While joy and holiday merriment may define November and December for many, the season is accompanied by the anniversaries of several massacres against Native peoples and a spirit of somber remembrance for the Indigenous victims of violence at the hands of the US Government.
In Colorado, November 29th marked 157 years since the Sand Creek Massacre and a chance to reflect on the injustices, past and present, faced by Native communities.
Violence and discrimination against Indigenous people in Colorado territory had heightened in the months leading up to the 1864 massacre after then-territorial Governor John Evans made two proclamations calling for the forced relocation of tribes and the killing of any Indigenous person deemed “hostile” by settlers.
After moving to the land area designated by treaties, a camp of 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho people was attacked by Col. John Chivington and the Third Colorado Cavalry. The Cavalry killed hundreds in the encampment - primarily elders, women, and children - and committed countless other atrocities during the massacre.
In the days that followed, the troops responsible for the mass murder rode through the streets of Denver carrying body parts and stolen items, which were then displayed for years in Denver's City Hall. The loss of life at Sand Creek- including the killings of 13 Cheyenne chiefs, one Arapaho chief, and four Arapaho headmen - disrupted the passage of traditional knowledge and had a significant impact on Cheyenne and Arapaho cultural lifeways and social structures.
Pictured: A sign at the site of the Sand Creek Massacre in southeast Colorado. Photo credits to Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline.
Just as November brought forth reminders of the ongoing legacy of violence against Native peoples, the month of December also carries an obligation to reflect on the brutal history of massacres carried out by the federal government in Indigenous communities.
On December 26th, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota - the largest mass execution in US History. The hangings were carried out in the aftermath of the US Dakota War of 1862. The conflict, which was precipitated by increased restriction of Dakota lands and the failure of the US Government to provide promised rations to the Dakota, had broken out following heightened violent interactions between Native people and white settlers across Minnesota. As casualties mounted on both sides and the 37-day war came to a close, 2,000 Dakota were taken into custody by U.S. Colonel Henry H. Sibley.
Trials for the captured Dakota were carried out by a US military commission over just 42 days from September to November 1862. 303 Dakota men were sentenced to death. Though President Lincoln commuted the death sentences of 265 warriors, stating “I could not afford to hang men for votes,” he ultimately approved of and ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men convicted by the commission.
Historians and legal experts have since criticized the military tribunals, citing language barriers, lack of access to defense counsel, and biased decision-making as factors which decreased the legitimacy of the proceedings. Two of the 38 individuals killed are now understood to have been executed by mistake. Two additional Dakota leaders were executed by federal order in 1865 for their roles in the US Dakota War; they are now remembered alongside the men hanged in 1862 as the Dakota 38 + 2.
Pictured: An 1884 painting by J. Thullen depicting the execution of the Dakota 38 in Mankato, Minnesota. Image credits to the Minnesota Historical Society and MPR News
December also calls to mind the painful legacy of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Amid the Ghost Dance movement, broken treaties, and the assassination of Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull by Indian Agency Police, Chief Spotted Elk and his band of Mniconjou Lakota sought refuge on the Pine Ridge Reservation in late December, 1890. The group were eventually intercepted and escorted by US Army troops to camp at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28th.
The next day, the Seventh Cavalry began to confiscate weapons from Spotted Elk’s band, and a gun was suddenly discharged. Soldiers then opened fire on the camp. Several soldiers fired Hotchkiss guns indiscriminately on the encampment; others chased and hunted down Lakota women and children fleeing the scene. At least 300 Lakota men, women, and children were killed during the massacre, including Spotted Elk. 20 of the US soldiers involved were awarded the Medal of Honor for their roles in the killing. The medals have yet to be revoked by the federal government to this day.
We spoke to an elder from the Wounded Knee community this week about the 1890 massacre and its lasting impact. “My ancestors couldn’t comprehend it…I still can’t,” he said of the violence. His great-great grandfather was wounded during the massacre but survived after taking refuge in a nearby canyon.
“The massacre itself has a generational trauma effect, which I saw in my elders before they passed on.” He explained that the mass killing at Wounded Knee sowed discord in the community and led to the near destruction of the Lakota language. He also expressed that the massacre contributed to the boarding school system, with authorities employing tactics of abuse and assimilation against Indigenous children in an effort to destroy the possibility of future resistance. But amidst this traumatic legacy, the elder emphasized prayer and the hope for the future he sees in the children of the community. He asked that people remember the children in their prayers on December 29th, the 131st anniversary of the massacre.
Above all, he wants to ensure that Wounded Knee 1890 is never forgotten:
“Remember Cankpe Opi Wakpala 1890.”
Above: An excerpt from Tom Hollow Horn's talk on the history of Wounded Knee, originally streamed on the Tipi Raisers Facebook page in summer 2020
Additional resources on the Sand Creek Massacre, the Dakota 38 +2, and the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee listed below.
On the Sand Creek Massacre:
"THIS DAY IN HISTORY: November 29, 1864 – 230 Cheyenne & Arapaho Massacred at Sand Creek" from Native News Online:
Resources from the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation: https://www.sandcreekmassacrefoundation.org/history
"Colorado Experience: Sand Creek Massacre," a one-hour documentary from PBS on the history of Evans' proclamations and the Sand Creek Massacre, available to watch for free at the following link:
On the execution of the Dakota 38 + 2:
"The Traumatic True History and Name List of the Dakota 38" from Indian Country Today:
Resources on the US-Dakota War from the Minnesota Historical Society: https://www.usdakotawar.org/
"Largest Mass Execution in US History: 150 Years Ago Today" from The Nation:
On the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890:
"Wounded Knee: Healing the Wounds of the Past" from Indian Country Today:
"Black Elk Speaks" by John G. Neihardt. Black Elk's firsthand account of the massacre begins on page 174 of the PDF:
"State senate urges inquiry into Wounded Knee Medals of Honor" from the Associated Press:
Sources for this blog post include: Coverage of these topics from Indian Country Today, Native News Online, CPR News, Smithsonian Magazine, the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation, The Nation, the Associated Press, the National Park Service, the US National Library of Medicine, National Geographic, and an interview with an elder from the Wounded Knee community on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
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