The Country's Most Revealing Memorial to the Sand Creek Massacre Used to Celebrate the Killings

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tags: Sand Creek Massacre



Last weekend, members of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek massacre in southeast Colorado, where hundreds of Indians were brutally murdered. But in Denver, a statue stood largely unnoticed in front of the Colorado state capitol. It, too, tells the story of the Sand Creek massacre—and also of the way modern Americans' perception of the Indian wars has changed dramatically over the last 150 years.

My wife likes to tour state capitals, and we visited Colorado’s capitol building in Denver in 2006. “That looks like a civil war soldier,” she said, as we gazed up at the imposing statue that stands before the steps leading up to the entrance. I insisted it must be a miner—Colorado hadn’t been a state during the Civil War, and I could never remember any civil war battles being fought in the Rocky Mountains—but upon closer inspection, my wife turned out to be right. It was a Civil War cavalryman, dismounted, with rifle in hand.  

The plaque at the base of the statue recounted how Colorado’s First and Third Cavalry during the Civil War had staged a “surprise attack” against “Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the banks of Sand Creek,” in which “soldiers killed more than 150 of the village’s inhabitants. Most of the victims were elderly men, women, and children.” Why, we wondered, have a statue commemorating the soldiers who perpetrated the massacre?


I noticed four rusty holes just above the statue’s base where it looked like a plaque had been removed.  The woman in charge of tours said she had never noticed the holes, but Mark, a college sophomore working at the Capitol for the summer, pulled me aside. He explained that the original plaque, which celebrated the victory at the “Battle of Sand Creek,” had been removed in response to Indian protests and replaced by the current plaque. That created a glaring contradiction between the plaque’s message and the heroic image of virtuous soldiery projected by the statue. That contradiction lies at the heart of Americans’ changing reaction to the Indian wars...




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