Three years ago, I went to Sand Creek in the remote part of southeastern Colorado because I wanted to offer prayers for those women, children, elders, and men who were brutally attacked, slain, and desecrated by the U.S. army.
When I visited in 2019, I was surprised to realize the land felt peaceful to me. The site, a national monument since 2007, was no longer being farmed. It had been allowed to return to natural prairieland, and the wildflowers were abundant. And with the flowers and the natural vegetation, there was a return of insect life. All kinds of grasshoppers, butterflies, and moths were flying and leaping all over the place. I know many people “don’t like bugs,” but many insects are dying out at an alarming rate, and so when I drove down the gravel road, I noticed that I felt joy at the abundance of life so evident all around me.
Of course that joy was a marked contrast to the terror that had unfolded there 158 years ago. It was odd to feel happy when I knew so much sorrow had transpired on that land.
I returned to Sand Creek this year because I didn’t feel like I had necessarily “done things right” the first time around. Three years ago when I arrived at a small parking area and read the signs and then offered prayers, I was a bit distracted by the flies that were biting my legs. Did that irritation spoil the efficacy of my prayers? Possibly. Nevertheless, I did have a bit of “an encounter.”
Although I’ve had some mystical experiences in my life, I am not clairvoyant, and so sometimes Spirit needs to come through in other ways. Well, that day Spirit, or something representing a spirit, appeared in a most unusual but beautiful way. I have never before or since seen such a magnificent (or large) insect.
I didn’t stop to take a picture at the time because I didn’t want to spoil the sacredness of the encounter, but I will show you a photo of the species of creature that I saw that day.
This, friends, is a rainbow grasshopper. As you can imagine, I was mesmerized. I have never, before or since, seen so many incredible jewel-like colors in one creature. And it was big, maybe 4 inches long.
That insect had such a regal presence. He and I stared at one another for a good ten or fifteen minutes. I had the feeling he was an elder. He was a wise being of some kind, showing himself in a way that I would not forget.
This time when I visited Sand Creek, in November of 2022, I accidentally drove down a different road and saw different signs than the first time around. This time I arrived at a small ranger’s station/info center and learned some things I hadn’t known. For instance, I already knew that the Cheyenne and Arapaho were desperately trying to keep the peace with the land-hungry white settlers who kept pushing them “away,” but I didn’t know that these tribes were originally from the Great Lakes region! In fact, they used to be called “the Marsh People.” Can you imagine how difficult it must have been not only to leave their ancestral homelands, but to be moved from a place with an abundance of water and wildlife to a place that was very arid? They would have had to have found a way to survive in a completely different biosphere.
Back in the 1850’s, they kept being asked to move farther south and to confine themselves to smaller and smaller territory. And they kept complying because they did not want war. They did not want to fight the white man. And so they moved again and again and again. Their spirits must have been so weary from all this unwanted change, all this disrespect, all this hardship.
I drove my car to another area of the 12,000-acre site. There I found a walking path, up from the parking lot, to a small hill that overlooked a copse or two of cottonwood trees and a broad prairie. Apparently remains had been found in that area.
There were many more signs to read. I learned that there were many chiefs in this particular encampment at Sand Creek—33, in fact. It was called a “Chiefs Village,” and these particular chiefs were watching over many widows, orphans, and elders. The chiefs themselves were mostly elder men, chosen for their wise and temperate ways. Many of the chiefs were flying American flags from their teepees, under the impression that it would help signify that they were not enemies of the American people. When the village heard the approach of hundreds of thundering horses and realized there were U.S. calvary astride them, they also raised white flags.
The soldiers did not care. They were itching for a fight and they killed indiscriminately.
As I gazed out over the cottonwood trees, I imagined the teepees with the woman, children, elders, and chiefs and the panic they must have felt. Tears ran down my face.
The army shot many of the horses first so the people could not escape. It was a slaughter. 230 peaceful people were killed that day.
When I pray, I pray for the spirits of those who were slain, for those who survived, and for all their descendants. How difficult it must be to hold the knowledge in your heart that your people were so hated and feared that even the peaceful and innocent were brutally murdered. How does one proceed in life with this knowledge?
I pray for healing.
Cover image: These are Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs and headmen at a peace delegation in 1984. Chief Black Kettle and Chief White Antelope in the front row (second from the left and on the far right, respectively) had been in the encampment on that fateful day.
Chief White Antelope killed himself that day. He had been assuring his people that the white men were not bad. He had believed peace was around the corner. When the soldiers arrived en masse, he realized that he had been badly mistaken, and apparently his spirit broke.
Black Kettle survived the massacre but he and his wife were killed four years later at the Battle of Washita, even though Black Kettle had been actively working for peace. Custer reported that he had killed 103 Cheyenne men, but the Cheyenne said that only about eleven men were killed; the rest were all women and children.