On May 22, 2015, the Conflict Resolution Institute partnered with DU’s Center on Rights Development (CORD) and John Evans Committee to host the Symposium on Sand Creek Massacre: Acknowledgement and Repair. The day-long symposium hosted notable influential community leaders such as Methodist Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, Governor’s representative Ernest House, and University of Denver Chancellor Rebecca Chopp as well as descendants from the Northern and Southern Arapahoe and Northern and Southern Cheyenne tribes. They discussed the findings from the DU John Evans Study Committee Report on the Sand Creek Massacre, as well as public recognition and acknowledgement, land ownership and allocation of resources, and future possibilities for repair and healing with the Native American community.
The Sand Creek Massacre occurred on the morning of November 29, 1864. Near Eads, Colorado when U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington led a 700-man battalion into the area of Sand Creek and destroyed peaceful Arapahoe and Cheyenne villages, leaving over 100 Native Americans killed and mutilated, many of whom were women and children. The villages had been given protection from a peace parley signed in September of 1864. However, at the time, Colorado territory Governor John Evans did nothing to stop Chivington’s plans for the attack on the villages. Evans was also the territorial superintendent of Indian Affairs and the founder of Northwestern University and University of Denver.
The all-day Symposium included four panels. In the opening panel, authors of the DU John Evans Study reported on the motivations, processes, findings, and hopes for their landmark report as an institutional acknowledgement of the interconnected, yet neglected history of the Sand Creek Massacre. The John Evans Study committee included DU faculty, university and state historians, DU native students and faculty, and representatives from Arapahoe and Cheyenne tribes. Report writing was a collaborative and interdisciplinary effort of a subset of faculty and researchers from this larger committee. Research was done in tandem with a similarly constituted committee at Northwestern University, another institution that John Evans founded, though discrepancies in conclusions about the universities’ founder’s involvement are found in the two subsequent reports. The DU committee found that John Evans had a unique and integral role in encouraging the violence at Sand Creek. Through actions towards healing and reconciliation, this recognition confronts the direct and indirect benefits the university has gained from the displacement of indigenous communities. The panel included Dr. David Halaas, Dr. Nancy Wadsworth, Dr. Richard Clemmer-Smith, Dr. Alan Gilbert, Dr. Billy J. Stratton and Dr. Steven Fisher, with Dr. Dean Saitta as chair of the panel. (The report is available at https://portfolio.du.edu/evcomm.)
The second panel, “Possibilities of Repair: Truth Commissions, Reparations and Cultural Restoration,” focused on defining repair and the possibilities of what could it look like. David Akerson of DU’s Sturm College of Law chaired the panel which consisted of Henry Little Bird from the Southern Arapahoe tribe, Professor George “Tink” Tinker from the Illif School of Theology, Dr. Billy J. Stratton, professor of English at DU, and Andrew Reid, also from Sturm College of Law. The panel opened up with the question of what does ‘repair’ mean in this context. Henry Little Bird shared that the Sand Creek Massacre is still affecting people today and that healing and forgiveness are two separate elements. He described current Colorado Governor Hickenlooper’s formal apology in December 2014 as a “gift,” and he has been open towards forgiveness. However, he noted that healing is not forgiveness, and healing is what is needed. The rest of the panel reflected on Henry Little Bird’s words and also proposed that we need to take substantive steps in providing tangible resources to the communities that were ruined as a result of actions like the Sand Creek Massacre. The panel pointed out that the white population of Colorado was able to thrive as a result of the resources and land taken from the Native American tribes. Reid reminded the audience that we should take responsibility for helping these communities since we economically and socially thrived on their oppression.
The third panel of the day, “Public Recognition and Acknowledgement,” included leaders of community institutions such as DU Chancellor Chopp, Methodist Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, Ernest House of the Lt. Governor’s Office and Illiff School of Theology President Tom Wolfe. The panel also included two descendants of victims of the Sand Creek Massacre, Gail Ridgely of the Northern Arapahoe tribe and Joe Big Medicine of the Southern Cheyenne tribe. Panel members discussed what it means for institutions to grapple with their histories, what measures have been or are being taken, and how this affects a process of healing. Whether it is a university, a church, or a state, some leaders act regressively when the reputation of their institution is threatened. However, the only way to protect an institution is to embody the values it stands for and face its issues and history square on. The process of righting these wrongs must be sincere, authentic, and collaborative or it risks doing more harm than previous inaction. With still more histories to be told and work to be done, the institutions holding responsibility for Sand Creek have committed to a journey of remembering and action to improve the narrative and legacies for future generations.
The final panel of the day, “Learning and Healing: Continuing the Conversations,” brought together three Cheyenne and Arapahoe descendants, Henry Little Bird, Gail Ridgely, and Joe Big Medicine, with three John Evans descendants, Anne Hayden, Tom Hayden, and Laurel Hayden, to discuss their experiences of meeting with one another and forming meaningful relationships that do not forget the massacre but respect and engage the past between their families. Anne Hayden opened the discussion by saying it is only appropriate to ask permission of the Arapahoe and Cheyenne descendants for her family to be on this land and to have this discussion. While a symbolic act, Anne’s request helped set the tone of the panel discussion for the future conversation of responsibility by the American people for their past actions. Laurel Hayden noted that she feels a level of internal responsibility as a John Evans descendant. She asserted that instead of feelings of guilt, we should all feel a level of responsibility when looking at solving this conflict and healing from the trauma.
Panels were well-attended on a rainy day. Sarah Klinikowski, a first year Conflict Resolution graduate student, said she learned that “healing needs to be centered on, and decided by indigenous people” and that a “focus on healing is very important.” Laurel Hayden, a second year International Human Right Development graduate student, echoed similar sentiments. She said, “Collaboration is necessary and a part of healing.” As a John Evans descendant, Hayden also was a crucial member in organizing the symposium. When asked why she wanted to help organize this event she offered that once meeting the Cheyenne and Arapahoe descendants you “sit in the same room [with the native descendants] it really hits home.” She was glad that this topic is finally being brought up and discussed.
Others felt the symposium was only a small step in the right direction and left the event hoping for more action. Joe Big Medicine, a descendant of the Southern Cheyenne victims of the massacre noted that this symposium was a “positive step.” However, he also stated that he wants to see justice, reparations and more action on behalf of indigenous people by the U.S. Federal government.
Many possible steps toward healing and repair exist. Since the release of the DU John Evans Study Report, more conversations about the Sand Creek Massacre are being held. The recent formal apology by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper on December 3, 2014 represents an important acknowledgement by a sitting governor. On the third panel, House described the process leading to the apology, including the governor’s consultation with all living former Colorado governors. This apology can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ0sffKFSBE.
Many feel such action should be done on the federal level. Awareness of the atrocity should continue to spread throughout the state and country as two more Sand Creek reports are completed by the Methodist Church and Northwestern University (http://www.northwestern.edu/provost/committees/john-evans-study/), which was also founded by John Evans. As awareness grows, more dialogue with local tribes should be utilized as the participants in this symposium note that involving native people in deciding themselves what is best would create a healthy relationship between the communities helping to heal from this nightmare.
Overall the Symposium was a success as many people who attended the event came out either more informed on the massacre and the issues it created for today or really engaged in finding out next steps to take in this process. The symposium ultimately left people with the idea that as the American people, we should take responsibility for our ancestral past and also work towards healing relationships between indigenous people and communities within the dominant culture.
Symposium panel videos can be viewed at the Conflict Resolution Institute website: (http://www.du.edu/conflictresolution/center-conflict-engagement/conferences/cri-sand-creek-symposium.html)
--JB Desselle, with Julie Hawke