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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Colonel John Chivington (p. 27)

From chapter "Coyotes, Kittens, and Conversations"

On November 29, 1864, approximately seven hundred soldiers, under the command of Colonel John Chivington, approached a Cheyenne encampment near Sand Creek, in Colorado. The dawn’s early light revealed to the soldiers about a hundred lodges scattered below.

Chivington knew that in an attempt to demonstrate that they were no threat, the Indians of this village had voluntarily turned in all but their hunting weapons to the Federal government. He knew that the Indians were considered by the military to be prisoners of war. He knew further that nearly all of the Cheyenne men were away hunting buffalo. His response to all of this: “I long to be wading in gore.”

As was true of Descartes centuries before him, Chivington was no lone lunatic, but had an entire culture for company. This highly respected man—a former Methodist minister, still an elder in good standing at his church, recently a candidate for Congress— had already stated in a speech that his policy toward Indians was that we should “kill and scalp them all, little and big.” It would be comforting to think that such a murderous impulse would stamp the man an outcast. We would be wrong. The Rocky Mountain News, the paper of record for the region, had ten times during the previous year used editorials to urge “extermination against the red devils,” stating that the Indians “are a dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race, and ought to be wiped from the face of the earth.” The paper worked closely with the governors who proclaimed it was the right and obligation of the citizens and the military of the region to pursue, kill, and destroy” all Indians. Chivington and his troops did not act alone.

Two white men who happened to be visiting the camp spied the soldiers, and tied a tanned buffalo hide to a pole, then waved it above their heads as a signal that this was a friendly village. Black Kettle, the Cheyenne’s principle leader, raised first a white flag and, fearing the worst, a United States flag (given to him by Abraham Lincoln) in a desperate attempt to convince the soldiers not to attack.

There is an awful inevitability about what happened next. Soldiers opened fire. Indians fled. Chivington ordered his artillery to shoot into the panicked mass of women and children. Troops charged, cutting down every nonwhite in their path. Women scratched at the creek’s sandy bank, trying to scoop out shelters for themselves and their children. As one soldier later reported, “There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six ‘,‘ears old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were afterwards killed, and four or five bucks outside. The squaws offered no resistance. Every one I saw dead was scalped. I saw one squaw cut open with an unborn child, as I thought, lying by her side.”

Picture the scene: a happy Chivington wades in gore. Mutilated Indians lie still in the cold November morning. In the distance, you can see a group of Cheyenne women and children trying to escape on foot. Far behind them, a group of soldiers charges on horseback. A movement in the dry creek bed to your left catches your eye. In the middle distance you see a child. As a soldier later recalled: “There was one child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, travelling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, at a distance of about seventy-five yards, and draw up his rifle and fire—he missed the child. Another man came up and said, let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.’ He got down off his horse, kneeled down, and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.”

Now picture another scene, this of the soldiers tiding home, victorious. You know that they scalped every body they could find, even digging up those which by accident had been buried with their heads full of hair. You see so many scalps that, as The Rocky Mountain News will soon report, “Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send east.” You know also that the soldiers cut off fingers and ears to get at the jewelry of the dead. But now you look closer, and closer still, and you see that the soldiers “cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows, and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks.”

Now picture, if you will, a third and final scene. Congress orders an investigation into what Chivington calls “one of the most bloody Indian battles ever fought,” and what Theodore Roosevelt later calls “as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.” The investigating committee calls a meeting with the governor and with Chivington, to be held at the Denver Opera House. Open to the public, the meeting is well-attended. You are in the back. You smell sweat, smoke, and you cannot be sure, but you think liquor. During the meeting someone asks whether, as a solution to the obvious Indian problem, it would be better to civilize or exterminate them. The crowd explodes. As a senator later wrote, “there suddenly arose such a shout as is never heard unless upon some battlefield—a shout almost loud enough to raise the roof of the opera house—’EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!”’

Chivington did not act alone.

Chivington was neither reprimanded nor otherwise punished, and parlayed his fame into fortune as an after-dinner speaker. The University of Colorado named a dormitory after his second-in-command.

That these Indians were killed was in no way surprising. They were never considered human. The women were “squaws” and the men “bucks.” The children ? They counted even less. Theyshould be killed because, as Chivington was fond of saying, “Nits make lice.”