Honoring Those Who Died at Washita

History buffs will recall that on the morning of November 27, 1868, Lt. Colonel George Custer attacked the sleeping camp of Chief Black Kettle and slaughtered nearly 100 men, women and children.
04/22/2007 02:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It was a little early in the year for the corn to be "as high as an elephant's eye" in Oklahoma this past Friday, but the blue skies and the low flying clouds made this spring day a day to remember.

I was invited to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site and the still incomplete Cultural Heritage Center in Cheyenne, Oklahoma on April 20.

History buffs will recall that on the early morning of November 27, 1868, Lt. Colonel George A. Custer, with a detachment of the 7th Cavalry, attacked the sleeping camp of Chief Black Kettle and slaughtered nearly 100 men, women and children. Black Kettle, a man who had survived the Massacre at Sand Creek in Colorado in 1864 while flying an American flag and a white flag of peace, was killed at Washita.

The Heritage Center is a magnificent piece of architecture located in the rolling hills of Oklahoma north of the community of Cheyenne. For the Peace Chief of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, Chief Lawrence Hart, it was a struggle of many years to reach this goal.

Chief Hart told about his trips to Washington, D. C. in an effort to raise money for the site, but noted that his early efforts had been rebuffed because some in the United States Senate did not consider the sight of a massacre to be of historic significance. It was only after the people of Oklahoma City sought funds to build a monument to commemorate the bombing of the federal building there that the some senators saw the connection and voted to fund the Cultural Heritage Center at the Washita Battlefield National Historic site.

Governor Darrell Flyingman of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma put things in realistic perspective when he arose to speak. He talked about the thousands of acres of land either ceded or stolen by hook and crook from the people of his nation over the years. He said, "I consider this to be a site of a massacre and not a battlefield as it is named and I will do everything within my power to see that the site is renamed as the Washita Massacre rather than Battlefield. Gov. Flyingman said that he felt great sorrow for the friends and family members of the massacre at Virginia Tech, but he was sad the television reporters kept referring to this tragedy as the worst massacre in American history. "The massacre of American Indians at Washita, Sand Creek and Wounded Knee were just as horrible and many more died at each massacre site as what happened at Virginia Tech, but I suppose the fact that it was 'just Indians' being slaughtered meant that it was not a part of American history," he said.

There is a long history of kinship between the Cheyenne, Arapaho and the people of the Great Sioux Nation. These three tribes were allies at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and one of the ironies of that battle was that warriors of the very tribes he attacked at Washita punished Custer, the perpetrator of the Washita Massacre.

For their victory at the Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne, Arapaho and the Sioux paid a heavy price. Many more Cheyenne and Arapaho were removed from their tribal lands in Montana and Colorado and moved to Western Oklahoma. The 7.5 million acres that make up the Black Hills of South Dakota were confiscated from the Sioux by the United States government. Ironically, just two years before Custer was killed at the Little Big Horn, he led an expedition into the Black Hills and discovered gold there.

The Sioux went to court in 1921 to seek the return of all or portions of the Black Hills and 60 years later, in 1981; the U. S. Supreme Court awarded the tribes $105 million for the theft of the Hills. Never mind that in the interim more than $1 billion dollars in gold, timber and other natural resources were extracted from the Black Hills without a single dime going to the owners of the land, the Indian tribes of the Sioux Nation. It is now 2007 and 26 years have passed since the monetary award and the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation, the poorest of tribes in America, have refused to accept a single penny of the award. Writing on the Black Hills Settlement Case and of the illegal taking of the Black Hills, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings may never be found in our history."

Peace Chief Lawrence Hart told me this story. He said that Custer returned to visit the people of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes a few years after the Washita Massacre. After he smoked the pipe of peace with them he was asked to make a promise to them that he would never ever make war against the Cheyenne and Arapaho again. Custer made that promise. He was then told that if he ever broke that promise he would die on that day.

Forgetting his promise, Custer attacked the encampment of Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 and he died on that day.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho are working to build a memorial cultural site at Sand Creek in Colorado. And with this column I am requesting the Congressional delegation from South Dakota to introduce a bill that would help raise the funds to build a Cultural Heritage Center at the Massacre Site of Wounded Knee. The Heritage Center at Washita could not have been constructed without the full support of the Oklahoma Congressional representatives.

Are you listening Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Senator John Thune, and Senator Tim Johnson? What a tribute and a blessing this would be to the Lakota people of your state.

(McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago's weekly column. He can be reached at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 - 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, "Children Left Behind")