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Native American Tribes

Wyoming Tribal Elder: Expansion Of Sand Creek Massacre Site ‘Long Overdue’

in Wyoming History/News

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By Mark Heinz, outdoors reporter

Ben Ridgley of Riverton can trace his ancestry directly back to one of the most horrific episodes in the history of the West. 

“My great-, great-grandfather was a survivor of the Sand Creek Massacre,” Ridgley told Cowboy State Daily on Friday. 

A Northern Arapaho elder and director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Riverton, Ridgley said the massacre wasn’t the only atrocity to stem from that event. 

“They (Army troops) paraded through Denver with the body parts of some of the people they murdered at Sand Creek,” he said.

Ridgely was among tribal representatives present during a recent ceremony at the Sand Creek Massacre Site in Colorado. It was to acknowledge the site’s protected area being more than doubled to encompass 6,503 acres. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and many other government officials and dignitaries were there. 

The site is roughly four hours southeast of Cheyenne. 

The expansion and growing recognition of the site “is long overdue,” Ridgley said. “The history is there: How they treated us, why we were dispersed and why we are in Wyoming today.”

‘Mass Murder’

It was brutally cold at the Sand Creek site on Nov. 29, 1864. That’s when 675 troops under the command of Army Col. John Chivington attacked an encampment of Arapaho and Cheyenne people.

The Native Americans numbered about 750 – most of them women, children and elderly. Their leaders thought they had successfully negotiated a peace agreement with the Army and that their people were safe. 

Chivington’s troops indiscriminatingly poured small arms and howitzer fire into the encampment. When some of the Native Americans tried to flee down a dry creek bed, soldiers followed them, shooting children and the elderly for sport. Later, they desecrated and mutilated some of the bodies, taking body parts as trophies. 

At least 230 Arapaho and Cheyenne were killed. 

“It was mass murder,” Ridgley said. “If you did that in today’s society, you would get 100 life terms in prison.”

Chivington and his men never faced any serious repercussions for their actions. 

‘We Are Still Here’

A Colorado-based conservation fund negotiated a sale with a private landowner, adding nearly 3,500 acres to the Sand Creek historic preservation site. That will protect the land from any development, Ridgley said. 

The tribes also are partnering with some Colorado school districts to include more lessons about the massacre and the area’s Native American history in classrooms, he said. 

“There were so many tragic moments there” at Sand Creek, and it’s vital that people never forget, Ridgley said, adding it’s also good to see Native history and culture getting wider acknowledgement.

“It just shows that we are still here,” Ridgley said. “We still have our culture. They didn’t do their assigned job of annihilating us.”

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Tribal Leaders Blast Wyoming Photographer For Taking Aerial Photos Of Medicine Wheel

in Wyoming outdoors/News

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By Mark Heinz, outdoors reporter

Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal members say flying a kite above the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains to get aerial photos of the site was not acceptable.

An aerial kite photo by Sheridan photographer Tim Doolin posted recently on social media has raised several jurisdictional questions, including about photographing sites sacred to Native Americans.

The kite photo wasn’t any different than it would be to take pictures inside a church without worshippers’ blessing, Crystal C’Bearing told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. She’s deputy director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Riverton.

“It’s considered a very sacred place by many tribes,” C’Bearing said. “It is an active site for prayer. I wouldn’t want anybody up there taking pictures of people praying. To get a kite up there, to me, that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Eastern Shoshone elder Willie LeClair of Fort Washakie agrees.

“He (the photographer) is just piecemealing the envelope, saying ‘it was a kite, and not a drone,’” LeClair told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “He knows it is sacred. What was he doing?”

If there are regulations against aerial photography of the site, they should apply to all methods, LeClair said.

“It should be for any aerial photo, even if you’re riding on the back of an eagle,” he said.

Controversial Photo

The post of Doolin’s photo on Facebook quickly drew criticism. Commenters said that what Doolin had done was illegal, because the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t allow drone flights at the Medicine Wheel. Others said that he had disrespected the sacred nature of the site.

Doolin told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that he had used a “custom kite rig,” not a drone, to get the shot of the Medicine Wheel at sunrise.

A Matter Of Respect

LeClair said he has visited the Medicine Wheel and performed a sacred pipe ceremony there.

“The rangers were very cordial to me whenever I went up there,” he said. “When I went to do my pipe ceremony and I asked the ranger how close I could get, he said, ’this is your site.’”

LeClair said rangers offered to clear the area of other people while he worshipped, but he asked only that the rangers not allow anybody to take photographs.

Ground-based photographs of the Medicine Wheel by itself are allowed by the Forest Service, according to agency regulations.

“I just wanted to make sure there was nobody snapping photos when I was in there praying,” LeClair said.

With any Native ceremony or site, he said nonnatives should “use the big ‘C’ – communicate” and ask permission from Natives before taking photos.

Origin, Jurisdiction, Regulations

The exact age and origin of the Medicine Wheel are unknown. It’s thought to be anywhere from 500 to 1,500 years old, although some have claimed it could be up to 5,000 years old.

LeClair said the origins of the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains might never be fully understood.

“All I know are the stories that it was built by the Old People, the Ancient Ones,” he said.

It’s at the top of the Big Horn Mountains between Lovell and Sheridan on the Bighorn National Forest. Forest Service officials confirmed Wednesday that drone flights are forbidden above the Medicine Wheel, but the agency’s regulations don’t specifically mention kites.

The Medicine Wheel also a National Historic Landmark, which also brings it under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office. Calls and an email for comments from SHPO weren’t returned Thursday.

Sacred Unity

No one tribe claims the Medicine Wheel, C’Bearing said. It’s part of a sacred spiritual unity among the Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Lakota, Blackfeet and others.

“Before we were categorized as tribes, we did a lot of ceremonies together,” she said. “There are a lot of similar stories (regarding the Medicine Wheel).”

The Medicine Wheel “is the same as spiritual sites all over the world,” LeClair said. “Throughout the Indian world, we as Indians really respect the gift the Creator gave us through these sacred places.”

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