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Amnesia: Spain, Sand Creek, Oklahoma, Germany

By Alan Gilbert.

Andy Reid who teaches at DU Law School, is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Law School. As a law student, he worked with native americans in Southeastern Oklahoma. In response to Linda Hogan’s letters (here and here), (Hogan is a powerful poet and novelist who went back to live with her people in Oklahoma and was swindled by a local real estate agent and her son, the district attorney), Andy gives details of how Chickasaw lands were stolen – how tribes were “allocated private plots” by the imperial US government and then the individuals “owning” them were dispossessed by “courts” in which they were said to have appeared but did not, for failure to pay taxes:

“[Linda Hogan’s] situation is not unusual – as I am sure you know people of color and people of limited means (the legally disenfranchised) are frequently taken advantage of in real estate matters. I recall when I was in law school interviewing elderly Native people from that part of the state who told me that after their communally held tribal lands (those left over after the great illegal Oklahoma land run (the Sooners and Boomers)) were divided up and allotted by the federal government as private property to each tribal member, against their will, numerous new Native landowners would be told they no longer owned their land. When they checked into it, they would discover that the local judge (white) would hold hearings on “tax foreclosures” filed by the county attorney (white) in which the court would issue tax deeds disposing of the Native lands. They would be told that the court records showed that they had been given personal notice of the hearings and had even appeared at the hearings – all due process, all “legal.” Of course, the former Native owners uniformly would tell me that the never received any notice from the court and never appeared at any hearings, despite what the court records showed.’

Given this experience, Andy has long fought the rapaciousness of the American government toward indigenous people and the legally disenfranchised. He underlines the connection between the ugly nickname of the Oklahoma football team – the “Sooners” – and the monicker of the University of Denver – the “Pioneers.” Though “Denver Boone” has been rightly cancelled as a symbol by the administration, one has but to drive by the pub\coffee shop “The Pioneer” at University and Wesley with its irredentist statue of the Disney cartoon Indian-killer to feel the intensity of the racism that remains.

The University of Denver is commendably dealing with this Founding Amnesia – it is actively commemorating and teaching about the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre along with the 150th anniversary of University.

Andy mentions that on November 29, 1864, Governor John Evans “authorized” the Sand Creek Massacre even as Chivington did the actual killing. This is not quite provable (I speak here of my own sense of the matter, not for the DU committee working out a joint report). The sense in which this is true is that Evans, from late 1863 on, on the word of one spy, Robert North, who agreed with what Evans had already decided, thought there was a union of tribes on the Plains embarking on a general war against settlers.(North agreed with what Evans had already decided). Among other officials and officers, however, Evans was regarded as an alarmist. He was isolated. Fighting the Civil War against the Confederates, they regarded an additional Indian war as a disaster.

Evans strongly supported Colonel Chivington, the military commander in the Colorado Territory, whose soldiers fired on sight on Cheyennes and Arapahos along the Bijou, at Cedar Canyon and Oak Creek in spring 1864. In the last, Lieutenant Eayre murdered Lean Bear, a peace leader, riding in a small group, unthreateningly, to find out what the soldiers wanted. Lean Bear wore a medallion given to him by Lincoln and carried letters of friendship with the United States given to him in Washington. He was shot; the soldiers then rode over his body, finishing him off as he lay on the ground. Evans’ Proclamation of June 27th licensed such activity: to “kill and destroy all hostile indians,” i.e those who had not come to named forts as of the day he issued the Proclamation (he gave them no set time, even a month, to come in). His Proclamation of August 11 incited every citizen to kill indians, and,, was as the Northwestern report on Sand Creek says, a vigilante Proclamation, certain to stir war though they oddly imagine ineffectual (in contrast, soldiers who signed up for the Third Regiment based on it and who did the massacre would plainly have had it in mind).

On September 28 at Camp Weld, Evans, as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, refused to make peace with the determinedly peace-seeking Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders who had come several hundred miles to Denver at great risk with Major Wynkoop. Evans thus refused to engage in the standard government tactic of divide and rule. Even Lincoln’s Secretary of Indian Affairs William P. Dole then urged Evans to make peace. He did not.

Still, at Camp Weld, the Cheyennes and Arapahos were given the instruction to come into Fort Lyon with Major Wynkoop, and they would be peacefully settled at Sand Creek, “under the protection of the army” as the Joint Congressional Committee Report would underline, when Chivington, with his hundred day volunteers, rode out to butcher them.

Divide and rule was the American policy for gradual “extermination”: focus on some to kill in battle, divide others off to prevent larger battles, American casualties and expense, settle them as farmers on unarable land, perhaps converting them to “Christianity,” and subsequently drive them out. For instance, Evans negotiated with the Utes in 1864 who accepted his vision; they, too, would be driven out of Colorado by Governor Pitkin in 1879…

But Evans refused to follow this standard policy toward the Cheyennes and Arapahos who had obeyed his Proclamation of June 27th – that Proclamation instructs those tribes to come to Fort Lyon – and had, avoiding the danger of rampant, “on sight” military attacks, come in with Major Edward Wynkoop to meet with him at Camp Weld. Evans was also, in many ways, in league with Chivington (he met with him about military affairs, as a Methodist, as a Mason, as fellow Board members of the Colorado Seminary which would become the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology (founded in 1910 from the religious college that was part of the University of Denver), and as fellow Republican running mates for Senator and Congressional representative in the failed campaign in 1864 for Colorado statehood.

Evans never criticized Sand Creek or Chivington afterwards. In 1884, to H.H. Bancroft, he insisted that the Massacre had been a “benefit to the people of Colorado” because it “rid us” of the “roaming Plains Indians.” Even the equivocal Northwestern report rightly and viscerally names this statement appalling.


There is, however, no written instruction from Evans to Chivington ordering a massacre. Out of town when it happened – he left November 16, thirteen days before the Massacre – Evans refers in several letters to a few friendly indians, prisoners, near Sand Creek. This is significant evidence that Evans was not quite determined to have them slaughtered.

Nonetheless, Evans, uniquely among officials, created the environment for the massacre and furthered it relentlessly from late 1863 through 1864. That he wanted to and was eager to rid the Plains of Indians and move in railways, build up Denver, and build Universities is also revealed in his 1888 statement. Though there is no smoking gun instruction from Evans to Chivington. Evans does say at Camp Weld with Chivington present, “summer is your time (the swiftly moving Indians were elusive in summer), winter is “my time.” Following the Bear River massacre by Captain Patrick E. Connor of the Shoshone in Idaho, the army realized that snowed in, where they could be discovered, indians were an easier target and that tactic would inevitably include slaughtering women and children. Unlike Chivington, Connor and others took prisoners.

Evans feared a fantasized general war of the tribes. As an alarmist among American officers and officials, Evans did everything in is power to make such a war. That war would come as a result of his actions, not as a cause (further, the native americans were defending their land; the Americans were powerful, illegal invadere). Even without a direct instruction to Chivington, Evans’s culpability is, I think, unique. He created the circumstances which made something like Sand Creek likely and perhaps inevitable.

The Northwestern Report at the beginning of its conclusion says “No known evidence” and “No direct known evidence” connects Evans with Chivington’s attack on Sand Creek. In English, the phrase “no evidence” is sufficient. The authors put it this way because no one would be surprised, given the pattern of Evans’ actions for the previous year (the Northwestern Report blurs it…), if such a note or communication were to be found…

Many people are appalled by Sand Creek, today as when it happened. Methodists led by Bishop Eaine Stanovksky have taken the lead in this as has Chancellor Robert Coombe at DU; Governor Hickenlooper, who learned about the changes in and courage of Major Wynkoop when he started the Wynkoop brewery, has appointed a commission to educate about, begin, so far as possible, to heal from Sand Creek.

But founding amnesia about extermination weighs heavily on Denver. The University of Denver still lionizes Evans. Evans was a visionary for the city, for railways and for founding universities – for white people. Being an Evans professor is a little, I have discovered, like being a Jefferson Davis professor at a Southern University; these men do not deserve the honor. But there is Evans Boulevard crossed near the University by Downing (Jacob Downing, one of Chivington’s coterie, took no prisoners, i.e. no women and children, whenever he attacked in two episodes leading up to Sand Creek). There is Mount Evans and Evanston, Illinois and Evans Chapel. These are heavy weights, in the scales, to make a verdict weaker than it should be.

There is, however, a new mood, one to make a fresh start about Sand Creek and seeing Evans clearly is part of this.Andy’s letter also compares American genocide with the Spaniards. While historians often rightly note that ethnic cleansing and genocide are anachronisms and the term used at the time was “extermination,” it is also useful to see the American Holocaust (the title of a book by David Stannard) in a comparative historical context. This turns out to be especially true because Hitler was, from a boy, a fan of Karl May’s wildly popular German pseudo-Westerns and viewed his own attempt to take over Eastern Europe as a parallel to American extermination. Yet Hitler’s affection for and modeling of U.S. extermination of “Red Men” has long been subject, for political reasons, to American amnesia (that the Nazis had learned so much from American racisms – that there was a kinship – would not have been useful during the Cold War…).

Andy rightly invokes Tocqueville:

“The Spaniards were unable to exterminate the Indian race by those unparalleled atrocities which brand them with indelible shame, nor did they succeed even in wholly depriving it of its rights; but the Americans of the United States have accomplished this twofold purpose with singular felicity, tranquilly, legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood, and without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world. It is impossible to destroy men with more respect for the laws of humanity.”

As Andy suggests, Germany’s Second Empire committed genocide in Namibia. Hitler’s favorite author was Karl May whose Western novels – May never had been to America when he wrote them – featured Old Shatterhand, a sharp-shooting, intrepid German, though May idealized – contra Hitler – noble indians like Winnetou.

The American notion of Manifest Destiny, including Evans’ about a supposed right to land lived on by other people, was a basis, in Hitler’s mind, for Lebensraum (Living Space) in Eastern Europe. More even than colonialism, the American experience of ethnic cleansing, symbolized in the term Manifest Destiny, was a paradigm for the Nazi invasions of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia….

In the 1920s, Weimar democracy sent representatives to the US to study American eugenic legislation (that parliamentary regime paved the way for genocide). The Nazi sterilization and miscegenation laws were copied word for word from those of the states of Virginia and Indiana (Stephan Chorover, From Genesis to Genocide, pp. 98-102). America thus played a central role in the international adoption of eugenic laws, and racism toward indigenous people – cutting off skulls of native americans for Samuel Morton who created the pseudoscience of “anthropometry”; some 20,000 are still in the Smithsonian – was central in this. See here. (Otto Braided Hair and David Halaas went to retrieve for burial skulls cut off at Sand Creek in 2012).

This interplay, particularly based on genocide of native americans, needs to be studied and written about more thoroughly. Note that as in the case of the sterilization of Carrie Buck for allegedly being “feeble-minded,” Andy implies that poor white immigrants were also swept up in those horrors.

Here are a couple of indications about the Nazis:

“Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination – by starvation and uneven combat – of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity,” writes John Toland on page 702 of his Adolph Hitler.

The reservation was, as it were, a concentration camp in the “extermination” in the West, and served as a model for Nazi camps, though the latter were more systematic, compared even to the Spaniards, in killing…

According to James Pool’s Hitler and His Secret Partners:

“Hitler drew another example of mass murder from American history. Since his youth he had been obsessed with the Wild West stories of Karl May. He viewed the fighting between cowboys and Indians in racial terms. In many of his speeches he referred with admiration to the victory of the white race in settling the American continent and driving out the inferior peoples, the Indians. With great fascination he listened to stories, which some of his associates who had been in America told him about the massacres of the Indians by the U.S. Cavalry.

He was very interested in the way the Indian population had rapidly declined due to epidemics and starvation when the United States government forced them to live on the reservations. He thought the American government’s forced migrations of the Indians over great distances to barren reservation land was a deliberate policy of extermination. Just how much Hitler took from the American example of the destruction of the Indian nations is hard to say; however, frightening parallels can be drawn. For some time Hitler considered deporting the Jews to a large ‘reservation’ in the Lubin area where their numbers would be reduced through starvation and disease.” (pp. 273-274)

A “reservation” in Lubin…

Dwarfing Napoleon, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union murdered some 20 million people and destroyed a quarter of the housing (in 1943, there were some 6 million fascist troops at Stalingrad, 217 divisions; 1 1/2 million were captured or killed; at the contemporary battle of El Aleman fought by Britain, 12 fascist divisions participated, 40,000 Germans were captured or killed. Along the whole Atlantic front at the time of the Normandy invasion, there were but 70 Nazi divisions). That Hitler calls Soviets “redskins” – and sees an exact parallel of German’s eating bread from subjugated Poland and from Canada, produced on land, stolen from indigenous people, is significant:

“Always contemptuous of the Russians, Hitler said: ‘For them the word ‘liberty’ means the right to wash only on feast-days. If we arrive bringing soft soap, we’ll obtain no sympathy…There’s only one duty: to Germanize this country by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins.’ Having been a devoted reader of Karl May’s books on the American West as a youth, Hitler frequently referred to the Russians as “Redskins.” He saw a parallel between his effort to conquer and colonize land in Russia with the conquest of the American West by the white man and the subjugation of the Indians or ‘Redskins.’ ‘I don’t see why,’ he said, ‘a German who eats a piece of bread should torment himself with the idea that the soil that produces this bread has been won by the sword. When we eat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.’ (pp. 254-255)

Many were killed on the “Trail of Tears” (several thousand, perhaps 25%) and in many massacres of which Sand Creek was the most barbaric, so Tocqueville’s thought is not quite accurate. Still…


Captain Soule’s letter to Major “Ned” Wynkoop:

Ft. Lyon, C.T.
December 14, 1864
Dear Ned:

Two days after you left here the 3d Reg’t with a Battalion of the 1st arrived here, having moved so secretly that we were not aware of their approach until they had Pickets around the Post, allowing no one to pass out. They arrested Capt. [William] Bent, and John Vogle, and placed guards around their houses. They then declared their intention to massacre the friendly Indians camped on Sand Creek. Major Anthony gave all information, and eagerly joined in with Chivington & Co, and ordered Lieut. Cramer, with his whole Co to join the command. As soon as I knew of their movement I was indignant as you would have been were you here, and went to [Lt. James D.] Cannon’s room, where a number of officers of the 1st and 3d were congregated, and told them that any man who would take part in the murder, knowing the circumstances as we did, was a low lived cowardly son of a bitch. Capt. Y. J. Johnson [commander, Company E Third Colorado Regiment], and Lieut. [George H.] Harding [Hardin, First Colorado Cavalry] went to camp and reported to Chiv, [Maj. Jacob] Downing, and the whole outfit what I had said, and you bet hell was to pay in camp. Chiv and all hands swore they would hang me before they moved camp, but I stuck it out, and all the officers at the Post, except Anthony backed me. I was then ordered with my whole company to [accompany] Major A[nthony].—with 20 days rations. I told him that I would not take part in their intended murder, but if they were going after the Sioux, Kiowa’s [sic] or any fighting Indians, I would go as far as any of them. They said that was what they were going for, and I joined them. We arrived at Black Kettles and Left Hand’s Camp, at day light. Lieut. [Luther] Wilson with Co’s. “C,” “E,” & “G” [First Colorado Cavalry troops which had come to Fort Lyon with Chivington and were not part of the Lyon battalion] were ordered in advance to cut off their herd. He made a circle to the rear and formed line 200 yds from the village, and opened fire. Poor Old John Smith and [Private David] Louderbeck [Louderback], ran out with white flags, but they paid no attention to them, and they ran back into the tents. Anthony then rushed up with Co’s “D” “K” & “G,” to within one hundred yards and commenced firing. I refused to fire, and swore that none but a coward would, for by this time hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy. Anthony shouted, “Kill the sons of bitches.” Smith and Louderbeck came to our command, although I am confident there were 200 shots fired at them, for I heard an officer say that Old Smith and any one who sympathized with Indians, ought to be killed and now was a good time to do it. The Battery then came up in our rear, and opened on them. I took my comp’y across the Creek, and by this time the whole of the 3d and the Batteries were firing into them and you can form some idea of the slaughter. When the Indians found that there was no hope for them they went for the Creek, and buried themselves in the Sand and got under the banks, and some of the bucks got their Bows and a few rifles and defended themselves as well as they could. By this time there was no organization among our troops, they were a perfect mob—every man on his own hook. My Co, was the only one that kept their formation, and we did not fire a shot.

The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees, have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One Squaw was wounded, and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, she held her arms up to defend her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand, and dashed the hatchet through her brain. One Squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives, of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing—when one succeeded in hitting the Squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children, and then killed herself. One old Squaw hung herself in the lodges—there was not enough room for her to hang and she held up her knees and choked herself to death. Some tried to escape on the Prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen. I saw two Indians [take] hold of one anothers hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and were both shot together, they were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open, and a child taken out of her, and scalped.

White Antelope, War Bonnet, and a number of others had Ears and Privates cut off. Squaws snatches were cut out for trophies. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there, but every word I have told you is the truth, which they do not deny. It was almost impossible to save any of them. Charly Aubobee [Arkansas Valley pioneer and rancher Charles Autobees] saved John Smith and Winsers [Charles Windsor, post sutler] squaw. I saved little Charley Bent. Geo Bent was killed.3 Jack Smith [Interpreter John Smith’s mixed-blood son] was taken prisoner, and murdered the next day in his tent by one of [Lt. Clark] Dunn’s Co. “E.” I understand the man received a horse for doing the job. They were going to murder Charlie Bent [William Bent’s youngest mixed-blood son], but I run him into the Fort. They were going to kill old Uncle John Smith, but Lt. Cannon and the boys of Ft. Lyon, interfered, and saved him. They would have murdered Old Bents family, if Col Tappan had not taken the matter in hand. Cramer went up with twenty (20) men, and they did not like to buck against so many of the 1st.4 Chivington has gone to Washington to be made General, I suppose, and get authority to raise a nine months Reg’t, to hunt Indians.5 He and Downing will have me cashiered, if possible. If they do I want you to help me. I think they will try the same for Cramer, for he has shot his mouth off a good deal, and did not shoot his pistol off in the massacre. Joe has behaved first rate during the whole affair. Chivington reports five or six hundred killed, but there were not more than two hundred: about 140 women and children and 60 bucks. A good many were out hunting buffalo. Our best Indians were killed. Black Kettle, One Eye, Minnemic [Minimic], and Left Hand.6 Geo Pierce of Co “F” was killed trying to save John Smith. There was one other of the 1st killed, and nine of the 3d all through their own fault. They would get up to the edge of the bank and look over, to get a shot at an Indian under them, and get an arrow put through them. When the women were killed the Bucks did not seem to try and get away, but fought desperately. Charly Autobee [Autobees] wished me to write all about it to you. He says he would have given anything if you could have been there.

I suppose Cramer has written to you, all the particulars, so I will write half. Your family is well. Billy Walker, Col. Tappan, Lou Wilson, (who was wounded in the arm) start for Denver in the morning. There is no news I can think of. I expect we will have a hell of a time with Indians this winter. We have (200) men at the Post—Anthony in command. I think he will be dismissed when the facts are known in Washington. Give my regards to any friends you come across, and write as soon as possible.
Yours &c

(Signed S.S. Soule)

Alan Gilbert is John Evans professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and author of Marx’s Politics:Communists and Citizens (Rutgers, 1980), Democratic Individuality (Cambridge, 1990), Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy (1999) and Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago March, 2012). His blog Democratic Individuality is a rich mine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 19th, 2014.