Making amends among Montana's Northern Cheyenne 

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Buck says she apologized because she believes that such actions are what it takes to begin to dismantle a conquer-and-fallout-be-damned mentality that took root in North America during the Indian Wars.

The federal government's actions in the 19th century were motivated largely by profit—the desire to have Americans benefit through land and mineral acquisitions, to the detriment of Indians. That way of thinking holds true today, Buck says: Just look at the economy, in which a small group of people holds nearly all the resources. "If you are a winner, you have money-power." Losers are powerless.

Buck says one sees the same attitude in industry. "We are polluting in ways that will not sustain life. ... This is the same behavior that started the foundation of this country. ... It's about the profitability. It's not about the impact."

The solution, she says, entails talking it out. Americans have to acknowledge that their country is founded on brutal hubris, and that that's not enough to sustain them. Getting past their pride requires a psychological shift. "We're talking about something huge here," she says.

"We either do something or we're out of here."



They fired with howitzers

Western history first notes the Cheyenne as a people living near Hudson Bay, between what are now Quebec and Ontario provinces in southern Canada. The tribe split during the early part of the 19th century; the Southern Cheyenne moved along the Arkansas River in Colorado and Kansas, and the Northern Cheyenne hunted buffalo across the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana's winding Tongue River.

click to enlarge Agnes Baker-Pilgrim, a member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, and Thomas Smittle discuss “The Ride Home,” a 1,391-mile commemorative ride that retraced the 1878 Cheyenne Exodus. - PHOTO BY ANNE BAILEY
  • Photo by Anne Bailey
  • Agnes Baker-Pilgrim, a member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, and Thomas Smittle discuss “The Ride Home,” a 1,391-mile commemorative ride that retraced the 1878 Cheyenne Exodus.

In 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty created the Great Sioux Reservation, which encompassed much of present-day Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska and parts of the Dakotas, to be inhabited by the Cheyenne and the Lakota—except that none of the parties abided by it. Cheyenne and Lakota continued to leave the reservation and the U.S. government, hungry for Western resources, could not stomach allowing Indians to inhabit such a vast swath of the Great Plains.

As homesteaders streamed west, tensions between the federal government and Natives mounted. They boiled over early on the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, when 700 cavalrymen approached Big Sandy Creek, in southeastern Colorado, where Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs Black Kettle, White Antelope, Left Hand and their bands were camped.

Some Cheyenne had resisted federal encroachments, but Black Kettle and those camped at Big Sandy were peaceful. Six months before, Black Kettle had asked the U.S. for a ceasefire. "We have been traveling through a cloud," he told government officials in June 1864. "The sky has been dark ever since the war began. These braves who are with me are willing to do what I say. We want to take good tidings home to our people, that they may sleep in peace."

They were told that U.S. soldiers would protect them if they camped near Big Sandy Creek.

Many of the Cheyenne and Arapaho men were out hunting that morning. By some estimates, as few as 35 braves remained at the campsite, along with hundreds of women, children and elders.

When Black Kettle saw the cavalry approach, he grabbed an American flag that had been given to him years before by a U.S. dignitary, fastened a small white flag beneath it and ran the flags to the top of his lodge. According to later congressional testimony from John S. Smith, a U.S. Indian agent and interpreter who was at Big Sandy Creek during the attack, Black Kettle had been advised to do that if he encountered soldiers who appeared hostile.

click to enlarge Members of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers Agnes Baker-Pilgrim and Buddhi Maya Lama participate in the “Ride Home.” - PHOTO BY ANNE BAILEY
  • Photo by Anne Bailey
  • Members of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers Agnes Baker-Pilgrim and Buddhi Maya Lama participate in the “Ride Home.”

Col. John Chivington, a sharp-tongued Methodist minister, led the attack. His troops fired on the camp with rifles and howitzers.

Estimates of the number of Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho killed that cold morning range from 200 to 400.

Smith, who had a half-Native son who was killed at the camp, told Congress that soldiers cut women and children into pieces. "They were terribly mutilated, lying there in the water and sand; most of them in the bed of the creek, dead and dying, making many struggles."

After the U.S. military investigated what would come to be known as "the Sand Creek Massacre," Army Judge Joseph Holt publicly deemed it "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation."

Chivington's Army commission expired before he could face a court martial.

In 1867, government negotiators persuaded the Cheyenne to sign the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Black Kettle, who survived the Sand Creek Massacre, was a signatory. His followers were relocated to a smaller reservation in present-day Oklahoma. Rations promised by the government were insufficient.

Hunger, desperation and anger prompted an increasing number of Indians to carry out raids. Militaristic bands like the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers attacked settlements and stole livestock. On Aug. 10, 1868, they killed at least 15 white settlers in Kansas and wounded several others. They raped white women.

Some of the men who carried out the Kansas raid took refuge at Black Kettle's camp in Oklahoma. At daybreak on Nov. 27, 1868, Gen. Custer ordered his troops to attack Black Kettle's camp. Black Kettle and his wife were shot to death while trying to escape.

In June of 1876, Custer was killed while fighting the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho at the Battle of Little Big Horn. More than 200 cavalrymen died that day. What became known as Custer's Last Stand further inflamed hostility toward Natives.

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