At what is now called Wyoming Indian Elementary School, it was ever us versus them. Not whites against Indians, but kids versus grownups.

“Versus” is too strong a word in a few cases: Mrs. Pop and Mrs. Slack (how are those for archetypal “white” names?) were relentlessly effervescent primary-grade teachers in what must have been a bleak job. Were they idealistic youngsters themselves, or did they land on the reservation because they were flat as dolls cut from brightly colored paper? It’s a question only a time traveler could answer. The fact they made a Maypole for us to dance around 50 years ago this week gives me hope …

It would be surprising if any Arapaho or Shoshoni was a professional employee at our school back then. In that preintegration era, maybe it was this stark racial division between the faculty and the predominantly Indian student body that conferred a sense of unmuzzled power upon adults. More likely, it is the awful and all-too-familiar story: some grownups simply feast on crushed children.

The library was safe. The music room was a distinct danger zone. Tattered choir books featured contemporary-to-the-Civil-War classics such as Eatin’ Goober Peas ( Being 6, we larked around. As punishment we were treated like garbage – made to stand in a trashcan in the corner with a dirty stocking cap pulled down to our necks. Tears made the green-and-white striped wool stick to your face. You made yourself stop crying. Don’t give ’em the satisfaction.

As this ritual humiliation included me, son of a cantankerous white tribal attorney, I truly hate to think what was done to the Indians.

It would be nice to report that adversity welded us into a biracial force of resistance, exacting revenge on our tormentors with inventive pranks and poison arrows. But we were little kids. We loved one another in the form of wild chases around the wind-stunted lawn. We tried not to laugh at others’ misfortune. I nursed a tortured crush on one of the lusciously brown girls who tried so very hard to be invisible. She couldn’t stop giggling. Almost the color of sun-bleached bones, I must have seemed funny looking as Casper the Friendly Ghost.

My friends – they were strong, funny, good children.

American Kristallnacht

America has never suffered a deliberate Holocaust. We did have a Kristallnacht in the form of the Sand Creek Massacre. Ninety-one Jews died at the hands of Nazis on the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938, while at Sand Creek in November 1864, the Colorado Territorial Militia slaughtered up to 163 Arapaho and Cheyenne, including more than 100 women and children.

One hundred-fifty years is an awkward sort of milestone, lacking the odometer-like satisfaction of lining up multiple zeros as we did for the millennium in 2000 or the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. But 150 is a number that easily bridges human time – the grandparents of many alive today knew people who saw newspaper headlines about Sand Creek.

Coming on June 11 is the 150th anniversary of the fuse that sparked Sand Creek – the murders of my cousin Nathan Hungate, his wife Ellen and young daughters by an Arapaho raiding party ( Revisionist archaeology suggests Nathan may have brought down the wrath of the Arapahos by killing one or more men in a confrontation over cattle. Others believe all the Hungates were innocent bystanders in the Indians’ losing war against white encroachment upon all they held dear. Arapaho babies were starving.

Exactly a century later, my brother Greg and I were the tiny minority group in a school filled with descendants of those killed to avenge our family. In a recent story in the New York Times, a resident said the reservation is still haunted by Sand Creek. So am I. Time is as thin as the mountain soil. Evil deeds in not-so-olden times still swirl around us like a dust storm, mingling the ashes of victims and survivors and slayers.

Kit Carson spoke the best verdict about Sand Creek and the men who perpetrated it: “You call sich soldiers Christians, do ye? And Indians savages? What der yer ’spose our Heavenly Father, who made both them and us, thinks of these things?”

The facts from 1864 are as blurry as the giant dust devils that silently spin above the reservation’s harvested alfalfa fields in late summer. This, I know: Far too soon, so many of my friends are dead – girls pretty as wild violets and smart, sinewy boys – all poisoned by a tainted past.

What will it take to forgive one another and allow our ghosts to rest?


Matt Winters is editor and publisher of the Chinook Observer and Coast River Business Journal.

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