From Sand Creek to Ferguson

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr., from “Why We Can’t Wait” (1963)

In recent weeks, a 15-year-old girl was assaulted by a New Haven Police Officer and just this past Tuesday, video footage surfaced of Walter Scott murdered by Officer Michael Slager over a traffic violation. Though the fire of Ferguson may have seemed to die down, its spirit lives on like burning embers, inhabiting our bodies and bodies across the nation.

A few month ago as we stood outside the Native American Cultural Center, cleansing ourselves with sage and a light rain, we could hear echoes of a Black Lives Matter demonstration flooding the streets of New Haven. While we mourned the massacre of about two hundred peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho people that occurred 150 years ago, masses of people mourned the death of Michael Brown and Eric Garner just a few months ago.

Our chants of “We cry out” faded into “Eric Garner, Michael Brown, shut it down, shut it down.” We lit candles, sang, and prayed for the stolen lives at Sand Creek and throughout Indian country. At the same time, protesters marched and held a die-in demonstration to demand justice. The spirits of the Native American and African American communities could not have felt more connected to me than in these short moments. It was a beautiful reminder that the struggle against systemic racism and state brutality is a fight we all share. Although we are ethnically different, and although our experiences have been vastly different, our fates are linked.

On November 29th, 1864, 700 armed Colorado militiamen attacked a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village and killed about two hundred people, most of whom were women, children, and older men. The Union army, led by Colonel John Chivington, scalped, mutilated, and paraded the villagers’ lifeless bodies.

Chief Black Kettle had raised an American flag over Fort Lyon in anticipation of passing U.S. troops to signal alliance with the U.S. However, the flag was ignored and during the brutal onslaught a white flag of capitulation was raised in desperation, but the soldiers continued on their rampage. Hands up, don’t shoot.

In the years preceding the Sand Creek Massacre, the U.S. signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which recognized the traditional territories of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Assiniboine, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. The US would respect traditional land claims and give annuity to the tribes, as long as they could build forts on Indian land to ensure safe passage for Americans on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails to get to the California gold rush) and in exchange, allowed the U.S. to build forts on these territories. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were forced to cede most of their lands by 1861. With the onset of the Civil War, the U.S. forces in Colorado became more militarized, and Governor John Evans developed a harsh attitude towards Indians.

As Colin Calloway, Professor of History and Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth, puts it, over time “war became so common in Indian country, wars against Indians such a recurrent feature of early American history, that it was easy to assume Indians were warlike by nature and therefore merited treatments as ‘savages.’ The Indian wars also, some would say, left a more sinister mark on American culture: a nation built on conquest could not escape the legacy of its violent past.” The combination of hundreds of years of oppressive and vicious attitudes towards Native Americans and the militarization of the U.S. forces would culminate in the genocide and ethnic cleansing that took place at Sand Creek.

Simon J. Ortiz of the Acoma Pueblo published From Sand Creek to memorialize and honor the Cheyenne and Arapaho people who lost their lives in 1864. Ortiz juxtaposes historical narrative with free form poetry to grapple with the legacy of Sand Creek. His poetry works against the exclusion of Native Americans in U.S. history and challenges the master narrative of “discovery,” retracing the roots of this nation back to its indigenous population, who had inhabited Turtle Island for thousands of years.

He describes the transgenerational suffering, writing: “They crossed country / that would lay / beyond memory. / Their cells / would no longer bother / to remember. / Memory / was not to be trusted.” These lines describe the distressing issue of the American government’s denial of the mass genocide of Native peoples, an issue that has effectively made all of American society, easily forgetting to look down at its own bloodied hands,ignorant and indifferent to what its government had to do to become what it is today.

It was only fate that the uprisings catalyzed by the Michael Brown case in Ferguson fall on the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. There was indictment for neither Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case, after he shot the unarmed teenager, nor Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner case, after he killed the father of six with an illegal chokehold. Although the actions of Colonel Chivington were condemned, he was only forced to resign without any criminal charges being brought against him. These are stories seen repeatedly throughout history of the United States allowing the genocide of the marginalized peoples in its society. Now, more than ever, the African American and Native Americans communities, along with other minorities, are uniting over their shared pain and in the fight for equality, crying out “Idle No More” and “No Justice, No Peace.”

by Leanne Motylenski 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWNApFxpRA0