In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets for weeks of sustained peaceful protest, demonstrations and riots as a nation struggled to grapple with issues of race and justice in our past. Soon after protests began, the focus—first, of the protesters and then the politicians—turned to national monuments with, as of July 7, more than 150 monuments and statues having been either vandalized by protesters or removed by local officials for safekeeping.
Meanwhile, the topic of monuments has evolved into an issue that’s as emotionally laden as it is controversial, quickly becoming yet another dividing line between the “right” and the “left” and, by default, the American people.
Over the weeks, President Trump has made his position clear. He’s stated that “monuments preserve the memory of our American story” and “express our noblest ideals” and described protesters as “mobs” of “vandals”, “thugs” and “left-wing Marxists bent on erasing America’s history”. In his July 4 Mount Rushmore speech, he went even further, stating, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out history, defame our heroes and erase our values.”
In response, Speaker Pelosi has walked a broader line. As she recently stated, “When you look around, you see the Washington Monument and statues of Jefferson and Lincoln. Those are people we respect. People who are heroes.” However, she also attempted—unsuccessfully—to have nearly a dozen Confederate statues removed from the Capitol as Democrats have long criticized them for glorifying pro-slavery politicians and recently removed from the Capitol four portraits of former Speakers who had served as Confederate leaders, stating, “There’s no room in this temple of democracy to memorialize people who embody the violent bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy. We must lead by example.”
Although these comments are in direct opposition, they’re based on the same two assumptions.
The first? Monuments are history.
And assumption number two? There are only two ways to deal with monuments and only one of them is right, depending upon a person’s beliefs. Either “protect all monuments because destroying them is the same as destroying our nation’s history”…or…”remove and erase all monuments that promote racism in any way, for that is not a history of America worth honoring”.
Some historians will disagree with the first assumption as there’s a widespread contention that monuments are not history; they are interpretations of history. Monuments are also political. It’s a political act to put one up and a political act to take one down. However, those are views expressed from the distance of a classroom. People more directly involved may feel differently.
That leaves Americans still facing the most pressing question at hand: how to resolve an increasingly heated national argument about monuments that, according to recent polls, 44% say should remain untouched and 49% say should be removed?
An answer to that question may be found in the actions of a group of Native Americans who, when faced with that same decision, created a third path. The decision they made relates to the Civil War statue in Denver, a bronze sculpture of a Union soldier, dismounted from his horse and staring off to the west. Built to honor Colorado soldiers who’d died fighting for the Union side, it was an impressive sight as it stood on the steps leading to the state Capitol and the famous golden dome overhead. But included in the bronze engraved words honoring the fallen was a blatant and indefensible lie about one of the worst atrocities committed in Colorado history. The monument was pulled down and vandalized on June 25.
The story of the tribe’s decision is part of a much larger story both told and lived by a man to whom history is not a distant, strictly intellectual topic gleaned from the pages of books but, instead, a sacred, living and evolving experience that had a profound impact in every imaginable way on the lives of his ancestors as well as his own, as a descendant of those who came before. It’s a story that speaks from experience of the ravages of racism and justice that is inherently unjust, but it’s also a story that refuses to end there. It’s a story related to a journey from a place of unbearable pain, loss and violation to a place of peace, purpose, resolve and spiritual understanding. And, in many and all ways, it is a story about healing.
It’s told by a Northern Arapaho man named Gail Ridgely. Great-great grandson of Little Raven. Son of Eugene Ridgely, senior. Original and long standing Northern Arapaho tribal representative to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Teacher with advanced degrees. Counsellor. Principal. Lecturer. Writer. Activist. Advocate. Interpreter. He spoke from his home on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
THE THIRD PATH
To the Northern Arapaho, the story of the Sand Creek Massacre is sacred. Even saying the name is a sacred act, and before speaking, Gail prays that his words are humble and true, respectful and “don’t hurt anybody”. That same reverence resonates throughout as he speaks in a way that is careful and thoughtful and a voice that is warm and kind.
The facts of Sand Creek are available to read on the National Park Service website and a number of other places. They all, to a degree, tell the same tale. On November 29, 1864, 675 cavalrymen with the United States Army and led by Colonel John Chivington attacked a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho camped on the banks of the Sand Creek who had been told they were under the protection of the United States Army. It was a brutal massacre that went on for hours and left over 200 native people dead, most of them elderly men, women and children. A congressional-level investigation strongly condemned the actions and found that Chivington “surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand Creek” in an attack that was unprovoked and justified with nothing but manufactured reasons.
Yet, when Gail speaks of that day and the time that has passed since, it’s in a voice that isn’t heard in textbooks. It can’t be intimately understood by those who haven’t experienced what he, his ancestors, his family and his tribe have, for more than 150 years. But through his words, those who haven’t been personally impacted by unspeakable transgressions in this nation’s past are given a glimpse—just a glimpse—of the meaning those events hold for those who have suffered and the importance for history, as they have personally experienced it, to be represented in truth. It can only be hoped that such a glimpse brings with it a greater understanding.
“When I talk about Sand Creek,” Gail begins, “it’s a sacred place. I had ancestors that died there. Ancestors that ran in the cold weather all the way up through Boulder. All the way to Wyoming. They were hunted people. I look at my grandkids and… Man, our ancestors. They endured. They were resilient. But they were hunted. How could a society that claims to be civilized take human life? Human life is precious, even in a non-tribal world. All life is precious. The world is precious. Sacred.”
Erected in 1909, the Civil War figure stood on a pedestal that contained the names of soldiers from the 1st Colorado Calvary that fought and died for the Union. Included among those names being honored were soldiers who’d attacked Sand Creek. Included in the list of battles fought was the name Sand Creek. With funds that came from the Pioneer’s Association and the State of Colorado, the lie that described Sand Creek as a battle was etched in stone, despite having been proven to be a massacre by the federal government.
And there the statue stood, undisturbed as it misrepresented history, for another 90 years.
As Gail describes his years growing up, he says, “I tell my people I grew up poor, so poor I couldn’t pay attention. My grandparents were poor. Their families were poor. I went to school and the teachers would say, ‘You’re so dumb and I get paid to teach you.’ I went to high school and graduated. I told the counsellor that I want to go to college. He said, ‘You know, only a few Indians make it in college. Only a few.’ He recommended that I go to trade school. He asked, ‘How good are you with your hands?’ I said, ‘Pretty good, wrapped around your neck.’ His face got red, and I walked out. About 8 years later, I walked in to his office and dropped my master’s degree on his table. ‘Thank you. Thank you,’ I said. ‘Dumb Indian,’ I said.”
By the mid-1990s, Gail was teaching in a tribal school. “It’s 1995,” he says. “I’m teaching American history in tribal schools, and in the book—the textbook—there’s only one story about native people. It’s about Pocahontas. It’s five pages long.” Gail grows silent for a moment after that.
Around that same year, a constellation of events began to take place related to the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. There was talk of legislation that would make the land a National Historic Site. Representatives from the National Park Service, the Colorado Historic Society and Dr. David Halaas met with a group of tribal members, including both Gail and his father, Eugene Senior, and individuals from each of the four tribes-- Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho—to discuss the massacre, how to determine the exact site of the event, the search for archaeological artifacts.
For Gail, those meetings had profound significance as he connected with his history. And that, he says, was the first step on a journey that led to healing.
“1995 changed my life,” he said. “We met in Lamar. A group of us. Man…I learned so much that Little Raven taught. I learned what happened at Sand Creek. It was hard to hear. What was done. It was difficult. I didn’t speak to nobody for three days after that. It changed my life.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Every time the tribes met and talked about Sand Creek, we paid homage. Strong prayer. Thanked each other. Fed each other and left. It was sacred ground. When we returned down there, it felt like home.”
Soon, there were discussions of legislation by Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell that would have Sand Creek declared as a national historic site. There were ceremonies and talk about beginning the healing process. Fort Lewis College took part in a study to discover the site of the massacre. In 1998, President Clinton signed PL-105-243, The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site Study which directed the National Park Service to determine the extent and location of the site. And all of this occurred with consultation from the tribes. “It was a Memorandum of Understanding between the National Park Service and the tribes,” he said. “A government to government implementation plan for that law.”
In 1999, the Colorado legislature voted to replace the plaque on the Civil War statue and remove the wording that listed Sand Creek as a battle. But the tribes did not accept that offer. They chose a different path, a third path that did not tell a rewritten story or a partial story but the complete story of what happened and did so by adding an additional plaque that rectified the lie.
“The controversy surrounding this Civil War monument has become a symbol of Coloradans’ struggle to understand and take responsibility for our past. On November 29, 1864, Colorado’s First and Third Cavalry, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, attacked Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the banks of Sand Creek, about 189 miles southeast of here. In the surprise attack, soldiers killed more than 150 of the village’s 500 inhabitants. Most of the victims were elderly men, women, and children.
“Though some civilians and military personnel immediately denounced the attack as a massacre, others claimed the village was a legitimate target. This Civil War monument, paid for by funds from the Pioneers’ Association and the State, was erected on July 24, 1909, to honor all Colorado soldiers who had fought in battles of the Civil War in Colorado and elsewhere by designating Sand Creek a battle, the monument’s designers mischaracterized the actual events. Protests led by some Sand Creek descendants and others throughout the twentieth century have since led to the widespread recognition of the tragedy as the Sand Creek Massacre.”
The plaque was authorized by the Senate Joint Resolution 99-017.
“No tribe could singly make that agreement decision,” Gail said. “It was concurred on by all the tribes and the government and the Sand Creek representatives.” In 2002, the Northern Arapaho Business Council and the tribal members participated in the dedication ceremony of the Sand Creek Interpretive Plaque installation. “The ceremony was respectful,” Gail said. “It was peaceful. Somber. And overdue. Even though the words were written small on the plaque—to me, it should have been large—but the tribes and the state deemed the way it should be put. We were all in agreement and concurred on how it was done. The statue was a simple statue put up by small minded people, but it denoted cavalrymen who fought to take away slavery. That’s the way it was written. At that time, it was a social change to put that up.”
In homage to the importance of the correct interpretation of history, the installation ceremony was held on November 29, 2002, exactly 138 years after the massacre.
In the years that followed, the Sand Creek Massacre was designated as a National Historic Site to be managed in close consultation with the tribes, an accomplishment Gail largely credits to Dr. Alexa Roberts and her staff with the NPS for the decades they spent providing guidance and their resolve in helping the tribes work with the government. And, at the site, prayers were said, songs were sung and ceremonies were held on the land. Healing runs are still held every year that began on the massacre site and ended on the steps of the Capitol. And gradually people spoke of this place that had been the site of such horror taking on a growing sense of peace.
Back in Denver, at 1:30 in the morning on June 25, the statue was pulled down and the plaques—all of them, including the Sand Creek Memorial plaque—were vandalized.
“We kept the plaque intact because it tried to rewrite history,” Gail said. “It tried to say something that isn’t true. But history can’t be rewritten. But it can’t be erased, either. History needs to be learned. Interpreted. The tribes weren’t protesting. There was a resolution to accept it, to accept that particular statue. That was done by other people. But the protests are bringing out the truth that was hidden in the dark. It’s a dark truth that is now being brought out. And there will be more to come.” He stops and thinks before continuing. “With other statues—presidents, generals…that’s up to America. I know they’re taking them down. I’m not protesting or promoting them, right or wrong. But they’re discovering their true history. And those people you see from all walks of life doing this to stop racism, they’re discovering their true history, too. But those people who are taking them down…their feelings are coming out. They’re healing. And healing takes time.”
The Sand Creek Massacre occurred in 1864. The statue, erected in 1909, misrepresented a massacre as a battle, and it was not corrected until 2002, a period spanning 93 years. It would be another 12 years before Governor Hickenlooper stood on those steps of the Capitol and officially apologized for the tragedy known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
Healing does take time.
As for Mr. Gail Ridgely of the Northern Arapaho tribe, his voice didn’t raise once in the telling of the story, yet the power of his words lingered long after he stopped speaking. And perhaps therein is another lesson: when the truth is being spoken, it will eventually be heard, even if it is spoken in no more than a persistent whisper.
Cover: A monument at the Colorado state Capitol remembering the 1st Colorado Cavalry who fought and died in the Civil War was torn down early Thursday morning. Photo: Hart Van Denburg/CPR News