By Nellis Kennedy-Howard
My wife and I recently took a trip and did something we’ve been putting off for years. We visited the site of the Sand Creek Massacre.
At a very early age, I learned about the near-genocide of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people that took place at Sand Creek. But not everyone grew up learning that kind of history, so I’ll share what I know.
The Sand Creek Massacre took place in 1864. The territorial Governor of Colorado, John Evans, invited Native tribes to shelter at Fort Lyon, promising safety from military forces as the Civil War unfolded. Evans was no friend to Native peoples, around the same time, he issued a series of proclamations inviting Coloradans to join militias to “go out in pursuit, kill and destroy all hostile Indians that infest the Plains…”
A group of mostly Cheyenne and Arapaho people led by Chief Black Kettle and Niwot believed Evans’s promise of safety and moved first to Fort Lyon but were then forcibly moved to Sand Creek by the military. Despite the promise of sanctuary, a 700-man cavalry brigade led by U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington descended on the camp in the early hours of November 29, 1864. They gave no warning, and when the chiefs waved a white flag tied to a U.S. flag to show their peaceful intentions, the soldiers cut them down where they stood. Most of the men were in other camps, which left hundreds of women and children defenseless in their peaceful encampment. The soldiers massacred them, cutting babies from their mothers’ bellies, and desecrated the bodies of the murdered women further by carrying away their mutilated genitals as trophies for those back in Denver. For many, their lives were taken from them while fleeing in panic, frantically attempting to burrow in the sand in order to find cover from the soldiers’ weapons.
My people also experienced the theft of their children. Many in my immediate family attended boarding schools where millions of Native children were separated from their families, abused and forced to forget their language.
A little over a decade ago, the land where the massacre took place was designated the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, which is comanaged in partnership with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. It’s not easy to find, far off the beaten path, with little in the way of signage. We walked the site, reflecting on the loss of generations of Native peoples. How many generations were ripped away with this single act? How many children unborn? In a single day, a nation’s leadership was crippled with the murder of 13 Cheyenne chiefs.
We learned that when some of his soldiers protested the order to massacre women and children, Colonel Chivington replied: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians!…Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”
Driving away, we reflected on what we had seen, and once we got far enough away from the historic site, our cell service returned.
What do you call it when the genocide of your people is mirrored back to you in current events? When the ghosts of the past turn out to be alive and well? The first thing I saw on my phone was that Donald Trump had referred to people seeking refuge in the United States as animals. Just recently he equated people coming to America for asylum as infesting our country. Of course it’s not the first (and is unlikely to be the last) time that this man, an unapologetic racist, has said something so ugly. But this felt different. It brought me right back to the rhetoric that was used by the powerful to create the conditions that made the Sand Creek Massacre possible. Native children were “nits” — and nits breed lice, so must be eliminated. Now asylum seekers are “animals” — what comes next, when you dehumanize an entire group of people?
In the Holocaust, Jewish people were “rats.” In the Rwandan genocide, the Tutsis were “cockroaches.” Dehumanizing groups of people on the basis of their identity is one of the steps on the road to genocide.
Things have gotten worse every day for the people Trump called “animals.” Thousands of children have been taken from their parents, many lost and separated from their families in the system, perhaps forever. This is a new policy — only under Trump have ICE agents been permitted to take children from their parents as a deterrent for future asylum seekers.
My people also experienced the theft of their children. Many in my immediate family attended boarding schools where millions of Native children were separated from their families, abused and forced to forget their language. The impacts of that trauma are still felt in Native communities across the country. Make no mistake — the impacts of generational trauma are alive and well and will be felt by these families and their children not just today but for generations to come.
No human being is an animal, or an insect, or an infestation to be eliminated. When people with power use it to dehumanize others — watch out. Learn from the experiences of Native peoples and other persecuted groups. This isn’t just idle talk. It’s a warning sign that we have a duty to heed.
Nellis Kennedy-Howard is the Sierra Club’s Director of Equity, Inclusion and Justice; she is an attorney with certificates in Federal Indian Law and Natural Resources Law, she became an environmentalist after she learned of the country’s largest uranium spill, which took place just miles from her family’s home on the Navajo Reservation and which has been poisoning generations of her family ever since.