By learning from history we can heal old wounds
Last month’s column lauded the bravery of Captain Silas Soule in his refusal to obey orders on Nov. 29, 1864, when almost 700 American troops attacked a peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne village along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado.
My hope was that readers would be curious and want to know more about Captain Soule. He and Captain Joseph Cramer both refused to participate in the attack of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle’s village at Sand Creek, where mostly women, children and elderly members of the tribes were camped.
Soule and Cramer each commanded a Colorado company numbering a total of approximately 100 men. None of these soldiers fired a single shot that day.
There is a widely held belief that had both men joined in the murdering madness, there would have been even fewer survivors. My wife Kate’s great-great-grandmother Matilda Sage Spoonhunter would have, in all probability, been killed. And with her death, Kate would never have been born.
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Today, Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants consider both of these men heroes for their moral courage.
In the Rocky Mountain PBS special, Colorado Experience: Sand Creek Massacre, Lorraine Waters (Northern Cheyenne instructor at Chief Dull Knife College and Sand Creek Massacre descendant) said this about Captains Soule and Cramer:
“They were so honorable and so strong but I felt like they were alone. And sometimes when you want to do the right thing, the people who want to do the right thing suffer, even today.”
Captain Silas Soule paid the ultimate price for his bravery.
In early April 1865, Silas married Hersa Coberly, and the couple was living in Denver. On April 23, assassins shot and killed Captain Soule when he was exiting a theatre in Denver.
The trauma of such atrocities as the attack at Sand Creek seems to become embedded in the DNA of survivors, with lasting impacts for generations. To the Cheyenne and Arapaho today, the blood that was shed that day is still on the ground, ground that is now sacred and protected by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site.
How does an entire culture heal from that kind of trauma? Perhaps history can help heal a time in our past when the official government policy toward American Indians was either annihilation or forced assimilation.
By acknowledging what happened over 150 years ago, history can put us on the path of honoring victims and healing the past.
As one Cheyenne tribal member said, “We can’t rewrite history, but we can learn from it.”
Every November since 1999, Cheyenne and Arapaho relay runners have participated in the Sand Creek Spiritual Run — the 173 miles from the Sand Creek site to Denver.
The run follows the route the soldiers took to Denver to celebrate their “victory.” Runners commemorate those who were killed during the Sand Creek Massacre as they seek healing for all people.
Runners stop at 15th and Arapaho Streets in Denver to honor the bravery of Captain Silas Soule as descendants of both sides gather, including Silas Soule’s and Gov. John Evans’ family members.
Reliving history is not for the purpose of causing guilt to anyone in the present, over a dark chapter in America’s past in which none of us living now had a part. But visiting the Sand Creek site may produce understanding, healing, closure and possibly forgiveness in all of our hearts.
That certainly seems to be the case in the great-great-grandson of Gov. Evans. He called me after reading last month’s column and said visiting the battle site is a very powerful, touching experience.
It was Gov. Evans’ ambition that propelled him into making decisions that led to the Sand Creek Massacre.
It is the classroom of history that teaches us how to live our lives based on the lessons we learn from the past.
Bill Kight is the executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and writes a monthly column about history. He can be reached at 970-945-4448.
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