Cheyenne Chiefs, left to right as we face the image:
seated left: Standing-in-the-Water, murdered in the Sand Creek Massacre, November 1864.
seated center: Lean Bear, murdered while peacefully approaching troops under the command of Colorado cavalry Lieutenant George Eayre, May 1864.
standing right: War Bonnet, murdered in the Sand Creek Massacre, November 1864.
Interpreter (standing in back in western clothing, name unknown). image: Wikimedia commons (link).
The Sand Creek Massacre began with a treacherous dawn attack by approximately 675 men of the 3rd Colorado Regiment and part of the First, all of them under the direct command of Colonel John Chivington, upon a camp of Cheyenne and Arapahoe who had been told by messages sent out by Colorado Governor John Evans to camp along the north bank Sand Creek near Fort Lyon for safety and to help the Colorado forces distinguish between peaceful and violent groups during heightened fear of attacks and violence.
As many as 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho would be murdered in the ensuing massacre, between two-thirds and three-quarters of that number women and children. Another two hundred men, women and children would be wounded. The encampment was a chief's camp, composed primarily of leaders and their families. It prominently flew an American flag and directly underneath it a white flag, as the leaders had been instructed to do in order to demonstrate their peaceful intentions. Among the dead were thirteen council chiefs and four soldier chiefs, including White Antelope, War Bonnet, Standing-in-the-Water, Left Hand, Bosse, Heap of Buffalos, and Lone Bear.
The massacre took place beginning in the pre-dawn hours of November 29, 1864 and continued all that day and the following day. There was little resistance -- some of the chiefs were killed while running towards the troops waving their hands in the air and yelling "Stop! Stop!" in English, or while trying to stop the fighting. Some of the Cheyenne and Arapaho did try to fight back, but were at a severe disadvantage against the cavalry because the troopers had driven away most of the camp's horses at the beginning of the attack.
This despicable massacre is tragically not widely taught or discussed or contemplated today, although it should be, because the issues that it raises are so significant, and because these issues are by no means confined to the past but are extremely relevant to this day. And, of course, Sand Creek remains a painful and living memory to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, and to other Native American nations -- many of which suffered similar atrocities.
I would strongly recommend that, among other examinations of the awful import of the Sand Creek Massacre, everyone who is able to do so take the time to read the 2016 book Massacre at Sand Creek: How Methodists Were Involved in an American Tragedy, by Gary L. Roberts.
The examination by Roberts is extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking, working very hard to avoid stereotypical responses, easy answers, or armchair moralizing. He presents evidence that, while a large portion of society (including many high-ranking US military officers and field commanders) condemned the atrocities at Sand Creek once the details of the massacre began to emerge in the days and weeks following Chivington's assault, even those who were spoke out against it reflexively assumed that the Native American way of life would have to give way to the encroaching march of "civilization." Most of all, the book shows that the blindnesses and assumptions of that time are still very much an issue to be wrestled with and confronted today -- that the blindnesses and assumptions that led to the genocide of the Native American peoples were not peculiar to men and women living in previous centuries but continue to be very much present and real forces at work in the world right up to the present moment.
The bloody ground at Sand Creek is a symbol of a terrible blindness in the American experiment that "fixed a stain" on the national honor, as Henry Knox predicted it would before the Constitution of the United States became the governing rule of law. It is a reminder that bigotry is not merely the illness of wicked and profligate people but a disease that can become an epidemic even among those who think of themselves as good and decent and God-fearing. It can hide itself within thickets of rationalization and fields of good intentions. Sand Creek is also a reminder that humans should not be so quick to judge past generations while deluded into believing that they are inoculated against the effects of arrogance and prejudice themselves. 237.
As the title of the book indicates, a singular aspect of the tragic massacre which is explored in great depth by Gary L. Roberts in his book is the role of the Protestant Christian denomination of the Methodist Church in the United States at that time (which was a time of great change within that denomination, especially as the Civil War was raging). Both Colorado Governor John Evans and the commanding officer directly responsible for ordering the massacre, Colonel John Chivington, were active Methodists. Colonel Chivington, in fact, was a Methodist preacher and minister before becoming a military officer.
Gary Roberts' book provides abundant evidence, including dozens of extremely disturbing quotations, which make it undeniably clear that the unquestioning belief in the superiority of their way of life among the members of the invading culture that the American Indians would have to give way, give up their way of life, and give up their lands drew much of its inspiration from, and was provided with false justification by, assumptions common to literalist Christian teachings and doctrines.
A sampling of quotations will give some measure of the impact -- but the book contains many more. In fact, the quality of the selection of quotations which Gary L. Roberts presents in the book is one of its strongest aspects.
Here is an example presented in the book, which Roberts found in a book published in 1863, just a year prior to Sand Creek:
Again we come to the great law of right. The white race stood upon this undeveloped continent ready and willing to execute the Divine injunction, to replenish the earth and SUBDUE it. The savage races in possession of it either refused or imperfectly obeyed this first law of the Creator. On the one side stood the white race in the command of God, armed with his law. On the other, the savage, resisting the execution of that law. The result could not be evaded by any human device. God's law will ever triumph, even through the imperfect instrumentality of human agency. In the case before us, the Indian races were in the wrongful possession of a continent required by the superior right of the white man. This right, founded in the wisdom of God, eliminated by the ever-operative law of progress, will continue to assert its dominion, with varying success, contingent on the use of means employed, until all opposition is hushed in the perfect reign of the superior aggressive principle. (Bryant and Murch, A History of the Great Sioux Massacre by the Sioux Indians in Minnesota, 46 - 49; cited in Roberts 101).
While the modern reader is immediately drawn to the explicit racism in the above passage and the language it employs, this should not cause us to miss the fact that the authors are here trying to present a justification, based on passages from the Book of Genesis, for the taking of the continent from the Native American peoples, and to argue that not only is doing so not wrong but that it is in fact required by God's law (that it would, in fact, be wrong to not take over their lands). It should go without saying that I believe the above argument is completely wrong, that it is morally objectionable in the highest degree, and that it is based on an entirely incorrect understanding of the ancient scriptures (incorrect to the point that the authors actually invert the message, getting the ancient scriptures "one hundred eighty degrees" the wrong way).
One more quotation following the same pattern is presented, this from a bishop in the Methodist church who spoke up in defense of Colonel Chivington and Governor Evans in the months following the massacre, when public opinion was turning strongly against the events at Sand Creek, and the actions of Chivington were being roundly criticized, and a military commission was being established to investigate the reported killing of women and children in an encampment that was flying the American flag and a white flag of truce. Bishop Calvin Kingsley, along with six other Colorado ministers, drafted a letter of support for Chivington, in which they called the colonel "a model for large-hearted liberality and Christian energy" and said that "We believe that our only hope for safety as a territory lies in the repetition of like battles with the same result" (152). Later, Bishop Kingsley declared:
These Indians being yet in a state of childhood, so far as intellectual and educational development is concerned, need occasional chastising. Nothing else will do. To the questions, "What shall be done with the Africans and the Indians?" I have short answers. Make men of them. I have no fellowship with that sentimentalism which is ready to die of grief because the red man is not allowed to hold back civilization and Christianity just for the sake of being a savage. There is no reason why an ignorant savage should be allowed land enough for hunting ground to sustain a thousand civilized and Christianized persons living in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel. 154.
Once again, what strikes us most violently in the quotation above is the explicit racism of the speaker -- but it should also be noted that in addition to his ugly and objectionable racism, the speaker is again offering what he believes to be a justification and an argument which will excuse the destruction of the Native American's way of life -- an argument that it would be wrong to allow it to continue.
It should be noted in passing that central to both of the arguments in the two passages cited above is a "religious" argument, a subject which we will examine momentarily, as well as an economic argument -- an argument having to do with the use of land. Gary Roberts does a very good job in the book of illustrating the fact that the biggest draw of the westward expansion of the United States, beginning with the first settlers but continuing to the towns, was the lure of land. This prize was far more powerful of an attraction than even the gold and minerals that also played an important (but secondary) role. In fact, during the book we see that John Evans, long before he became governor of the Colorado territory, was an active land speculator and city planner.
While Gary Roberts does not go so far in his own book, this subject (land-grabbing and land-speculation) is of critical and enduring importance in the history of economic thought and practice -- in fact, the great Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen (1857 - 1929) lived through the time period Roberts examines in his book about the Sand Creek Massacre, and saw land-speculation by insiders in towns small and large, who could collude to "boost" the land values in order to make themselves wealthy, as a central problem and illustrative of a wider problem in economic life, unless checked (see for instance this essay by Michael Hudson on the importance of Thorstein Veblen's analysis, and in particular the "block quotation" from Veblen about the "boosting" and "booming" of real estate, following a pattern repeated without fail from towns with names like Spoon River and Gopher Prairie, to bigger cities with names like Emporia and Columbia).
Quotations provided by Gary L. Roberts in his book make it abundantly clear that literalist Christian doctrines, as understood in the nineteenth century (and, in many cases, as still understood to this day), were used to provide "intellectual cover" or supposed "moral justification" not only to the violent extermination of millions of Native Americans and their way of life, but also to the economic system of land-grabbing and land-speculation that Veblen decried and that John Evans (and countless others) participated in with enthusiasm.
Roberts cites a recent Report of the John Evans Study Committee at Northwestern University (a university of which Evans himself was a founder) which found that in the view common during the time of Evans' life, "working hard and fostering beneficial social institutions affirmed a person's spiritual development and gave worldly evidence of grace" (cited on page 91 of Roberts). Gary Roberts adds:
Railroads were a part of that list, too, because railroads would hasten the growth of civilization and the transformation of the wilderness into a garden. For him, as for many white Americans, the connection between Christianity and civilization was inseparable. One could not exist without the other. 91.
Roberts provides some supporting quotations, such as the statement from Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson (a contemporary of John Evans, although one who never publicly expressed an opinion one way or the other on the Sand Creek Massacre, in contrast to other church leaders who tried to defend it) that: "I would say it with all reverence, God cannot do without America," and: "Hath not he who placed Moses in Mount Sinai to utter law over the wilderness, placed us on this continent to shout the Gospel over two oceans? Will he suffer the mission to be confounded?" (91).
While there are undoubtedly some today -- even many today -- who would agree with Bishop Simpson's sentiments, I would argue that such an understanding is closely related to the same assumptions of a supposed right to change the way others think and live their lives that led to the criminal destruction of the Native American way of life and the seizure by violence of the land on which they had lived for millennia.
Not only that, but I would also argue that assertions such as those just cited from Matthew Simpson are based upon a mistakenly literal and thus externalized understanding of the ancient scriptures contained in what has come to be known as the Bible, and that in fact "the gospel" that Simpson believes needs to be "shouted over two oceans" is actually based on scriptures which -- properly understood -- would be seen to express the very same teachings which the American Indians already knew and understood from their own sacred traditions and ancient stories, and which can be found among the ancient cultures of Asia, Australia, and the Pacific islands (across one ocean) and among the ancient cultures of Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean (across the other ocean), as well as among the original peoples found further north and south within the continents of the Americas.
In fact, Gary L. Roberts' remarkable examination of the Sand Creek Massacre provides outstanding quotations to this effect as well. He cites a statement from a man of the Northern Cheyenne named Wooden Leg, who fought Custer at the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, and who said:
I think the white people pray to the same Great Medicine we do in our old Cheyenne way. I do not go often to the church, but I go sometimes. I think the white church people are good, but I do not believe all the stories they tell about what happened a long time ago. The way they tell us, all of the good people in the old times were white people. I am glad to have the white man churches among us, but I feel more satisfied when I make my prayers in the way I was taught to make them. My heart is much more contented when I sit alone with my medicine pipe and talk with the Great Medicine about whatever may be troubling me. 241.
Roberts also cites a medical doctor of the Santee Sioux, named Ohiyesa Charles Eastman Alexander, who wrote in 1911:
It is my personal belief, after thirty-five years' experience of it, that there is no such thing as "Christian civilization." I believe that Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and irreconcilable, and that the spirit of Christianity and of our ancient religion is the same" (240).
Note that Ohiyesa was emphatically not saying that the Christianity he saw in the churches was the same -- or even that it should be labeled "Christianity." Elsewhere in the same book, he says that there "was undoubtedly much in primitive Christianity" and in the "hard sayings" attributed to Jesus about the rich that were appealing to him, but that what he found in the churches was basically the very opposite.
Both of these men, based on their personal knowledge of their inherited traditions and their observations of Christianity, expressed the belief that they were in fact the same -- but Ohiyesa explicitly contrasts this with what he sees in the churches, and Wooden Leg implicitly tells us much the same thing, when he says he prefers a different way of relating to and interacting with the Great Medicine -- and when he tells us that he "does not believe" all the things they tell him, especially about the stories of "all the good people in the old times" being white people.
In fact, I believe it can be shown with irrefutable evidence that all those ancient stories in the Bible are describing the motions of the stars, and thus are not actually about "white people" at all. See for example discussions about the episode of the sons of Noah and their father's drunkenness, or about the encounter of John the Baptist and Jesus for evidence that these stories are based upon the stars.
If the sons of Noah (Shem, Ham and Japheth) are all based on constellations -- and I am convinced that they are, and that the evidence in this case is nearly irrefutable -- then the ancient scriptures are not telling us that they are the literal progenitors of people of any particular race (since no one is literally descended from loose groupings of stars which we see as shapes in the sky, but which are actually many thousands of light-years apart). Said another way, Wooden Leg was absolutely right about the fact that all the stories in the Bible about the "good people in the old times" could not have been about "white people" -- because they are actually about the stars, and are intended to describe truths about the Invisible World which apply to all people.
Said yet another way, if Adam and Eve -- our "first parents" -- can be shown to be figures who are based upon the stars (and I am convinced that they can be shown to be based upon the stars), then these stories are telling us something different than what those who take the Bible literally believe them to be saying. They may well be telling us -- just as Lakota Holy Man Black Elk tells us -- that we all come from the spirit world, and that everything we see here in this world actually comes from the spirit world.
According to that understanding of the ancient wisdom, every single man, woman or child you ever meet contains the very same infinite divine spark which you yourself also contain -- and thus it is infinitely wrong to do violence to any one of them. And, according to that same understanding, it is this invisible and spiritual aspect of everyone that unites us all, and that is the same in all the "descendants of Adam and Eve." Denigrating anyone for the color or tone of their skin (or any other external or physical aspect) is a denial of the spiritual aspect which unites us all, and thus becomes an inversion of the real teaching of the ancient wisdom imparted to humanity in the world's various myths and sacred stories.
I believe that the ancient traditions of the peoples of the Americas can also be shown to be based upon the cycles of the heavens and the motions of the sun, moon, stars and planets -- no less than all the other ancient myths and sacred traditions around the globe. I have written about some of these in previous blog posts, and in some of my books.
In fact, I find it very interesting that the council chiefs of the Cheyenne people wear a single eagle feather in their hair, pointing to the right. You can see this in the image at top, in which both Lone Bear (seated, center) and War Bonnet (standing, right) have a single eagle feather, pointing to their right (our left as we look at the picture). Standing-in-the-Water is a soldier chief, not a council chief. He seems to have a feather in this photo, but he does not have the same single eagle feather in this photo, and in other photos he has multiple feathers which do not appear to be eagle feathers.
While I have no way of proving this, I suspect that it is a possibility that the single eagle feather, pointing to the right, relates to the constellation Sagittarius.
The image below shows Sagittarius. You can see that the constellation itself appears to have a single "feather" or "horn" atop its head. Note that in my analysis published in Star Myths of the Bible, I show that this constellation is closely associated with the priestly function in many Old Testament Scriptures, and in Star Myths of the World, Volume Two I show that this constellation is also associated with certain important gods in the myths of ancient Greece -- all of which may be related to the reason that council chiefs among the Cheyenne might also be associated with Sagittarius, and which would explain the single eagle feather pointing to the right:
Note that in many images on ancient Greek pottery, in which a god or goddess whom I believe to be related to Sagittarius is depicted, the artwork itself will often feature a single plume or other item which corresponds to this "feather" atop the head of the constellation Sagittarius in the sky.
Regardless of whether or not this single eagle feather relates to the mysterious and potent figure of Sagittarius in the sky (and to Sagittarian figures in ancient myths), the fact remains that the Native Americans appear to have retained a much more accurate understanding of the true message underlying the world's sacred traditions -- as evidenced by the two quotations above, from Wooden Leg and from Ohiyesa (among much other evidence).
Is it possible that this fact has something to do with the awful centuries-long campaign to exterminate their leaders, destroy their culture, and convert their children to Christian ways in forced residential schools? There is little doubt that can remain after reading Massacre at Sand Creek: How Methodists Were Involved in an American Tragedy that these efforts were closely related to the established literalist Christian institutions (not just Methodists, although Methodists played a disproportionately large role in the Sand Creek Massacre). The administration of the forced education facilities was almost exclusively turned over to different Christian religious groups, as was the administration of the reservations and agencies in some cases.
It is also clear from the book that, although Chivington himself was actually something of a monster, apparently never repenting of his actions in instigating the massacre and even wearing it as a badge of pride, as well as engaging in other reprehensible behavior including insurance fraud, stealing from the dead during a brief stint as a coroner, marrying the widowed daughter of his own son while she was still pregnant and later abandoning her, and allegedly beating his third wife, he was never formally censured by the Methodist denomination for which he continued to preach (albeit in an informal capacity) for the rest of his life.
Because of the horrible nature of Chivington himself, the reader might be tempted to conclude that the tragic massacre at Sand Creek was simply the product of one psychopathic "loose cannon." Unfortunately, this conclusion would be unwarranted: there were many other such massacres, including the massacre at the Washita four years later, where Black Kettle (a chief who survived the Sand Creek massacre) would be murdered in cold blood, as well as many other such massacres including the Bear River Massacre and the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
There are also the records of atrocities and massacres in previous centuries perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of Central and South America (and the deliberate and systematic destruction of most of their written records and the murder of their priests and wisdom-keepers).
Based on all of this evidence, we might conclude that something else is going on.
Whatever we might conclude, it should be obvious that this is a subject of horrible and enduring importance. It is a subject that touches on many aspects of modern society, and raises uncomfortable questions that deserve careful contemplation and greater examination than we are perhaps giving them.
Gary L. Roberts deserves credit for writing such a thorough and thought-provoking examination of the terrible events of Sand Creek in 1864. It is a book that deserves to be read, although it is a book that will shake you, and that may well make you cry (either on the inside or on both the inside and the outside).
Near its conclusion, Gary Roberts writes:
Little profit is found in damning past actions or declaring great visions to be fraudulent if such responses do not yield clearer understanding and a keener sense of the present generation's own sense of moral superiority, including its own deviations from moral vision. Sanctimonious judgment of the past serves little purpose if it does not elevate the present's commitment to underlying principles of freedom, justice, and equality. The past cannot be changed, but it can be confronted and better understood without trying to rationalize its injustices or blaming past generations for not anticipating everything that the present generation now believes and knows. [ . . . ] The capacity to distort remains surprisingly vital not so much because individuals and groups wish to distort as because they have agendas -- often selfish and sinister, but sometimes unconscious and even well-meaning -- that trump the moral imperatives. 246.