More than 20 hardy souls braved subfreezing temperatures at dawn on Thursday, November 29th, to gather at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado on the anniversary of the 1864 attack on a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho people.
Ranger and tribal liaison Karen Wilde and ranger Craig Moore led the sunrise assembly in a moving interpretive program honoring all whose lives were and continue to be affected by this national tragedy. The observance overlooking the creek-side site of the massacre completed a series of events marking the anniversary. They included the 14th annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run from Sand Creek to Denver and the solemn and private burial of victims’ remains, recently repatriated from the Smithsonian Institution.
The gathering was dedicated to the memory of LaForce “Lee” Lonebear, also known as Hawk Walking, a Northern Cheyenne descendant of one of Sand Creek’s most prominent victims, Cheyenne Chief White Antelope, who was Lonebear’s great-great grandfather. Lonebear, of Lame Deer, Montana, died at 67 in September 2011. Exalted as a Cheyenne Sundance Priest, Medicine Arrow Priest and Piercing Man, Lonebear was a seven-term member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Committee. His dedicated work on the committee, including testimony before Congress, helped lead to the establishment of the park in 2007.
Lee’s compassion for those who suffered and died in the massacre led him to become planning chairman of the spiritual healing run, in which he also participated. The run-walk follows a route of more than 170 miles between the massacre site and Denver, the Colorado state capital today and seat of territorial government before statehood. It was a force of 700 Colorado cavalry volunteers who, in one of the worst atrocities of the Plains Indian Wars, attacked the Sand Creek encampment at dawn on November 29, 1864. They killed approximately 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, many of them women, children and the elderly.
Just before this year’s healing run was the long-delayed burial of the remains of two Sand Creek Massacre victims. In 1866, about two years after the massacre, Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had visited the site during an inspection tour of the West. Seeing that the skeletal bodies of victims still lay unburied on the ground, Sherman ordered that some be gathered and taken to Washington, D.C. for forensic study.
After nearly a century and a half in storage, the ancestral remains were returned in November after action under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The remains were placed in special caskets and kept overnight in a Plains Indian tipi that was ceremoniously raised on the Sand Creek grounds. At dawn on the morning of November 21st, these victims of the Sand Creek Massacre were buried in the park, at a repatriation location above the massacre site.