The United Methodist Church (UMC) has been working for two decades to come to terms with a horrific chapter in its history: Its connection to the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, led by Methodist Pastor and military leader John Chivington.
The Sand Creek Massacre is but one of many atrocities committed against Native American people by the U.S. government and settlers; Minnesota has its own history of atrocities. The UMC is trying to chart a path of repentance and healing, one that other religious communities could learn from and apply to their own communities.
It is a path that includes not just apologies, but concrete acts of repentance.
The Sand Creek massacre took place in what is now Colorado. Col. Chivington led some 675 soldiers in a surprise attack on a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment. According to the UMC article: “Spotlight on Sand Creek Massacre,” Chivington’s troops killed roughly 200 people, many of them women, children and the elderly. After the battle, soldiers committed atrocities on some of the dead.
The UMC’s General Conference is the Church’s top policy-making body and meets every four years; at its May meeting, the Sand Creek Massacre will have a prominent place on the agenda. Participants will have a half-hour tutorial on the massacre. Historian Gary L. Roberts will summarize the 173-page report that delegates will receive. (Available online here, starting at page 1235.)
Roberts’ report has 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.
UMC repentance has been a slow process, with missteps along the way. The “Spotlight on Sand Creek” article provides the history:
The 1996 UMC General Conference apologized for the massacre, but made historical errors and didn’t show proper respect. Roberts’ report said: “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.”
The 2012 General Conference called for “full disclosure” of the Methodist role in Sand Creek.
In 2013, the UMC stated its intention to “Extend Healing Ministries with Native American and Other Indigenous People,” a “ministry of repentance and reconciliation with Native American and other indigenous people as part of an effort to build a church of integrity and inclusiveness for all people and all of God’s creation.”
In 2014, Mountain Sky Episcopal Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky (whose Conference includes the Sand Creek Area) led members in a pilgrimage to the massacre site, with descendants of the survivors as guides and interpreters.
The 2016 General Conference is only a next step. It includes the opportunity for Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants of the survivors to speak to delegates and dine with the Bishops.
There is much more work to be done, including concrete acts of repentance to repair the harm that still continues today in Native American communities.
Stanovsky said she hopes that learning about the Sand Creek Massacre will encourage other United Methodist congregations to learn more about the Native American history in their own communities, and to build “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.