|Across the Fence: For what do we give thanks?|
|December 02, 2016 M. Timothy Nolting|
Tradition has it that the first Thanksgiving Day was a harvest feast in 1621 when the Plymouth Colonists and the Wampanoag Indians joined together to celebrate. What did they celebrate? Were they celebrating friendship, survival, or a bountiful harvest? Perhaps they celebrated the successful beginnings of a diverse community where differences in language, lifestyle, religion, heritage and traditions were not divisive. It was most certainly a gesture of welcome from the natives who then inhabited this continent. But the hands of friendship that had been extended would too soon be severed by those who came to conquer. I wish that first Thanksgiving would have been the beginning of a nation founded on the principles of humanity, equality and unity.
I don’t know if there was a specified day of thanks giving from 1621 until 1776, but in 1777 George Washington declared that Dec. 18th would be Thanksgiving Day. That changed in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln, after Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day. So, it appears as though we went from a celebration of thanks, for the bounty of the land, to a celebration of thanks for victory over our designated enemies. For the Union Army, after the Civil War, the enemy became the Native peoples of the largely unsettled west that stretched from the Missouri River to the far Pacific coast.
One year after Lincoln’s declaration, on Thanksgiving Day, November 24th 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington, a Methodist minister and also a U.S. Army Colonel commanding the Colorado Militia, was planning a raid on a Cheyenne and Arapaho village at a place called Sand Creek. The ensuing attack on the 29th of November resulted in the killing of more than 150 Cheyenne in Chief Mo’ohtavetoo’o’s (Black Kettle) band. Over 100 of those killed were women and children. Black Kettle survived the massacre and his wife miraculously survived the nine bullet wounds she received. The encampment that Chivington attacked was on land designated as Indian Territory where Black Kettle and his people were camped near Fort Lyon under the protection of a peace settlement with Colorado Governor John Evans made just two months earlier, on September 28, 1864. This camp of Cheyenne, under Chief Black Kettle, was known to be friendly and was not a threat. Above Black Kettle’s lodge waved the U.S. flag with its 34 stars in a field of blue and as he came out of his lodge Black Kettle held another flag, a white flag of truce.
The details of this massacre of innocent men, women and children are horrendous and disturbing. After the slaughter, Chivington and his men scalped and mutilated the dead, displaying body parts as trophies, draped over saddle horns and raised on lances and sabers. Chivington commanded and carried out the most despicable and barbaric treatment of humans imaginable. A Denver newspaper quoted Colonel Chivington as saying, “I have come to kill Indians, and I believe it is right and honorable...”
Captain Silas Soule refused to obey Colonel Chivington’s orders, commanded his men to stand down and did not take part in the massacre. He was a vocal opponent of Chivington and testified against him for his actions at Sand Creek. Capt. Soule was found murdered on the streets of Denver, his assailant was never found. Continued from page A4
I wonder what Colonel Chivington gave thanks for on Thanksgiving Day 1864.
Four years later, Thanksgiving Day, November 26th 1868, Black Kettle and his band were camped on the Washita River, near present day Cheyenne, Oklahoma. The camp was on Reservation land that the aging chief and his people had been granted after the treaty of Medicine Lodge. This was the location of their permanent winter camp. All supplies for the coming winter were stored in their lodges and they had been assured by the U.S. Army that they were safe.
Do you suppose that Black Kettle gathered his family together for a Thanksgiving feast in following the tradition of his Native ancestors of 1621?
On the morning after Thanksgiving, Black Kettle was wakened by cries of, “Soldiers! Soldiers!” He rushed from his lodge, his wife at his side, and watched as troopers from the 7th Cavalry poured into the village from all sides. Old men, women and children ran for cover as Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry poured into the camp from four different directions. Among the many non-combatants killed were Black Kettle and his wife, shot in the back as they tried to cross the Washita River to safety.
Many of Black Kettle’s people escaped into the freezing, snow covered land where a recent blizzard had pelted the area with more than a foot of snow. The entire village was destroyed; all winter supplies of food and lodges were burned. To insure that those who had escaped could not quickly regroup, Custer commanded the slaughter of nearly 1000 Indian horses, a task that Custer himself took particular pride in with his own display of deadly marksmanship. While Custer and his men celebrated their victory in Black Kettle’s burning camp, Major Joel Elliot along with twenty men of the 7th Cavalry were less than a mile away, surrounded by an overwhelming number of Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa; all were killed. Custer left the field without aid to Maj. Elliot. Their bodies were not recovered until two weeks later. Custer lost 3 officers and 19 enlisted men with 13 wounded. In addition to Black Kettle and his wife, 101 other Cheyenne were killed; only 11 of those were armed warriors.
I wonder what Custer gave thanks for on Thanksgiving Day 1868.
Eight years later, after Custer was defeated at the Battle of Little Big Horn, five days before Thanksgiving 1876, U.S. troops commanded by General Ranald Mackenzie destroyed the Cheyenne village of Chief Dull Knife, in retaliation for the defeat of Custer.
Mackenzie’s troops, consisting of 1000 soldiers and 400 Indian scouts attacked Dull Knife’s camp, of 200 lodges, at dawn on the Powder River in central Wyoming. The entire village was sleeping and the attack came without warning. Many Cheyenne were killed in the first few minutes, though some managed to escape into the surrounding hills where they watched as their lodges were burned and soldiers slit the throats of all their ponies.
Those who survived began an 11-day walk north to the camp of Crazy Horse. Many of the small children and old people, half-naked and with no food, did not survive the journey in the freezing weather. On the 5th day of their bitter journey, Thanksgiving Day, no doubt General Mackenzie pulled a chair up to a linen covered table overflowing with meats and vegetables and fancy desserts. A crackling fire warmed those who gathered round. Perhaps shining silver forks clinked on imported China plates and crystal goblets rang as boisterous toasts were made.
And I wonder what General Mackenzie gave thanks for on that Thanksgiving Day, 1876.
I hope that this past Thanksgiving Day found each of us thankful for our blessings, remorseful of our wrongs and merciful to those in need. We do indeed have much to be thankful for in this great land of America. We are a great country and have been since our founding fathers put their hearts and souls, sweat, tears and blood into its foundation and many hundreds of thousands have given their lives to keep it. But we must not be callous in our regard for others or slow to recognize that as a nation we have not always been blameless for wrongs against others. We cannot build ourselves up by stepping on the rights of others. And despite our differences, or perhaps in celebration of them, we must always strive to be The ‘United’ States of America.
I am reminded of a quote from the movie, “The Book of Eli.” The hero of this post-apocalyptic story is charged with the safe keeping of the one and only remaining copy of The Bible. His task is a dangerous one and he must resort to extreme violence in order to accomplish it. When he finally recognizes his ruthless brutality he remarks, “I’ve become so obsessed with protecting it that I’ve forgotten to live by what it teaches. We should treat others as we would be treated.”
For what did you give thanks?
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Cheyenne and Arapaho Chiefs meeting at the Camp Weld Peace Council on Sept. 28. 1864. Standing, (I believe the first man standing on the left is Governor Evans) second from the left is John Smith, to his right is White Wing and Bosse. (I believe the bearded man is Colonel Chivington) Seated from the left, Chief Bull Bear, Black Kettle, One-Eye, and an unidentified Native. Kneeling from the left is Major Edward Wynkoop, then Captain Silas Soule.