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150 Years Later, Two Universities Answer for Their Founder’s Role in the Sand Creek Massacre

Under pressure from students and community members, Northwestern University and University of Denver take the first steps towards righting historic wrongs.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in eastern Colorado, where at least 163 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho community were slaughtered in 1864. (Photo: Jessica Lamirand/Flickr)

November 29, 2014, was the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, one of the most violent days in American Indian history. On that fateful morning, a force of American cavalry officers, led by Colonel John Chivington, and settler militia forces mounted an attack in southeastern Colorado. Through the day, into the night, and again the next morning, nearly 700 soldiers raped, mutilated, and killed peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians allied under the leadership of Black Kettle. Accounts at the time noted the brutality of the attack, with soldiers taking scalps and body parts as trophies. At least 163 community members perished, accelerating a process of ethnic cleansing that ultimately cleared all equestrian Indians from the eastern half of the state. A territory that held few English-speaking communities in 1850 would, by 1870, become dominated by them.

In the lead-up to the 150th anniversary, both Northwestern University and the University of Denver issued detailed reports on Sand Creek. Those investigations were inspired by the demands of students and community members that the universities examine the role of John Evans, Colorado’s second governor. Evans helped found Northwestern before moving to Colorado, where he subsequently founded the University of Denver.

Evans had ordered the recruitment of his territory’s volunteer militia and had fanned the flames of racial hatred in the region beforehand. A Methodist doctor from Illinois, Evans became territorial governor shortly after the election of his close friend Abraham Lincoln, whose administration worked to expand the Republican Party’s influence in the West. Evans had hoped to bring the Colorado Territory into the Union as a free state, and the University of Denver became one of the first universities established in the West. His name figures prominently across each institution as well as their respective metropolitan areas. Northwestern has the John Evans Alumni Center. Endowed professorships carry his name. Evanston, Illinois, home of Northwestern, as well as Colorado’s Mt. Evans are named after him.

Both universities lack Native American Studies programs, which may partly explain why they were so unprepared for student and community concerns. Neither institution had ever recognized Evans’ involvement with the massacre. University leaders were unaware of their founder’s ties to Native American massacre and dispossession, and few American Indian history or studies courses have ever been offered at either school.

The National Park Service has declared the massacre site a National Historic Site, and tribal members from across the West have long participated in annual commemorative runs to honor and remember those lost. As the state of Colorado formed the Colorado Sand Creek Massacre Commemorative Commission, students, faculty, alumni, and community members asked how their universities could not know about, let alone acknowledge, their founder’s connections to such potentially genocidal actions?

The appalling actions of the past appeared mirrored in the present by the shocking underrepresentation of Native American students, staff, and faculty on both campuses. Native American students and faculty comprise less than one-half of 1 percent of the Northwestern campus community, although Chicago is home to tens of thousands of tribal members. Both Chicago and Denver have decades-old Indian communities and have attracted Native people for generations. Each served as a major urban relocation center for government programs that subsidized the one-way migration of reservation community members to urban areas as part of the US Termination policy. Prominent community centers, pan-Indian associations, and annual powwows, including the Denver March Powwow, are located in each.

In response to the protests, administrators on both campuses established review committees that exposed the deep moral culpability of Evans’ actions. While he was out of the state at the time of the massacre, Evans had both authorized and encouraged settlers to “kill and destroy” Plains Indian communities, had pleaded for increased military units, and, as the region’s foremost state leader, had fatefully informed Cheyenne leaders that retribution for summer raids was forthcoming. A subsequent committee at Northwestern attempted to outline institutional remedies aimed at commemorating the victims of the massacre. In addition, each university committed to increase recruitment, retention, and advancement of Native students and faculty. These processes continue, as do discussions about how best to commemorate the Sand Creek atrocities. Inviting prominent speakers, suggested freshman common readings, and preliminary commitments to build centers for Native American Studies characterize such efforts. The institutional commitment needed to maintain these undertakings, however, is unclear.

Nationally, Indian students and community members have worked to commemorate the legacies of the massacre as well as to recognize the larger history of atrocities against Native peoples. Throughout November, Native American community members held vigils and observed moments of silence to commemorate these atrocities. Such events, social media campaigns, newspaper editorials, and related activism brought heightened attention to the subject. On December 10, 2014, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago City Council passed a resolution recognizing the city’s place in the massacre, sending notice to the board of trustees at each campus. The resolution drew upon both universities’ committee reports, as well as historic coverage from the Chicago Tribune which noted 150 years ago the acts of “hideous cruelty” that occurred during the massacre. Acknowledging as well the “genocidal mission” of Chivington, the resolution states, “we, the Mayor, and members of the Chicago City Council … do hereby reflect upon that day of sorrow and extend our deepest regrets and sympathies to the descendants of the men, women, and children slain at Sand Creek.”

Such efforts of commemoration begin a process of acknowledgement and recognition, but are by themselves insufficient for a full reckoning of the legacies of US state violence against Indian communities. Sand Creek is seared into the cultural heritage of Cheyenne and Arapaho communities and into the regional as well as institutional identities of these universities. While astonishing, the historical amnesia surrounding the racial hatred and violent practices of US leaders remains comparatively insignificant in the face of the incalculable losses of life, land, and possibilities on that fateful day.

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