Word’s Matter, “At their worst, they can incite.”

We live in a precarious moment in United States history. In 2020, we witnessed overtly racist language that demeaned non-white people in an attempt to protect American whiteness. Over the past four years, Donald Trump led the charge but GOP leaders, news outlets, numerous talking heads, and countless followers have commonly characterized a large Latino population living in the United States as criminals, drug traffickers, murders, and rapists. Trump and his followers attach these descriptors to promote “law and order” policies and advance ideals of white hierarchical power over non-white actors.

Trump’s modern use of divisive language is not new. In recent history, the US government, under President George W. Bush, passed and enforced the USA Patriot Act targeting Muslim Americans after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The actions taken in the early stages of the new millennium allowed individual acts of hate against Muslims living in the United States. Similar in scope, Pearl Harbor allowed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to forcibly relocate thousands of Japanese Americans to internment camps (relocation centers) in Western states. Roosevelt’s political action attempted to promote calm and security in the face of tangible and intangible fear felt by millions of Americans. However, just as Bush’s decision in 2001, Roosevelt’s actions led to overt acts of hate against Japanese Americans living in primarily white communities. Moving back further, we come across Sand Creek; an event brought upon by divisive language used by whites in Kansas and the Colorado territory.

Picture of the creek bed in which Chivington’s soldiers attacked a peaceful contingency of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians. Picture taken by author.

On November 29, 1864, approximately 700 federal soldiers attacked a peaceful Indian village in Eastern Colorado. Federal soldiers defended their actions as a necessary response to Indian violence against white settlers and Indian attacks along transportation routes.[1]However, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War who oversaw an investigation for the crimes committed, concluded “that the Indians, under the immediate [emphasis added by author] control of Black Kettle and White Antelope of the Cheyennes, and Left Hand of the Arapahoes, were and had been friendly to the whites, and had not been guilty of any acts of hostility or depradations [sic].” Therefore, we must conclude that the federal army under John Chivington held a different agenda then one of military response against Indian violence. Colonel John Chivington’s actions against Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek was an act of white aggression toward peaceful non-white people resulting from rhetorical language, conscious misunderstanding, and white violence.

It is clear from the after-action reports and the committee’s findings that Chivington wanted to annihilate the Plains Indians. On May 31, 1864, Chivington ordered units under his command to kill any Indian caught in the vicinity of Fort Lyon.[2]This order did not delineate friendly from warring Indians but grouped them into one broad category. Categorizing Plains Indians into one body turned white settlers against all Plains Indians whether friend or foe. This stance was further strengthened by Governor John Evans who called the actions of Indians “depredations.” Evans’s language denoted acts of piracy, plundering, or acts by non-civilized people against a white civilized people.[i]

Another commonly used word to degrade Plains Indians was “hostile.” Consider the emotional response to hostile. It emits feelings of violence, aggression, or absolute force. It also makes the listener feel fearful and vulnerable. Evans’ and Chivington’s use of hostile promoted violence against all Indians on the Western Plains. In a proclamation dated June 27, 1864, Evans stated that “the war on hostile Indians will be continued until they are all effectually subdued.” And, even though Evans’ first proclamation clearly distinguished friend from foe, in his August 11 proclamation the division is more blurred. Evans stated that “most of the Indian tribes are at war and hostile to the whites,” and he granted white citizens the ability to pursue “all hostile Indians on the plains…all good citizens are called upon to do their duty for the defence [sic] of their homes and families.” These proclamations proved extremely effective as outlined by A. C. Hunt. Hunt testified that the men, mainly the 3rdColorado Cavalry, understood that they enlisted to fight hostile Indians without clear distinctions of friend or foe.[ii]Similarly, “savage” was commonly used to denounce Plains Indians.

After the massacre against peaceful Indians, Lieutenant Colonel Leavitt L. Bowen, battalion commander under Chivington, congratulated his commander and his men for the “punishment meted out to the savages…” who so ruthlessly murdered our women and children. In like terms, the Rocky Mountain News called the Indians “marauding bands of savages.” Both uses connected “savage” to murderers and plunderers, a way to not only justify the attack but to justify white fear and vulnerability and to turn those feelings into action against Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. While these sources occur after Sand Creek, it is extremely likely that “savage” was used as a descriptor towards Indians prior to the event. When European colonists first encountered American Indians along the Eastern Seaboard, they continually characterized these new faces as savages. The word likely extended into the nineteenth century amid the Indian Wars. The comparison of language amid Sand Creek to today is jarring, but the similarities extend to episodes of conscious misunderstandings.

It is no secret that white America misunderstood the actions and intentions of American Indians. Many narratives have tackled the mismanagement of Indians, the misunderstandings of culture, and the repercussions of such actions. For example, Stan Hoig’s Sand Creek Massacreoutlined many instances of white misunderstanding towards Plains Indians. From Hoig’s study, the primary conscious misunderstanding of white settlers tends to point out ideas of friend and foe. From looking at individual testimonies in multiple committees investigating the affair, the non-distinction between friend and foe plays a big role in Sand Creek. For example, Black Kettle and the Cheyenne tribe at Sand Creek were peaceful towards white settlers and federal forces leading up to Sand Creek. However, a Northern Band of Cheyenne, the Dog Soldiers, continually raided and attacked white settlements. Leaders in the Colorado Territory did not distinguish between the tribes but instead grouped them under one hierarchical system. Essentially all Indians were hostile and deserved punishment before any such peace could be offered, reasoned white leaders. This conscious misunderstanding, however, contrasted to testimonies given amid the committee investigating the massacre in January.[iii]

As the committee called multiple witnesses forward, the majority agreed that Black Kettle, White Antelope, and Left Hand were peaceful Indians separate from the Dog Soldiers. John Smith, an US Interpreter and Special Indian Agent, admitted that the “northern band, the band known by the name of Dog Soldiers of Cheyenne” had committed violent acts towards white settlers but were outside the control of Black Kettle. D. D. Colley, a trader in the region, stated that chiefs at Sand Creek “could not control the band called Dog Soldiers, who had undoubtedly committed depredations.” Even Black Kettle, in a meeting with Major Wynkoop, admitted to violence carried out by young men within the Cheyenne tribe. Black Kettle concluded that he had been opposed to fighting “and had done everything in his power to prevent it.” The actions of Black Kettle mirrored testimonies heard within the committee. Jesse H. Leavenworth, an Indian Agent, declared “these Indians [those at Sand Creek] were of a most friendly disposition.” Colley, who knew the chiefs at Sand Creek, said they “had all tried hard to keep peace between Indians and whites.” Even Governor Evans, a proponent of violence against the Indians, admitted that Black Kettle and White Antelope “had been opposed all the time to going to war.” From testimonies, it is clear that white actors misunderstood their Indian neighbors. This conscious misunderstanding allowed white settlers to see Plains Indians as an enemy which threatened white civilization.[iv]

As a result of rhetoric and conscious misunderstanding, a federal force attacked a peaceful Indian village in Eastern Colorado. The actions of those involved confirmed the detrimental effect divisive language plays on a people. At Sand Creek, the Cheyenne and Arapaho people were not regarded as humans. Instead, peaceful men, women, and children were murdered and mutilated as if their very existence harmed white way of life. B. F. Ward, a committee member involved in the investigation, stated that “the hatred of whites to the Indians would seem to have been inflamed and excited to the utmost” when white bodies of Indian violence were put on display, as the Huntgate family members’ bodies were placed on display in Denver. This inflamed hatred led to the mutilations of Indian bodies at Sand Creek. Captain Silas S. Soule, First Colorado Cavalry, stated that women and children were “shot down and scalped, and otherwise mutilated.” No officers attempted to prevent these mutilations. John Smith testified that bodies were cut with “knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants to warriors.” Major Anthony, an officer in charge, related one incident he witnessed which did not attempt to stop. 

            “There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, travelling on the sand. I saw one man get off his horse, at a distance of about seventy-five yards, and draw up his rifle and fire – he missed the child. Another man came up and said, ‘Let me try the son of a bitch; I can hit him.’ He got down off his horse, kneeled down and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.”[v]

These are not the actions of humane soldiers but the actions of racist whites who intended to inflict damage and death upon an entire people. 

US soldiers under the command of John Chivington, under the orders of Governor John Evans and General S. R. Curtis, waged a crusade against peaceful Indians at Sand Creek brought upon by language, conscious misunderstanding, and eventual violence. Captain S. M. Robbins testified that people “demanded something should be done…They wanted some Indians killed; whether friendly or not.”[vi]As seen through Robbins’ comments, rhetoric is a powerful tool. Rhetoric can breed violence and divisions. John Chivington and other white leaders, led a successful campaign of divisive language, conscious misunderstanding, and white violence that culminated at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. At this moment in United States history, we still feel the catastrophic effects of violent language. Pulse. Charlottesville. Tree of Life synagogue. El Paso. George Floyd. And now we must add the acts of insurrection on January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C.[vii]

Image of the US capitol is from the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/npcc.10253/


[1]I do not dispute the acts of Indians against white settlements. Evidence exists showing the actions (acts of war) by bands of Indian tribes against white settlements. As a result, United States army personnel waged a series of campaigns against Indians who attacked settlements, trains, wagon routes, and US military outposts. However, the use of Indian raids to justify federal attacks on peacefulIndian villages is folly and a rhetorical tool used to promote ideas of violence against violence. As Mr. A. C. Hunt, a US Marshall for the District of Colorado, testified in January 1865, “Indians have feelings as well as we have, and are entitled to certain rights” inferring the right to security, survival, and territory; thus, giving validity to the acts of Indians tribes in Western Territory. Mr. Hunt’s testimony can be found in United States Congress.  Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865. 3 vols. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” the Committee report dated 10 January 1865, is printed in vol. 3.

[2]Fort Lyon was a military hub in Southeastern Colorado approximately 40 miles southwest of where the Sand Creek Massacre took place.


[i]Stan Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre” (Norman, OK: University Press or Oklahoma, 1961), 83; United States Congress.  Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865. 3 vols. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” the Committee report dated 10 January 1865, is printed in vol. 3.

[ii]Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre, 63, 68-69; United States Congress.  Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865. 3 vols. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” the Committee report dated 10 January 1865, is printed in vol. 3.

[iii]See Hoig’s Sand Creek Massacrefor more information on sources outlining uses of “friend” and “foe,” “peaceful,” and “hostile.”

[iv]Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre, 104; United States Congress.  Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865. 3 vols. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” the Committee report dated 10 January 1865, is printed in vol. 3.

[v]United States Congress.  Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865. 3 vols. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” the Committee report dated 10 January 1865, is printed in vol. 3.

[vi]United States Congress.  Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865. 3 vols. “Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians,” the Committee report dated 10 January 1865, is printed in vol. 3; Testimony ofCaptain Silas S. Soule, First Colorado Cavalry, on the Sand Creek Massacre; found viahttps://www.kansasmemory.org/item/211149.

[vii]For online articles referenced, see https://www.npr.org/2020/11/16/935439777/fbi-report-bias-motivated-killings-at-record-high-amid-nationwide-rise-in-hate-chttps://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-54968498https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/16/us/hate-crime-rate.htmlhttps://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/hate-crime-statistics.