If, while we are on this earth, we are but breath wrapped in time, what stays when we leave?
That was the “third/third of life” question running through my brain last week as I headed southeast of Denver to the Sand Creek Memorial. When even the people closest to you are urging you to get out of town and decide where you want your life to go next, distance is good. 😉 And road trips are great. So Bridge and I drove. She, snoozing in the sunshine in the back of the Subaru. I, rediscovering how far the horizon really stretches. Strange how easy that is to forget.
The physical horizon in Kiowa County is austere in line and muted in color this time of year. Sky blue and buckskin. Open space punctuated by cottonwood trees bordering unseen water sources. An occasional community, some still active, others like the near-ghost town of Chivington that’s your cue that the Sand Creek turnoff is just ahead.
I’d wanted to visit the memorial even before my friend Karen moved to Eads, Colorado, to become the Native American liasion for the site. It marks the place where, in late November, 157 years ago, some 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho–mostly women, children and the elderly–were slaughtered and mutilated by a Colorado Territory Militia contingent of 700.
I thought I knew much of this story. Setting. Key characters. Motivation. Plot line. There was more. I learned Col. John Chivington, the man who led the charge, was an ordained Methodist minister. I learned that at least two Native leaders–Black Kettle and White Antelope–had met with governmental leaders in Denver just weeks earlier to discuss more avenues for peaceful coexistence. And I learned that, when the soliders came at dawn, the tribal leaders gathered under the U.S. flag they’d been given with the assurance that would be a point of safety for their people.
Karen had called her fellow ranger at the remote site that I was on my way, so he met me at my car. “We don’t get a lot of visitors out here, but those who do come–and they come from all around the world–really feel a need to make the trip,” he began. “They want to understand.” He told me the point where I stood was where the soldiers had ridden in their attack. Of the brutality of the strike and the differing accounts of that day and those that followed. Of Chivington’s triumphant return to Denver and indignant response when fellow solidiers told the truth of the event and urged an inquiry be launched. Ultimately, his only punishment was the derailment of his political aspirations.
When I asked the ranger how he brought those horrific elements together in his own mind, he said simply, “All were people of their times.”
I’ve since learned that the United Methodist Church has apologized for Col./Rev. Chivington’s role and has donated $50,000 to the National Park Service for the development of the Sand Creek Massacre Learning Center. The intent is to “…help visitors understand the affect of the massacre and its relationship to issues worldwide.”
Driving home, I entertained my starting-out question in the context of this visit: “If…what stays when we leave?” Memories in the minds of others, certainly. But also, I think, a stream of energy set in motion by our choices. When we cannot change what happened, we can still choose the next step to keep it from happening again.
I came to this place expecting to feel unsettled. What I experienced was profound peace. Was it because contemporary Cheyenne and Arapaho had blessed the ground in honoring those lost? Or is it because there is an intention for understanding that crosses cultures?
I think the answer is yes.
- United Methodist Church Donates to Sand Creek Massacre Learning Center (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)