Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize; America grieved President Kennedy’s assassination; Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It was the last year of the Baby Boom and the first year of my life: 1964.
Exactly one century earlier, my great-great-grandmother, Matilda Sage Spoonhunter, was only 18 when she miraculously survived the violent assault on the peaceful tepee camp she shared with Cheyennes and her fellow Arapaho women, children and elders at Big Sandy Creek on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
The Sand Creek Massacre, during which 230 of Matilda’s friends and family were slaughtered and mutilated, is now acknowledged as the deadliest event in state history. It has brought lasting scars of generational trauma to exiled descendants who struggle to retain and maintain the ancient culture and language that the perpetrators endeavored to erase on that frigid November day in 1864 — and in the subsequent decades.
Every day, there is a visceral familiarity I experience with my Arapaho heritage: Give me directions in terms of peaks and drainages, not roads and developments. My eyes quickly spot game and wildlife. I crave collaboration and consensus. Despite these regular touchpoints, I experience a lingering disconnect from the culture, customs and traditions of my ancestors.
So I was excited to attend History Colorado’s new Sand Creek Massacre exhibit, by tribal invitation, for its pre-opening ceremony day with my Colorado family and husband and my Wyoming relatives from the Wind River Reservation.
In an emotional, revelatory ceremony and presentation from fellow descendants of both tribes, contributors named Colorado their forever home. But now they live on reservations in Wyoming, Montana and Oklahoma and traveled great distances to participate. So they, too, feel a disconnect.
Not only did their testimony reinforce my gratitude for life in Colorado, it also augmented my knowledge of our family’s history. When the Northern Arapaho were relegated to the reservation in 1878-79, I learned there were just 383 individuals, only 53 of whom were men. At the same time, the roughly 60 million buffalo of the early 1800s were diminished to 450.
My dad, John Edward Collins, was born on the Wind River Reservation in 1928 to Frances E. Collins (Gibson). Frances attended boarding school at Genoa in Nebraska and Haskell in Kansas, “where she excelled even as she endured brutal treatment,” Dad says. Grandma rode horses and hiked with me on the trails in Palmer Park in Colorado Springs, and she taught me to bead and sew. She reused everything and was eminently resourceful.
Frances’s mother was Edith Spoonhunter, who was married to Dad’s namesake: John Edward Collins of Wicklow County, Ireland. He was a great friend to the tribe, putting in irrigation and other infrastructure.
Dad left the reservation at age 14 and has had a remarkable life as an Air Force pilot and officer, businessman and intellect. He earned both his undergraduate degree and MBA while actively flying missions in the military. Dad was a warrior in his own way. Although he rarely talked about his wartime experiences, he did describe that if you felt fear it seemed a certainty you would die.
He’s still alive at age 94 — the winter of his life in Arapaho terms — and happily living in Colorado Springs, a place he loves. It only occurred to me in my adult life that the “sense of place” he experiences must be strong for him, as it was Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux ancestral homeland. We understand that our ancestors ranged from Cherry Creek (Denver) to Manitou Springs, a sacred place for all three tribes. Dad loves to gaze at Pikes Peak every day.
I may never know if Matilda hid in the creek bed or fled, but the Sand Creek Massacre exhibit creates an individual and collective blueprint for moving forward. Colonizers aren’t the only ones telling the story anymore. It’s one of trauma and attempted annihilation, but it’s also a story of resilience, courage, survivors and family.
Perhaps in Colorado’s fourth grade history curriculum, when we learn that our state tree is the blue spruce and the state fish is the greenback cutthroat trout, we will also teach about the original people here.
Whatever race, ethnicity or tribe you’re a part of, we’re all connected by this land, this survival story and the future. And we have an ongoing job to do in both commemorating the past and healing in the present.
This essay was first published in The Sopris Sun on Nov. 23, 2022.
Kate Collins is a Carbondale resident and member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. She is a descendant of a survivor of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
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