On November 29, 1864, 700 members of the Colorado Territory militia attacked and destroyed a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians near the banks of Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. The Indians had been promised safety and protection by the U.S. government. The militia was led by U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington, a Methodist preacher. Accounts of casualties vary. Between 70 and 163 Indians were killed, two-thirds of them women and children. Twenty-four militia members were killed.
In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the massacre and its prominent place in what was known as the Indian Wars, the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church made a pilgrimage to the massacre site in June of 2014. Several descendants of the survivors of the attack accompanied us.
We were 600 United Methodists, both lay and clergy, from Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. We traveled in a caravan of 13 buses.
It was unclear what the day would mean for us, or what might be accomplished. We only knew one of our own—Col. (Rev.) Chivington—had organized and led the attack, and that we were somehow connected by that fact to the survivors’ descendants. The day was to be a time of remembrance and repentance.
After orientation and preparation, we arrived at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. (This was the largest single-day gathering of visitors since the site had opened.) We spent a couple of hours walking, praying, listening, and, for some, crying.
Later that evening at a banquet for all who had participated, the survivors’ descendants were invited to speak. One man’s words hit me like a bolt of lightning: “Every year around Thanksgiving time our family would gather and tell the story of this Methodist preacher who led the attack against our people.”
This was how the story was being told. And it was true.
Through our identity as Methodists, we were part of the story. And when some Native Americans hear the word “Methodist,” the first thing that comes to mind is that it was one of our leaders who led the attack against a peaceful encampment of their ancestors.
So… what was accomplished that day? We had an opportunity to mourn our forebears’ actions, and budding friendships began between descendants of the survivors of the massacre and members of the Rocky Mountain Conference.
I also hope that when descendants tell the story this Thanksgiving, it might be a few sentences longer. Maybe it will go something like this: “And the United Methodist Church cared enough about us and about this massacre, that in 2014 they took a whole day to walk with us, listen to us, and pray with us on our sacred ground.”
I am reminded of the ongoing nature of story and the stories we tell. Stories are living, breathing carriers of meaning and culture and connection. Stories are ever-evolving, no matter how old they are or how fixed we think they might be.
And there is always opportunity for grace to slip in through a side door, quietly joining gathered friends at the table.
Image: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Marker courtesy of University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.