxtaposition of the two events.
“We’re accustomed to white people lying to us,” said William Walksalong, a tribal administrator with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a descendant of victims of the Sand Creek Massacre.
“They broke so many promises; they broke every single treaty they made with Indian tribes. It’s just part of how we’ve been treated,” Walksalong said.
Several in the audience stood sobbing, trying to process how so many Native American women and children brutally were slaughtered, their brains carved out by hatchets; the bodies of toddlers used as target practice; women’s genitalia paraded in Denver as trophies.
About 700 of Colorado’s 1st and 3rd Cavalry – led by Col. John Chivington during the Civil War – staged a surprise attack against Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho on the banks of Sand Creek.
For descendants, the memorial and apology offers hope for improved relations.
“We’re grateful,” Walksalong said. “Even though it comes real slow, these apologies and acknowledgments of the atrocities, it has its time in the course of history – the natural flow.
“It takes all of us working together to develop a measure of respect for each other,” he said.
Lawmakers said the fight is not over. Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, announced plans Wednesday to carry a measure in the upcoming legislative session that would require public schools to seek permission from a panel of Native Americans if they want to use Native American nicknames, logos or mascots.
“We can say we feel bad about what happened 150 years ago, but our words are empty if they are only words,” Salazar said. “We can show we are committed to the American Indian community by taking concrete action to help the descendants of the people who were massacred and the people whose lands were stolen.”