Native Genocide and American Imperialism in Simon Ortiz’s poem From Sand Creek
The late cultural critic Neil Postman spoke frequently about the tendency of technology to become mythic, or accepted without question as something that always existed in the natural world. The same can be said of territorial boundaries, a manmade construct that had no relevance for the Cheyenne and Arapaho people of the foothills and high plains of east of the Rocky Mountains in the mid-19th century. By the latter 20th century, however, the more than two million residents of the state of Colorado who lived amidst the arbitrary demarcation lines of a state without natural boundaries felt a strong enough affinity for and identity with their place in the world to honor, grieve and demand action over the “XXXX number of Coloradoans… killed in Vietnam,” or, “…on the highways.” (Ortiz 15) Little more than one hundred years earlier, however, several indigenous tribes had thriving and venerable societies that were destroyed by American troops, and like most non-native residents of the United States, the typical Coloradoan had no concern for this fact. “Repression works like shadow, clouding memory and sometimes even to blind, and when it is on a national scale, it is just not good.” (Ortiz 14)
Like the white settlers who ultimately forced them out of the territory in the years following the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, the Cheyenne and Arapaho were not natives of the regions within modern-day Colorado. The Arapaho are believed to have originated near the Red River, and French trappers in what became Chicago evidently traded with the Cheyenne in the 17th century. (Waldman 146-47) Driven west by both rival tribes and white encroachment, the Arapaho and Cheyenne adapted to the new environment and relied heavily on plentiful buffalo for subsistence. They lived mostly unmolested while the territory was claimed by Spain and Mexico. After the territory was acquired by the United States following the Mexican-American War however, prospectors heading to California during the Gold Rush of 1848-49 had modest success panning for gold in the South Platte River Valley. The first treaty with the American government followed shortly thereafter in 1851: it allowed the American government to establish military outposts and roads throughout the region and purported to assure the tribes’ rights to, “hunt(ing), fish(ing), or pass(ing) over any of the tracts of country heretofore described.” (Brown 68) A major gold strike at Pike’s Peak in 1858 brought upwards of 30,000 white prospectors to the area, and the tribes were misled into signing a treaty that confined them to an area around Sand Creek. Confined to unirrigated land that was not suitable for agriculture, they were also restricted from hunting buffalo in the traditional areas in consideration of the soon-to-be-constructed railroad. Led by the chief Black Kettle, the Arapaho managed to survive by hunting in areas still unencroached upon by white settlers or military operations, a feat that was more difficult with each passing year. Even after the chief Lean Bear was in May 1864 shot dead by American soldiers as he approached them unarmed and waving an American flag, Black Kettle conducted frenetic diplomatic talks with fellow chiefs and government troops in favor of peace, finally securing a meeting with Governor John Evans, which was also attended by Col. John Chivington, in late September.
Evans was cold, hostile, and non-committal during the meeting. The Colorado territory was little more than three years old, officially recognized by the lame duck Congress and President after existing for three years as the extralegal territory of Jefferson. In addition to fears that his recent reports to Washington would seem alarmist and without credibility if he accepted Black Kettle’s pleas for peace, Evans was keenly aware that many of the newly enlisted short-term Third Colorado Regiment volunteers under Chivington (who called themselves ‘hundred dazers’) wanted to, “avoid the military draft of 1864 by serving in uniform against a few poorly armed Indians than against the Confederates further east.” (Brown 79) The Cheyenne and Arapaho returned to Sand Creek without a peace agreement. On November 5th, Maj. Edward Wynkoop was accused of, “letting the Indians run things at Fort Lyon,” and relieved of his command. His replacement was Maj. Scott Anthony, a protégée of Chivington, who drastically reduced the Arapaho’s rations and ordered them to surrender all weapons to his soldiers. (Brown 83) The tribes considered slipping away further south, but upon their first meeting Anthony heartily encouraged Black Kettle to stay at Sand Creek for the winter and send his braves away to hunt buffalo until he could secure additional rations for them. (Brown 84) When Chivington and Anthony swept through the Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment the morning of November 29th, most men of fighting age were away, and the remaining populace was unarmed. The 700 mounted troops supported by four howitzers killed 105 women and children and 28 men. Allegedly, many of the participating troops were drunk. A significant number scalped and sexually mutilated the corpses of those they had killed.