Descendants gather virtually for seventh Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration


Daily file photo by Caity Henderson

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Eads Colorado. Northwestern’s annual commemoration for the event occurred virtually Thursday.

Wilson Chapman, Monthly Editor

On Nov. 29, 1864, Cheyenne chief White Antelope saw incoming soldiers from the Colorado Cavalry shooting at the residents of his camp in Sand Creek. Rather than fight back, he folded his arms across his chest and began to sing. “Nothing Lives Long/Only the Earth and the Mountains.”

At Northwestern’s 2020 commemoration of the Sand Creek Massacre, Multicultural Student Affairs assistant director and Seneca Nation member Aaron Golding played a clip of Otto Braided Hair, a Northern Cheyenne tribe member and a descendant of the massacre, singing White Antelope’s death song. Afterward, Braided Hair joined the Zoom call and briefly discussed the meaning and significance of the song.

“It’s telling the people or individuals that it’s okay to move on into the spirit world,” Braided Hair said.

Thursday’s commemoration was hosted by MSA and the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance. This was the seventh commemoration for the Massacre held annually at NU and the first one conducted virtually. Roughly 50 people attended the commemoration, where they discussed the impact of the massacre on its descendants as well as NU’s inability to take full responsibility for its relationship to the event.

The Sand Creek Massacre was one of the most brutal episodes of violence against Indigenous people in U.S. history, killing over 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, many of whom were women or children.

At the time of the massacre, NU founder John Evans was governor of Colorado. In 2014, Northwestern released a report stating that Evans had no direct involvement in the massacre, but a different University of Denver report deemed him “deeply culpable” for the tragedy. 

The year of the massacre, Evans issued a proclamation authorizing citizens to murder American Indians as “enemies of the country” and was forced to resign his governorship the following year by a U.S. Congressional committee investigation. The University began hosting commemorations for the massacre following the University of Denver report.

At the start of the commemoration, NAISA member and SESP senior Haku Blaisdell took a moment to acknowledge that, in addition to its affiliation with the Sand Creek massacre through its founder, Northwestern itself sits on Native land.

“The land Northwestern occupies are the traditional homelands for the Council of the Three Fires, including the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi, as well as being a travel and gathering place for more than a dozen other tribes for over 100,000 years,” Blaisdell said. “We invite you all to keep this in mind as we gather today.”

Most of the commemoration consisted of a discussion of the short documentary film “Only the Mountains,” which was played at the start of the event. The documentary, commissioned by NU and featuring Sand Creek Massacre descendants, describes the massacre, John Evans’ role in it, and the generational trauma it has caused to the descendants. Braided Hair appears in the documentary, and the film depicts an annual event he coordinates known as the Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk which honors the tragedy.

After the documentary viewing, people were put in breakout rooms for two sessions: one to discuss the emotional impact the film had on them, and one to discuss the film from a “brain space.” During the discussion, history Prof. and Oneida Nation member Doug Kiel brought up the Board of Trustees’ refusal to consider removing Evans’ name from campus spaces, citing his conduct as “exemplary.” But armed with even minimal research into the history of the massacre, he said nobody should come to the conclusion that Evans was a good person.    

“All of us know, after watching the film after five minutes, that that’s not the case,” Kiel said. “That’s what I find so frustrating is how there’s no engagement, because you couldn’t have looked into John Evans’ past thoroughly and come to that conclusion.”

In addition to discussing the Boards of Trustees’ decision, the group also discussed the University’s larger failures to adequately educate their student population about the massacre and its relation to the school. Ph.D. candidate Heather Menefee said the school neglects to center the history of the massacre in a meaningful way through courses or programming, instead placing the burden on Indigenous faculty and undergraduates to continually re-educate their white peers on these topics.

SESP Ph.D. candidate and Shoshone-Bannock Nation member Nikki McDaid-Morgan said for students to be properly educated on the massacre, the school itself needs to work to be more honest about its history.

According to McDaid-Morgan, descendants of the massacre have asked the school to revise their initial report to place more blame on Evans for the massacre, but those requests have gone ignored. Shen said she has little hope that the school can be pushed to take even the initial step of being honest.

“This University is at the mercy of a board of trustees that are mostly White men who do not care about people of color at all,” McDaid-Morgan said. “And don’t care about Indigenous people at all. They care about the bottom line, they care about money. And unless that changes, I don’t have much hope for Northwestern to be honest. There are all sorts of ways, we have lots of powerful people on this call, we need to be pushing for real change.”

During the discussion, Weinberg senior Sannah Boyd drew a comparison between John Evans’ actions and the University’s treatment of current student protestors, specifically how the massacre occurred in part because Evans saw the tribes as a threat to the building of a railroad. Boyd said this motivation isn’t dissimilar to how NU’s administration often values their property over the lives and welfare of marginalized and BIPOC students.

“Obviously he valued land over people,” Boyd said. “And we see a continuation of that today, in the way that this university treats its students, especially Black and Brown and Indigenous students.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @wilsonbchapman

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