Content warning: This article contains descriptions of the atrocities of the Sand Creek Massacre.
In November of 1864, following a series of violent proclamations by Northwestern founder and Colorado territorial governor John Evans, approximately 675 Colorado volunteer soldiers marched into a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho people on the bank of a stream known as Sand Creek. Cheyenne chief Black Kettle raised a white flag and an American flag in an effort to signal peace, but the soldiers attacked. Following the day’s assault, over 150 people—largely women and children—lay slaughtered, with the soldiers burning down the village and mutilating corpses to take body parts as war trophies.
155 years later, descendants of Cheyenne and Arapaho survivors of the massacre came to Northwestern for the 6th annual Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration. Tribal representatives from the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes spoke to students, faculty and community members at the McCormick Foundation Center forum on Saturday morning about the atrocity and its lasting impacts.
“There is intergenerational trauma still today,” Sand Creek Massacre descendant Chester Whiteman (Southern Cheyenne) said. “There are folks that still are angry about these massacres that happened, and my job at home is to try to ease that pain with our younger generation, and my generation, and the older generation.”
Whiteman, along with descendants Otto Braided Hair (Northern Cheyenne), Dr. Richard Littlebear (Northern Cheyenne) and Gail Ridgely (Northern Arapaho), is a part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness and remembrance of the Sand Creek Massacre. This effort began in 1994, Ridgely said, as descendants got together with members of the Colorado historical society and other historians in an effort to create a sacred site at Sand Creek. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed an act to find the site, and in 2007, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site opened to the public.
“20 years went by pretty fast,” Ridgely said. “A lot of work, a lot of effort... a lot of tears. I didn’t know about who I was until 1994 when I went to that first meeting.”
In 2013, the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA) released a petition urging collaboration with Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations in creating a memorial to the massacre and a scholarship fund for Cheyenne and Arapaho students, among other demands. As a response, Northwestern commissioned the John Evans Study Committee, which, over the course of a year, looked into the role that John Evans played in the Sand Creek Massacre.
Jasmine Gurneau (Oneida/Menominee), the manager of Native American and Indigenous Initiatives at the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (OIDI), said that she saw a shift in the way Northwestern handled Sand Creek at an open forum in 2013, when the committee was about halfway done with their research.
“A lot of folks from Northwestern as well as the Native community locally came out and were giving advice and suggestions for their study into John Evans and Sand Creek,” Gurneau said. “One of the major takeaways from that forum for me, which was a turning point, was that it didn’t matter what their study found: At the time of that meeting, Northwestern wasn’t doing a very good job at being welcoming to Native American and Indigenous peoples.”
NAISA students organized the first commemoration in 2014, and the event has continued to bring descendants and community members together every year since. Although the study committee’s report largely cleared Evans of culpability (a University of Denver report on the same subject found otherwise), Dr. Jabbar Bennett, Associate Provost and Chief Diversity Officer, said Northwestern still has work to do in acknowledging the institution’s history and rectifying past mistakes.
“An event like this does several things,” Bennett said. “It acknowledges to the descendants and survivors that we care. It also, for members of our community, reinforces that we must acknowledge our entire history as an institution and the impact of our broad actions despite the intent, and be able to deal with that in any and every way we can.”
Rogers Park resident Patricia Xerikos (Mille Lacs Lake Ojibwe) attended the first Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration in 2014, and is glad to see the continuity of the event.
“I like that it’s still going on,” Xerikos said. “Some of the people that we met from way back [in 2014], the panelists, are still coming and keeping it alive and reminding us every year of this.”
The commemoration was co-sponsored by NAISA, OIDI, Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA) and the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR). In addition to speeches from the descendants, this year’s event included an honor song to open and close the event by the Redline Singers, a Southern Plains style intertribal drum group; a land acknowledgement by professor Patty Loew (Bad River Ojibwe); and a screening of “Only the Mountains,” a documentary film about the massacre commissioned by Northwestern.
Northwestern sits on the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires—the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi—and the Menominee and Ho Chunk, as well as being a site of trade and commerce for many other tribes. Descendants emphasized the opportunity for education among students about Northwestern’s history.
“This university—it is Native land,” Whiteman said.