Art And Healing: The Sand Creek Massacre 150 Years Later
Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs gathered
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Graves in Concho, Okla., of repatriated victims of the Sand Creek Massacre.
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Graves in Concho, Okla., of repatriated victims of the Sand Creek Massacre.
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George Levi (Cheyenne), Chivington and Cheyenne Youth, mixed media antique ledge
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Brent Learned (Arapaho), Following Orders, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40", 2014.
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Merlin Little Thunder (Cheyenne), Mending Lodges, acrylic on 100 percent cotton
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Nathan Hart (Cheyenne), Redwood Burl, Redwood, 13.75" h x 11.25" dia.
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B.J. Stepp (Cheyenne), Where Does God Fit Into Our Mission?, acrylic on canvas,
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In remembrance of the 150th anniversary of that tragic day, Cheyenne and Arapaho artists who are also descendants of the victims at Sand Creek are creating an exhibition, One November Morning: Art on Sand Creek by Cheyenne and Arapaho Artists. It will be shown in three locations in Denver, Colo., starting this November.       

Artists presenting work in the exhibition are Nathan Hart (Cheyenne), Brent Learned (Arapaho), George Levi (Cheyenne), B.J. Stepp (Cheyenne) and Merlin Little Thunder (Cheyenne). Although they come to this task with heavy hearts, they focus on the remembrance, honor and strength of their ancestors and leaders. Hart explains: “I want to remember what happened and the generations that have gone before us, those here now, and who is going to come. The resilience that our leaders had is what really kept us together as people.”

Prelude to the Massacre

More than 100 tepees stood in a bend of Sand Creek, Colo., on a cold Nov. 29, 1864. Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle and Arapaho Chief Left Hand had gathered the families under what they thought was a peace agreement with the U.S. Army and officials of the Colorado Territory.

Black Kettle, Left Hand and five other chiefs had met these officials at Camp Weld on September 28, and been photographed with them. The council was meant to end a summer of raids by young, uncontrolled warriors, who had disrupted emigration routes and, for a time, isolated Denver. Black Kettle came to the meeting to assure the Coloradans there would be no general Indian war and to lay down his arms.

But Black Kettle’s compliance wasn’t enough for the territorial politicians. Gov. John Evans and the commander of his territorial militia, John M. Chivington, who both attended the Camp Weld council, refused to accept the Cheyenne peace offer, without telling the chiefs. Perhaps they wanted to seize more Indian land. Perhaps they wanted to make a name in politics for their pro-statehood faction. Senior military brass egged them on, undercutting the Army negotiator at Camp Weld. Major General Samuel R. Curtis wired Chivington during the council, “I want no peace until the Indians suffer more.”

Curtis replaced his Camp Weld negotiator, Major Edward Wynkoop, who had assured Black Kettle of protection, and Chivington prepared his Third Colorado Cavalry for an attack. Unable to catch up with the actual raiding bands, Chivington settled on Black Kettle’s camp as his target. So began one of the worst U.S. atrocities of the Indian fights in the West.

Nov. 29, 1864

Early on the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, Chivington ordered his Third Regiment of 100-day volunteers to take off their overcoats and, as recounted in Stan Hoig’s 1961 book, The Sand Creek Massacre, yelled to them “remember the murdered women and children on the Platte!”

Captain Silas S. Soule, who was photographed with Black Kettle at Camp Weld, had protested plans for the attack and refused to order his unit to fire on the people at Sand Creek. Black Kettle tried to stop the incoming troops by hoisting a large American flag with a white flag below it on a long lodge pole above his tepee. The flag had been given to him in 1860 by A.B. Greenwood, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at the time. But the cavalry continued to attack.

Although Black Kettle miraculously survived the attack, others were not so fortunate. White Antelope ran toward the cavalry “holding his hands high in the air and yelled at them not to fire,” and also folded his arms over his chest signaling that he did not wish to fight. He was shot down there, was scalped and his nose, ears, and testicles were cut off – the latter ostensibly for a tobacco pouch. It was one of many grotesque mutilations inflicted by the Colorado militia.

Indian men, women and children continued to be chased down and killed. Many congregated in the streambed about 200 yards to a half-mile above the village. They frantically dug holes and trenches in the creek bed to shield and hide themselves. However, these defenses were no match for the howitzers and fire from the small arms of the cavalry. The attack left more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho dead out of the 500 to 600 in the camp. Since many of the men were away on a buffalo hunt, the victims were mostly women, children and the elderly.

Aftermath

Although Chivington’s men returned to Denver to public applause, the rest of the nation was shocked by news of their duplicity and depraved mutilations. In 1865, the Sand Creek Massacre became the subject of three federal investigations, one military and two congressional, yet, because of a general amnesty after the Civil War, no one was brought to justice for any of the crimes. Capt. Soule, along with several other veterans of Sand Creek, testified against Chivington. He was murdered in 1865, according to some accounts by a Chivington supporter.

Although Black Kettle escaped, his peace advocacy was pushed aside. Plains tribes, united by the atrocity, intensified their attacks on settlers and cavalry. Black Kettle himself was killed almost exactly four years later, Nov. 27, 1868, on the Washita River near what is now Cheyenne, Okla., in a U.S. Cavalry attack on a peaceful encampment in the then new Cheyenne–Arapaho reservation. The troops, who were pursuing a raiding band, were led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer.

Chivington himself was asked to resign from the Army by Gen. Curtis, who distanced himself from the massacre. The former minister moved around the country, followed by his reputation. He ultimately returned to Denver, where he was appointed a deputy sheriff, and died in 1881.

In 1993, the Smithsonian Institution repatriated the skeletal remains of individuals related to the Sand Creek massacre. Fourteen were returned to the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and 17 individuals to the Northern Cheyenne. In 2012, two more were returned to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe. They are buried at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

The Exhibit
One November Morning: Art on Sand Creek by Cheyenne and Arapaho Artists

The artists are seeking not only to heal their own communities, but to speak to broader audiences about the significance of the massacre. In the words of W. Richard West, Jr., (Southern Cheyenne) the Founding Director and Director Emeritus of the National Museum of the American Indian and current president at The Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles, Calif.: “Sand Creek has particular meaning to me. I consider Sand Creek, in some respects, to be the nadir of how relations occurred between Native people and non-Native people in much of the 19th century.”

Each artist will express his point of view in various media – from painting to ledger art as well as wood sculpture and graphic novel style.

George Levi has been practicing ledger-book art for about 15 years. He is reviving a style originated by Indian prisoners in the 19th century, who were given ledger books in which to record their autobiographies in pictures. For a third year, he will once again join the annual Native Art Market as a featured artist – this year in Washington, D.C.

Brent Learned, a featured artist in this year’s Native Art Market at the Museum on the National Mall, is the son of Juanita Learned, the first woman chairperson of the Cheyenne and Arapaho. Learned’s paintings represent the before, during and aftermath of the Sand Creek Massacre, utilizing movement through color. He states, “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t remember where you came from, you’re doomed to repeat the same tragic events that happened to your ancestors or people before you. My ancestors were survivors; that’s why I’m here.”

Known for his miniature paintings and work with various materials including acrylic, pencil, watercolor and oil, Merlin Little Thunder has been a fulltime artist since 1980. A number of his works are in the Museum’s collection. For the exhibition, he will depict people at Sand Creek before the massacre happened. “I’m just one voice of many; our relatives need to understand. It’s a powerful thing for people to recognize and say ‘I know who I am.’”

Nathan Hart grew up in Clinton, Okla., and has been constructing wood sculptures for around 20 years.

Around the age of 10, B.J. Stepp entered an art contest for a Saturday morning T.V. show that was broadcast out of Oklahoma City, and received the grand prize – a container of Tootsie Rolls in the mail. His art has evolved over the years, and his current comic book and eclectic style in painting reflects the irony of a much less than comical subject matter. It allows him to explore his many different emotions about that day on various panels. He says, “At some point in our lives, we all must learn to forgive.”

Each artist has a familial and personal connection to that tragic day. There is hope that through their art, this event and its victims will live on. Says Levi, “Our lives had so little value back then. Those people [from Sand Creek] are going to have a little voice, and they won’t be hidden or locked away as they were before.”

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