As I consider the settler history of the state of Colorado, I am frustrated with the continued glorification of early settlers and perpetuation of the grand narrative in dominant literature, especially in reference to the Sand Creek Massacre. This conversation is not exclusive to Native peoples, nor is it an attack on settlers, of which most of the state population consists. Instead, it is a message for white people to understand there is a need to end the systematic and institutionalized nature of burying those things of the past that most of us find reprehensible. First, most Boulder citizens must overcome one of the largest barriers to beginning these steps beyond the racist legacy that continues today—white guilt and the consequential inaction.
I have lived in the Boulder area long enough to witness first-hand the debilitating effects of white guilt, which consists of a lack of genuine desire to discuss varying forms of injustice because of a person identifying with majority culture and the overwhelming privilege tied to white identity. The feelings of sorrow and concern appear on the surface of the conversation, but as soon as the mirror is gone, so is the responsibility to continue the work. Thus, people sink back into the comforts of inaction because it’s literally a safe place to be. Note that this in itself is a form of privilege—the ability to mentally erase historical injustices and continue on with life as normal.
Obviously, this article will not appeal to those who remain in the ignorant state of denial and vehemently defend early settlers’ treatment of Native peoples, largely attributed to only learning dominant literature and history. This is being written for those who need a little push out of the nest of white guilt, which was perhaps built with good intentions, but ultimately leaves people afraid to fly toward any action or change. In fact, some people get into the nest and it feels so scary looking out that they never leave it. It’s easy as an adult to rationalize inertia because of all the possibilities—fear of being vulnerable, fear of other people’s anger toward your race and privilege, fear of making mistakes, fear of saying something not quite perfectly, fear of being held accountable, fear of exposing bias publicly etc.
I understand all of these fears, but I also have to share the incredible sense of frustration that arises for people who cannot sit in a state of inaction because of the conscious awareness and witness to daily injustice. There are signs of concrete glorification of genocide here in Boulder County, ignorantly laid upon the Indigenous territory of the Utes and Arapaho tribes (as well as many other migratory tribes), just outside of Gold Hill. I am specifically referencing a headstone placed ½ mile northeast of Gold Hill on Sunshine Canyon Road in commemoration of Colonel John M. Chivington that I drive by on a daily basis. Some people living in Boulder know of Colonel Chivington from his military leadership that ultimately led to the Sand Creek Massacre, but perhaps few know of his involvement with the Masons and title as Grand Master of Masons in Colorado. The Masonic fraternity continues to glorify Chivington and commemorate his racist legacy by re-enacting his funeral service. The current Grand Master in Denver led such a re-enactment as recently as 2011.
How does one make sense of these openly racist acts of commemoration and honor for a man who played a significant part in the genocide of Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples at the Sand Creek massacre in 1864? For some people, including Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples, this mental battle is worked out by running. In November of 2011, I attended the Sand Creek massacre spiritual memorial run for the second time. The icy, cold morning began with frigid temperatures at the Riverside Cemetery, a few miles north of downtown Denver. There are never any expectations other than to participate in an opportunity to spiritually heal from the atrocities at the hands of American settlers. This event is led and organized by members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, as well as descendants of military dissidents, like Captain Silas Soule, whose documented opposition and recounting of this vicious attack serves as a modern day mirror for those fearless enough to look.
Captain Silas Soule wrote about the cowardly attack that took the lives of primarily Cheyenne and Arapaho women who were grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters. The highly sexualized brutality of this attack was described by Captain Soule with an account of a Native woman’s fetus being cut from her pregnant body and multiple sexual organs being cut off of both Native women and men, some of whom were peace-advocating Chiefs. The scene was so disturbing that a Native woman is documented as slicing her two children’s throats before taking her own life, undoubtedly an act of mercy, resulting in a quick death at the hands of the person who loved those children the most.
At the center of this massacre is Colonel John M. Chivington who had a predatory nature that undoubtedly haunts this land today. On November 29, 1864, the ordained Methodist minister led the 3rd Colorado troops to attack peaceful Native peoples who had recently signed a treaty guaranteeing their protection. The predatory nature of settler colonialism is a powerful force that takes whatever it wants—gold, land, people. Today, this predatory force is still around from commemorative headstones to a variety of “development” projects that destroy our planet and promote capitalist models of success.
As a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, I am no stranger to the daily mental battle with the impacts of colonial legacy and mentality. I feel a strange isolation from the majority culture around me that seeks to bury and at times honor the darkest acts of humankind. As we begin 2013, is it possible to live in a community that no longer wallows in a stagnant state of white guilt but instead looks beyond the individual self to serve the greater good of all of us through change that involves a sometimes painful historical education that we can no longer bury and lie about? This headstone is a symbol that needs to be dismantled physically, intellectually and for the spirit of this beautiful land.
(photo courtesy Deanne Grant)