In late November of 1994, when I was a sophomore in college, I drove across the state of Colorado on a sort of personal pilgrimage to visit the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. The spot, unmarked on most maps, was where nearly two hundred southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, mainly women and children, were killed by the Colorado Cavalry. I wanted to go there and sleep alone under the stars, and perhaps experience some kind of spiritual connection, or at least offer up a small prayer. This was not something I planned weeks or even days ahead, but rather an idea that came to me spontaneously, on the morning before the anniversary of the incident. Relishing this mysterious inspiration, I quickly packed up my old Ford Econoline and began the three- hour drive east.
I knew that the general location of Sand Creek was near the town of Eads, so when I arrived there I asked around at a service station. Before long, I had a map drawn out for me on a napkin by an old mechanic who spoke slowly, drawing out each word like they were his last. After a lonely stretch of highway and an even more desolate dirt road, I finally arrived at the rough four-wheel drive track that led to the bluff over looking Sand Creek. I was immediately taken aback by a dilapidated wooded sign that read "Sand Creek Battlefield," a description that belied the historical facts. Next to it was another sign that listed the rules: No camping. No Fires. No Alcohol. Five Dollars Per Person. I stared with annoyance at a small wooded box put there for the sole purpose of taking my money. Looking around, there was only rolling prairie in every direction, and not a sign of civilization, let alone authority. Collection box be damned. I was going to camp, make a fire, and break every rule that I could. If it wasn't a half hour away, and I would have driven back to town for a bottle of Jack Daniels.
I threw my backpack over my shoulders and made my way down the steep hill, where a copse of windswept cottonwood trees stood solemn guard in the horseshoe bend of the dried creek bed. The sage brush was bone dry, and in no time I had a crackling fire to heat my dinner of Ramen noodles. I had with me a copy of Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," the book that first opened my eyes to the demise of American Indian culture. I opened to the chapter on Sand Creek, and began to read.
The chief of the Cheyennes was Black Kettle, a peacemaker. He was given an American flag by the Governor of Colorado, and told that as long as that flag flew, his people would be unharmed. While camped at Sand Creek, in trust of the government's promise of peace, Black Kettle sent his warriors to hunt Bison. At dawn on November 29th 1864, Colonel Chivington led a company of eight hundred soldiers into the camp. The women and children gathered around Black Kettle's tipi, where he hoisted the stars and stripes. The troops attacked, killing all but for a handful of whom escaped. In what was one of the most barbaric confrontations in US history, the troops dismembered the dead Indians, collecting the genitals of the men and cutting out the fetuses of the women.
I fell asleep to sound of the dying fire, and the plaintive yipping of coyotes in the distance. It was a fitful sleep, on a bed of stones, standing at the doorway of a bad dream, peeking in but not quite entering entirely.
At dawn, I suddenly awoke to a terrible noise. From the top of the bluff, just out of sight, came a series of loud bangs, like cannon fire, followed by angry yells. Panicked, I threw on my shirt, grabbed the keys to my van, and fled from my campsite. The loud banging noise continued, and I slowly circled around the hill, careful to remain unseen. Finally, from behind a bush, I observed a man repeatedly slamming the butt of his shotgun into the side of my van. In an instant, his eyes were on me. The man cocked his gun and pointed it at me, a volley of expletives exploding from his mouth. I froze, flooded with fear. My hands shot into the air.
"I'm sorry. Oh God! I'm just... Please! I'm sorry!" I stammered.
"Get the FUCK off my property!" the man hissed, then abruptly lowered his gun. A wave of relief washed over me as I realized that I wasn't necessarily going to be filled with lead bullets by the indignant white rancher upon whose property I was trespassing. I dug into my wallet and offered a handful of bills to the old codger, apologizing profusely for breaking all his rules, and what a disrespectful little shit I was, and yes sir, I would never come back this way for as long as I lived. Barefoot and in my boxer shorts, I drove away from the Sand Creek "Battlefield," sorry to leave behind my sleeping bag and beloved history books, but grateful to be alive. An hour later, with the incident receding far behind me, I reflected on the sad, yet poetic irony of this whole event. Men with guns, angry and afraid, took the lives of all those Indians on that November dawn at Sand Creek. Exactly one hundred thirty years later, it is men with guns that had me fleeing from the same refuge of soft sage brush and weeping cottonwoods. The connection I found was in violence, but it was a connection nonetheless.