GC2016: Spotlight on Sand Creek Massacre
The 2016 General Conference will shine perhaps the brightest light yet on a dark episode of Methodist history.
A full 30 minutes of the May 18 plenary session will go to a tutorial on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which U.S. troops led by a Methodist preacher-turned-cavalry officer attacked unsuspecting Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.
Gary L. Roberts, a historian, will explain the massacre and place it in the context of a westward expansion that dislocated, in some cases decimated, tribes.
Delegates to General Conference, set for May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon, also will get a 173-page report by Roberts, titled “Remembering The Sand Creek Massacre: A Historical Review of Methodist Involvement, Influence, and Response,” offering far more detail and analysis. (It’s available online as part of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, pages 1235-1408.)
“I hope our church cares enough about the harm done in the past to take this seriously,” said Mountain Sky Episcopal Area Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky. “It isn’t just harm in the past. The harm continues. You can’t understand who is where they are and who has what they have in America today without understanding this history.”
The Sand Creek Massacre occurred on Nov. 29, 1864, along the Big Sandy River of the Colorado Territory.
Col. John Milton Chivington, who put on hold his career as a Methodist Episcopal Church pastor to join the Union Army, led a surprise, early morning attack by some 675 soldiers on a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment.
Roughly 200 were killed, many of them women, children and the elderly. After the battle, soldiers committed atrocities on some of the dead.
The 1996 General Conference apologized for the Methodist involvement in the massacre, but in doing so erred in some historical details and in other ways failed to show proper respect, Stanovsky said. Roberts notes in his report that “there was yet a concern voiced by Cheyenne and Arapaho people that the Church had still not addressed questions of responsibility that mattered to them.”
Delegates to the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida — which included an “Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous People” service — adopted a petition calling for “full disclosure” of the Methodist role in Sand Creek.
A committee named by the Council of Bishops’ Justice and Reconciliation Leadership Team to oversee the more complete remembrance is co-chaired by Stanovsky and Otto Braided Hair Jr., a Northern Cheyenne descendent of Sand Creek Massacre survivors.
It’s work dear to Stanovsky’s heart. In 2014, she led the Rocky Mountain Conference in a pilgrimage to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, with descendants of the survivors coming along as guides and interpreters.
“She brings good stewardship to the tribal communities, in terms of bringing out what really happened,” said Gail Ridgely, a Northern Arapaho descendant of a Sand Creek Massacre survivor, and a member of the advisory committee.
Roberts was an easy choice for producing a report. He’s a retired history professor at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia who in the early 1960s did his doctoral dissertation on the Sand Creek Massacre, and has continued investigating it through the decades, getting to know Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders in the process.
He welcomed the chance to focus on the Methodist angle.
“It was a new project in many ways,” said Roberts, a member of First United Methodist Church in Tifton, Georgia. “I had a lot of new research to do through the Methodist sources.”
ʽReflection of society’
Most of the 30 minutes at the May 18 plenary session will go to Roberts’ presentation on the massacre. Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants of the survivors also are expected to speak, and will dine with the Council of Bishops that night, Stanovsky said.
Roberts’ written report builds to three main conclusions:
- John Evans, a Methodist who served as governor of the Colorado Territory, did not have a direct role in the Sand Creek Massacre, but his policies created the conditions that made it possible. Evans, who did many admirable things over a long career, including helping found Northwestern University, didn’t accept responsibility or condemn the massacre.
- Chivington planned and carried out the massacre to further his ambitions, and afterwards defended his actions without regret, despite the condemnation of fellow officers and many others.
- The Methodist Episcopal Church (a predecessor to The United Methodist Church) “embraced the prevailing mind-set” of the westward expansion by white settlers and defended Evans and Chivington after the massacre.
“The Methodist Episcopal Church became a reflection of society instead of a mirror for society,” Roberts writes.
For Stanovsky, it’s crucial that United Methodists understand that their denominational forebears didn’t provide a Christian alternative to dislocation of Native Americans, but enthusiastically joined in, helping to create an existential crisis among tribes that continues.
“Where we are, what we have, the wealth, the influence, the power, the schools, the hospitals — it is all rooted in that sinful westward expansion across America,” she said. “The descendants of those original inhabitants of the land are among the poorest, most socially disadvantaged people in North America.”
Understanding, then acting
Roberts’ report will have an audience beyond General Conference, since it’s coming out as a book from Abingdon Press, part of The United Methodist Publishing House.
Stanovsky believes General Conference delegates — some, at least —will return home and lead their congregations in learning more about the Sand Creek Massacre and the broader historical context.
That knowledge, she hopes, will lead United Methodists to take action, such as researching which indigenous peoples occupied the lands where their own United Methodist churches exist now, and building authentic, respectful relationships with Native Americans still living nearby.
Stanovsky offers the example of Chesie Lee, a United Methodist lawyer who is executive director of the Wyoming Association of Churches. Lee moved from Laramie to Riverton, Wyoming, to help that ecumenical group work more constructively with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes on the Wind River Reservation.
The association collaborated with the tribes in creating the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, which aims to improve health care, education and economic development for Native Americans in Wyoming.
Lee is glad the 2016 General Conference will devote significant time to understanding the Sand Creek Massacre.
“It’s absolutely essential that we do understand that history and acknowledge our part in it,” she said. “The point is not to go on feeling guilty. I don’t think that’s what Native Americans want. But they do want an acknowledgment of what this historic trauma has done.”
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org