"The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux
The basics are, a surprise attack at dawn of November 29th, 1864, with 675 volunteer soldiers commanded by Col. Chivington, struck a village of about 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho, which was made up of warriors, women and children. Those in the village didn't stand a chance, and the barbarism that followed the attack still gives Chivington a name that goes down in ignominy.
"Witnesses described Indians on their knees begging for mercy and children used for target practice. Victims' body parts were sliced off and taken to Denver as trophies. Two other military leaders refused to let their men participate and condemned the attack." Eric Gorski in Denver PostEven reading of the brutality following the immediate attack makes a person wonder how someone can get to the point that they see other humans as less than human. Mobs do get that way though and even those under military command can reach that point.
It wasn't to be the last time the soldiers set out to massacre Indians by hitting their villages in a surprise attack. Sometimes it worked. Most spectacularly in June 1877 at the Little Big Horn, it did not. Some though believe Custer that day hoped to capture hostages, not slay women and children, and believed he could then make the warriors surrender as he had on the Battle of the Washita. As is well known, The Little Big Horn didn't work out so well for him or his men. After Custer was killed at Little Big Horn, it set in motion certain events where the military felt entitled to kill without warning.
It was later that same summer. Native Americans were being forced onto reservations by the military. The Nez Perce had decided to flee, women, children, warriors to avoid being incarcerated in one of those reservations where often food was inferior, they had poor shelter, and no ability to hunt as they always had done. Thinking they could get to Canada where life would be better, they had traveled peacefully some distance, even traded with some of the posts, and by August 9th, they camped at one of their favorite places to rest and dig Camas root.
Being there today, it's easy to imagine how they felt. You can almost hear the children playing, the women chattering as they worked at setting up camp and digging the roots that were one of their staple foods. Sometimes if you are lucky you will see a moose or sandhill crane. Still it's not hard to hear other sounds if you are sensitive to vibrations.
What the Nimíipuu (the Nez Perce own name for themselves-- which means The People) didn't know is they were being chased by a military which had a desire for revenge over the defeat of the 7th Cavalry on the Little Big Horn.
As they had done before, the military struck the camp at night. The warriors fought back, women and children hid in the water. The screams, cries and sound of guns went on for two days. But this battle ended differently as the warriors covered for the escape of the surviving women and children, and then escaped themselves. 90 Nez Perce and 31 soldiers and volunteers died those two days.
I incorporated these two battles into my own book, Diablo Canyon as events like these don't really die with the people. Their energy and lessons continue.
The Big Hole National Battlefield has been preserved to tell the story. The ones who worked to make this a park had fought in the battle and saw the need to not forget what happened there. The Nez Perce never got their homeland back, which was the Wallowas but they were settled in Idaho.
Possibly the most memorable massacre of Native Americans, at least for those who study such events, would be Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890 and that because photography left a physical record for people to see the aftermath. This photo is the least horrifying of the historic images.
This massacre was brought on by fear regarding the Ghost Dance, which involved magic shirts that would protect the wearer from bullets. I think the dance was also intended to bring dead warriors back to life. The fear sounds like an excuse, but then I am looking at it from 2014. It started as coming there to disarm the Sioux, but ended up with the 7th Cavalry, still bitter over what had happened to Custer, firing on everyone they could see-- or was that what happened?
The people who insist on talking about American exceptionalism must also deal with historic reality. I know there is quite a movement out there to rewrite ourselves as constantly being heroes but how do you do that when you have so many stories that paint a very different picture? Well, one way is to get people to ignore what is not convenient.
What makes these moments important today, not just for writers who might use them in a story, is how a culture can get to a point where they see other humans as less than human. The 'other' is a threat and must be subdued or killed. I am not sure if human nature ever gets beyond it. I do though believe we ought to try.