ARTICLE FROM THE DENVER POST
Sand Creek Massacre descendants seek justice 148 years later
Posted: 12/30/2012 12:01 AM
ANADARKO, OKLA. —They dance for the dead.
The foreman, the minister and the princess in the buckskin dress stomp and twirl and sing on a gymnasium floor protected by a tarp.
About 100 people watch from chairs arranged around a drum circle. All of them are family, in a way, bound to a terrible event 148 years ago on the banks of an ice-encrusted creek in Colorado.
The old lawyer is here, too, the former Oklahoma attorney general who smoked the truth pipe in a tepee as the Cheyenne arrow keeper looked on.
They gather every year — descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre and their unlikely allies — in a long search for justice that started with optimism, languished and now has a breath of new life.
At dawn on Nov. 29, 1864, Colorado soldiers attacked peaceful Indians camped on the banks of Sand Creek in what is now southeastern Colorado, slaughtering an estimated 163 — mainly women, children and the elderly — and desecrating their bodies.
The backlash was so severe, the U.S. government not only acknowledged wrongdoing but promised reparations of land and cash to survivors and relatives of victims.
That promise — spelled out in an 1865 treaty — remains unfulfilled, according to descendants and their attorneys.
Champions of the cause have died or moved on. And descendants who once stood as allies now view one another with scorn.
But on this early December day, in a town that calls itself the “Indian Capital of the Nation,” descendants receive a rare progress report.
The newly expanded legal team for the Sand Creek Massacre Descendants Trust has opened a dialogue with Department of Interior officials about the claim. At the least, the discussions could lay the groundwork for a federal lawsuit, the lawyers say.
And after decades of research and recruitment, about 15,000 descendants have been identified — a step that trust leaders believe is necessary.
Homer Flute, a former auto-parts- factory foreman who has headed the trust since 1990, sits on the gym’s wooden bleachers and considers the unlikely group of people in his company.
“Sand Creek is like a cobweb,” Flute says. “It links in all different directions, and you don’t know where it’s going. You find people you didn’t know existed, and they are kin to you somehow. The idea is you belong to these people and they belong to you.”
Merciless killing, desecration
It is one of the darkest marks on Colorado’s history.
On a clear night in November 1864, 700 men under the command of Col. John Chivington set off from Fort Lyon on the Eastern Plains.
Tensions had been running high in the Colorado Territory, where white settlers and Indians were clashing over land.
That April, Arapahos had slaughtered a ranching family east of Denver, inflaming public opinion.
Yet there had been progress toward peace. The great peace chiefs — White Antelope and Black Kettle of the Cheyenne, and Left Hand of the Arapaho — were camped on Sand Creek under government assurances they would be safe.
Chivington, a fierce abolitionist and former Methodist minister, had a different view. He rallied his men against the “red scoundrels,” urging them to remember their own women and children.
The first shots were fired at daybreak, as the village of about 100 lodges, almost entirely Cheyenne with a few Arapaho, began to stir.
The village was largely empty of men, who were away hunting buffalo. The cavalrymen fired from sand bluffs and pounded targets with shells from mountain howitzers.
Soldiers paid no heed to the large American flag and smaller white flag beneath it tied to a lodgepole in the village.
Witnesses described Indians on their knees begging for mercy, children clubbed in the head and a woman’s belly sliced open. Indians hid in pits dug in the sandy creekbed.
Once the killing was over, the desecration began. White Antelope’s ears and genitals were cut off. One man claimed to have a cut out a woman’s heart and impaled it on a stick.
Body parts were taken as trophies and put on display in a Denver theater.
Initially, the incident was hailed as a heroic battle. But recriminations came quickly in congressional and military hearings the following year.
Soldiers wearing uniforms that should be “the emblem of justice and humanity” had executed a “foul and dastardly massacre,” a congressional committee found. Chivington suffered no consequences; by then, he was out of the military.
Sand Creek was a defining moment in relations between whites and Indians in the West.
“It’s never been forgotten,” said David Halaas, former chief historian of the Colorado Historical Society and an ally to the Cheyennes in the Sand Creek struggle. “It’s an open wound that still hasn’t healed.”
The 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas acknowledged “gross and wanton outrages perpetrated against certain bands” of Cheyenne and Arapaho. Article 6 promised land in locations to be determined and cash for victims.
“We are going to succeed”
Robert Simpson remembers his grandmother coming to him when he was in high school and telling him to write down names of ancestors butchered at Sand Creek. One day, she said, he would need them.
Simpson joined the Army, fought in Vietnam and worked as a sheriff’s deputy. Later in life, he attended seminary and became a Methodist minister — just like Chivington, the villain of Sand Creek.
A soft-spoken bear of a man who apologizes when he gets emotional about Sand Creek, Simpson is pastor of J.J. Methvin Memorial United Methodist Church in Anadarko and a descendants trust leader.
“All this was by divine intervention,” Simpson said. “We were picked to do this for a reason, and we are going to succeed. It’s been a long journey for all of us, but we are still going forward.”
Other reparations efforts over the years have gone nowhere. Bills introduced in Congress in 1949, 1953, 1957 and 1965 failed.
In the 1960s, the federal Indian Claims Commission ruled that the Sand Creek claims were “individual in nature and must be brought by descendants.”
Tribal members thought identifying the descendants would fall to them. Activity stalled for several years.
Then, an anthropologist named John Moore got involved. Moore sought to solve a mystery central to any claim — identifying the tribal bands at Sand Creek and tracking their movements afterward.
He also began working with Laird Cometsevah, a Cheyenne chief, and his wife, Colleen, who were identifying descendants through records and oral histories. Moore and his graduate students dug through decades-old census records and other documents.
The going was tough. Cheyenne change their names and use nicknames. There were problems with translations.
By 1990, enough progress had been made to form a new pan-tribal descendants group. Laird Cometsevah recruited Flute, an Apache tribal member known for his organizational skills, to head it.
The group also hired a lawyer — Larry Derryberry, who served as Oklahoma attorney general in the 1970s.
In 1991, in a ceremony near the massacre site, Derryberry entered a tepee with trust leaders and the Cheyenne Sacred Arrow Keeper, the tribe’s highest religious office.
The lawyer smoked a pipe filled with tobacco and herbs. To the Cheyenne, “smoking on it” is a sacred vow.
Before the dying embers of a fire, smoke drifted up through the top of the tepee, sealing the deal. There would be a paper contract, too, laying out Derryberry’s contingency fee.
Derryberry said the goal of the descendants search always was to cast as wide a net as possible. If someone had one drop of blood traceable to Sand Creek, that was enough.
Shirley Wells discovered her ancestral ties to Sand Creek while researching her family tree in the 1990s.
She has taught the story to her 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, who is starting a four-year term as the descendants trust’s princess, traveling to powwows and other events as an ambassador.
“It is sad, but it makes me feel good my ancestors would be willing to sacrifice their lives for us,” she said. “I know they are in heaven and always watching down on us.”
Reason for optimismThere was a new face at the latest descendants dance in Anadarko, a town that is equal parts white, black and Indian, and has a championship-caliber high school football team, the Gold River Casino on Highway 281 and a boarded-up bar with a “no weapons allowed” sign.
David Askman, a former federal litigator now in private practice in Denver, introduces himself. He explains how he first heard about Sand Creek growing up in Wyoming.
He mentions the two Indian boys he and his wife adopted from Oklahoma.
And he talks about the chance car ride to the Tulsa airport a few months ago in which a colleague happened to mention the Sand Creek Massacre reparations cause, which had stalled yet again.
Askman was drawn in, like so many others before him.
“They are viewed often as Indians with dollar signs in their eyes,” Askman said. “They are anything but that. They feel the pain of what happened and want recognition from the government.”
Askman said recent court rulings provide optimism after years of dashed hopes.
The landmark Cobell settlement of 2009 opened the door to other decades-old Indian claims. The lawsuit, brought by a Blackfeet woman over a century of mismanaged land-trust royalties, led to one of the largest settlements in U.S. history — $3.4 billion.
Trust leaders also see hope in the Interior Department, the federal agency that oversees government relations with Indian Country.
The department’s top lawyer, Hilary Tompkins, is of Navajo descent; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is a Coloradan who knows Sand Creek.
An Interior spokesman declined to make officials available for interviews but said the department has opened an investigation in response to trust lawyers and will notify them when it is complete.
Stephen Pevar, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and author of “Rights of Indians and Tribes,” said courts largely have given Indians the benefit of the doubt on treaty claims.
One case bears remarkable similarity to Sand Creek. In 1980, the Supreme Court ordered the government to compensate the Sioux for seizing the Black Hills of South Dakota, which had been promised to the tribe in an 1868 treaty.
But the Sioux refuse to take the money, insisting on the land instead. More than $800 million is gathering interest in a government account.
“If the United States pledged its sacred word on reparations, those people have every right today to reparations,” Pevar said of Sand Creek. “We shouldn’t look at it as some ancient document that just acquired cobwebs. It is as sacred as the U.S. Constitution.”
Askman said the government likely will argue that the statute of limitations has lapsed. And the government has put forth another argument — that reparations have been paid.
Askman said an Interior Department official described finding a ledger from the 1960s that purports to show payments to individuals.
Trust officials are skeptical. And in any case, the matter of land promised in the treaty remains unsettled.
Askman said a claim could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, or “much less.”
If a lawsuit fails, trust lawyers say they plan to petition the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, an autonomous body charged with upholding rights and freedoms in the Americas.
Former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado knows the Sand Creek political battles well. Part Cheyenne and a massacre descendant himself, he sponsored legislation that created the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, dedicated in 2007.
“There is something to be said about reparations,” Nighthorse Campbell said. “It would be a lot of tough negotiations. Politically, it’s simple. The country is broke. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”
Still another potential problem lies ahead. Some massacre descendants believe Homer Flute and his allies are frauds.
Rifts form and persist
Divisions in the Sand Creek cause are nothing new. At one point in the 1960s, six groups announced plans to pursue reparations, all claiming to be the one true organization.
The trust was supposed to hold things together. But Flute and his former sponsor, Laird Cometsevah, turned against each other. The rift between trust leaders and Cheyenne traditionalists remains.
From his home in Watonga, Okla., Joe Big Medicine has focused not on reparations but on the grim task of burying the dead. Big Medicine has been using the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 to track down Sand Creek remains.
About nine sets — from a single scalp to a few bones and skulls — have been reclaimed from museums and private collections and buried at a cemetery near the massacre site.
Big Medicine said the dispute with Flute was over money. He said Flute wanted to register the trust as a nonprofit and pay himself and the board salaries, which tribal leaders opposed.
“It’s a good claim,” Big Medicine said. “It’s just the wrong people doing it. They are not looking out for the people, only themselves.”
There was another key divide. The Cometsevahs did not believe Arapahos were present at the massacre. The idea that Cheyennes were in a different class clashed with the trust’s egalitarian goals.
Colleen Cometsevah died in 2007, and Laird died the following year. One of their daughters inherited the genealogical work the couple had hoped would be the centerpiece of their own claim.
Steve Brady of the Montana-based Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Site Committee said he has no knowledge of the trust’s latest efforts or any desire to join.
While Brady acknowledges that the treaty promises payments to descendants — not tribes — he argues that only federally recognized tribes can negotiate with the government.
“It’s going to be up to the tribes — not some nonprofit organization,” he said.
Flute dismisses the allegation that trust leaders sought to enrich themselves. He said officers spend their own money on everything from stamps to the annual dance.
Tax forms confirm that the trust has a pittance of a budget — it reported $1,923 in revenue in 2011 — and pays no salaries.
Flute thinks the traditionalists have their own financial motivation: to keep the descendant pool as small as possible to maximize payouts. Flute said all descendants are welcome to join the trust.
“If we unite, we are stronger,” Flute said. “If we fight, we are doing what the government wants us to do.”
Perhaps the final battle
The search for Sand Creek descendants will end. To bring any lawsuit, the trust must set a cutoff date.
Derryberry said it will fall to the federal government or courts to establish who is a rightful descendant. The trust has identified only about 15,000 of an estimated 49,000.
If the trust prevails, individual descendants will decide how to spend their windfalls.
Flute would like to establish a source of permanent revenue to support generations to come. Others mention scholarships or preserving land in their ancestors’ memories.
The descendants feel they are getting closer after decades of stops and starts, of allies old and new, of divisions that won’t go away.
This is perhaps the final battle over Sand Creek.
What was once called a glorious battle is now etched into history as a massacre. The site of the tragedy is memorialized by the National Park Service. Remains of victims have been returned to the land once stained with their blood.
One day soon, Robert Simpson hopes to return to the banks of the dry creekbed where cottonwood trees and prickly pear cactus grow.
The Methodist pastor wants to stand among the “witness trees,” as the oldest ones are called, and talk to the dead.
“Our ancestors are still there,” he said. “When you go out there, it is very moving. You can hear them. After this is all over, I want to go out there and say, ‘You can rest now.’ ”
Eric Gorski: 303-954-1971, email@example.com or twitter.com/egorski