In this Dec. 3, 2014, file photo, members of an honor guard from the Arapaho and Cheyenne Native American tribes participate in a sunrise gathering marking the 150th year since the Sand Creek Massacre, at Riverside Cemetery, in Denver. The Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site in Eads, Colo., seeks to honor the 230 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe members who were slaughtered by the U.S. Army in 1864. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Aurora’s founding on land taken from Native Americans recently divided its city council over how best to address the injustices of the past, raising the question of how far removed the city is, or should be, from its colonial history.

If the timeline of human settlement near Aurora spanned the length of a football field, the period of indigenous control would stretch nearly from end zone to end zone, with the story of the 131-year-old City of Aurora told only in the final few yards.

For thousands of years, indigenous Americans called the region home, migrating over the plains and into the foothills in pursuit of game and winter shelter, developing a complex and strong relationship with the land.

Acknowledging Aurora’s indigenous history by way of a short statement before meetings was last month considered and rejected by the city council, but ultimately embraced by the mayor, who read an acknowledgement for the first time before the group’s meeting on Aug. 22.

Much longer ago than Europeans, even before they were Europeans

Historian Elliott West writes in his 1998 book “The Contested Plains” that the prairies of Colorado may have been one of the first corners of the country to be inhabited by man.

America’s first immigrants likely crossed a “land bridge” connecting Siberia and Alaska that was exposed by falling sea levels during the last Ice Age, between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago.

As they moved southward, deeper into the interior of the continent, the newcomers would have followed the Rocky Mountains, seeking out more moderate weather at the base of the Front Range.

“The first Americans might have camped along creeks and in clusters of timber where Denver and Colorado Springs later appeared,” West wrote. “They may have stayed for decades or for centuries.”

According to West, those early denizens of the Front Range would have been part of the Clovis — and later Folsom — cultures. They were accomplished hunters, who stalked the hulking Bison antiquus over the same terrain where the Cheyenne and Arapaho would hunt modern bison many thousands of years later.

At one site in Yuma County, dating back 10,000 years, the butchered skeletons of more than 300 bison, as well as remnants of ancient weapons and tools, have been uncovered, testifying to the success of the early plains hunters.

“For 5,000 years, nearly half its human story, the central plains were home to a series of societies of master hunters,” West writes. “Several millennia before the birth of Christ, the plains already lay deep in a history of movement and adjustment, crisis and resolution.”

Shrinking bison herds led to the development of a seasonal rhythm among Colorado’s indigenous people. In the valleys near the base of the Front Range, rivers converged and the terrain offered shelter from the wind, which made them an attractive place to hunker down during the winter.

As the weather warmed, small groups would move north into Wyoming and west into North Park and Middle Park, where they found animals to hunt and quartz to make tools.

With the arrival of fall, groups would coordinate large hunts, using elaborate stone structures to funnel herds of animals into pens where they would be slaughtered en masse, before the snow again drove the hunters down into their winter camps.

“This arrangement proved flexible and sustaining for more than sixty centuries, from the time when Sumerians were founding Babylon until the eve of the present,” West writes. “White pioneers who moved onto the plains east to west believed they were leaving the old country for the new. They had it exactly backward.”

In this Dec. 27, 2019, photo, the site that was once home to a Native American village is shown at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Eads, Colo. This quiet piece of land tucked away in rural southeastern Colorado seeks to honor the 230 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe members who were slaughtered by the U.S. Army in 1864. It was one of worst mass murders in U.S. history. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

Spain and France became the first European nations to stake claims to parts of Colorado in the 17th and 18th centuries. West writes that the Cheyenne called the first European traders veho, while the Arapaho called them niatha — both words meaning “spider,” in reference to the ingenuity of the foreigners who brought never-before-seen trade goods like iron cookware and firearms.

Guns as well as horses, which were also introduced by whites, radically changed life on the plains, giving the indigenous tribes a leg up in hunting and warfare. The Europeans also brought with them diseases that wiped out many of the immunologically-sheltered natives.

By 1803, the land that would one day become Aurora was included in the French territory of Louisiana — a vast swath of land stretching from New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico in the south to present-day Saskatchewan in the north. That year, France sold the United States its interest in Louisiana for $15 million, or about $342 million in modern currency, according to one estimate by National Geographic.

French and American control over most of the territory was nominal in 1803. But the Louisiana Purchase laid the groundwork for the U.S. government to initiate the final stage of white settlement that would ultimately sever the relationship between Native Coloradans and their homelands.

Settlers or invaders?

According to Colorado Encyclopedia — an online reference material developed by Colorado State University, Colorado Humanities and the University Press of Colorado — fur traders were active in Arapahoe County by the 1820s, and in 1832, the first trading post on the South Platte River was established along Cherry Creek.

West writes that the Arapaho had forged a strong alliance with the Cheyenne and abandoned an agricultural existence in the east for a life on horseback by the 1820s.

The Cheyenne, too, adopted the life of nomadic horsemen, giving them the ability to hunt bison more efficiently and mediate the trade between Native Americans and the European colonists to the east and south. They came to Colorado in the early 1800s, according to West.

Life on horseback followed a new seasonal cycle of migration, with hunters fattening their horses on spring greenery before riding to hunt bison and fight rival tribes during the summer.

In the fall, the hunting groups would disperse and then winter in the relative shelter of river bottoms, near cottonwoods that could be burned for warmth and whose branches and bark could be fed to horses if no other food was available.

The Arapaho and Cheyenne shared control of the land that would be Aurora by the time the American pioneers began their westward migration through and into Colorado. Gordon Yellowman, director of the Language and Culture Program of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in western Oklahoma, said as many as 4,000 indigenous people may have lived around Aurora at the time.

Ben Ridgely stands for a portrait, Sept. 6, in Southmoor Park. Ridgely is a member of the Northern Arapaho and traces his lineage back to Little Raven.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Peace with the nearby Apache, Comanche and Kiowa peoples was achieved in 1840 through an agreement mediated in part by Arapaho chief Little Raven.

Brothers Ben Ridgley and Gail and Eugene Ridgely of the Northern Arapaho trace their lineage back to Little Raven — they described him as a skilled diplomat and an ambassador for the native peoples of Colorado.

“He looked out for the people’s interests,” Ben Ridgley said. “I think he thought he would remain in good standing with the U.S. government at that time, but it didn’t happen that way.”

Little Raven would eventually set up camp with a few hundred others along Cherry Creek — Gail Ridgely said the American government forced the chief to leave in the late 1850s.

The discovery of gold in Englewood’s Little Dry Creek and later Clear Creek greatly accelerated the movement of white settlers into Colorado around that time, leading to the establishment of mining camps that would later grow into cities like Denver and Boulder.

In “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” author and historian Dee Brown says Little Raven told the eager miners that he was “glad to see them getting gold, but reminded them that the land belonged to the Indians, and expressed the hope they would not stay around after they found all the yellow metal they needed.”

But many of the settlers had no plans of leaving. Geoffrey Hunt, a retired history professor and former chair of social sciences at the Community College of Aurora, framed the conflict between the settlers and Native Americans in terms of competition over precious, limited resources like bison and timber.

“By the 1850s, the buffalo were pretty well cleared out of Colorado’s plains. And then when you have 100,000 people coming across the plains in one summer, that drives away the game from the trails,” Hunt said. “There went the neighborhood.”

In 1851, at a spot near Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming, the U.S. government signed an agreement with a handful of tribes, which in part recognized a swath of territory extending over much of eastern Colorado, including land as far west as Denver and Aurora, as reserved for the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples. The tribes in exchange agreed to leave westward-traveling Americans alone.

But as white goldseekers — and later farmers and ranchers — competed for the resources that were the pillars of native life, frustrations grew.

The U.S. government gathered some chiefs together at Fort Wise in 1861 to present a new agreement — this time, the United States proposed to relegate the Cheyenne and Arapaho to a reservation on a fraction of the land promised a decade earlier in exchange for pledges of government assistance.

The Treaty of Fort Wise was signed, though Colorado Encyclopedia states the chiefs later said they did not understand the terms. The agreement also failed to move the majority of the tribes onto the reservation next to the Arkansas River and Big Sandy Creek. 

Tensions between settlers and Colorado’s indigenous people erupted finally in November 1864, with the unprovoked massacre of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children and elders on the banks of Big Sandy Creek by U.S. volunteer cavalry led by Col. John Chivington.

Ryan Ortiz — a representative of the Northern Arapaho to the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation who traces his ancestry back to the massacred chief White Antelope — described the infamous killing as the result of years of policy decisions that stripped the plains tribes of their lands and legalized violence against them by whites.

He mentioned in particular then-Territorial Governor John Evans’ proclamation in August 1864 that it was legal “to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country… all hostile Indians.” The declaration was formally rescinded last year. Evans also appointed Chivington to lead the Colorado Volunteers in 1864, prior to the massacre.

“He essentially gave a loaded gun to Chivington,” Ortiz said. “At that time, the tribes were trying to negotiate peaceful means to be able to live. Evans, and Chivington, and the people of that time, they didn’t want that. They wanted to kill the Indians.”

After the killing, the Sand Creek soldiers paraded into Denver with grisly trophies taken from the massacre site, including scalps, human fetuses and genitals severed from the corpses of victims.

Ortiz said the display was meant to further terrorize the state’s native populace, but the events of Sand Creek also kindled an armed resistance against the U.S. government, prompting years of fighting between native tribes and American soldiers.

“The Sand Creek Massacre set the plains on fire,” Hunt said. “And that spring, it blew wide open. The Indian fighting didn’t stop until years later.”

Vastly outgunned, the alliance of plains tribes failed to stop the westward invasion. Though fighting would continue into the 1870s, in 1867, a group of chiefs signed the Medicine Lodge Treaty, under which the Cheyenne and Arapaho relinquished their reservation southeast of Denver for lands in Oklahoma.

A little over a decade later, some of the remaining Arapaho would be transported to a Shoshone reservation in Wyoming, known today as the Wind River Indian Reservation.

A document shared by Gail Ridgely also states that 73 Arapaho and Shoshone children were sent east on trains after Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in Pennsylvania in 1879. Only 26 children would survive the experience, according to the document, as tuberculosis and other diseases claimed many lives.

Ortiz said Aurora’s indigenous forebears were distrustful and traumatized by Sand Creek when they were compelled to leave the state, describing the tribes’ relocation to their Colorado reservation in 1861 as being ”sent there to be murdered.”

“We were living one way peacefully, striving to live, and after that, it was chaos, and everything changed, and people were struggling just to survive,” Ortiz said.

In this Dec. 27, 2019, photo, an entrance sign is shown at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Eads, Colo. This quiet piece of land tucked away in rural southeastern Colorado seeks to honor the 230 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe members who were slaughtered by the U.S. Army in 1864. It was one of worst mass murders in U.S. history. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

Murder and evictions  

“It was all a forced removal,” Hunt said. “And there’s no way to sugarcoat that.”

The former professor said the idea that native lands were obtained by diplomacy is a myth — treaties were broken by the United States and rewritten to suit its interests, and the chiefs who signed in some cases could not have represented the entirety of a tribe.

“No one could speak for the entire people. And then, once you’ve signed it, how do you get the white folks to honor the treaty? That’s not going to happen,” Hunt said. “None of these treaties were willingly entered into by the indigenous nations. They were all more or less forced choices.”

Colorado was elevated from a territory to a state in 1876. Aurora was incorporated as the Town of Fletcher some 15 years later, acquiring its present name in 1907.

Since the century of upheaval which expelled Colorado’s native people, the ancestors of émigrés and those killed in clashes with settlers have fought to preserve the early history of Colorado.

By supporting the mission of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, seeking out research and archival materials, partnering with tribal organizations and creating educational materials, those involved with the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation work to immortalize the hundreds killed on lands where they had been guaranteed safety.

“All of this time, Sand Creek was the start of what the tribe’s historical trauma is today,” Ortiz said. “I know it’s shameful, and they’d rather not teach it in schools. They’d rather talk about Governor Evans as the founder of (the University of Denver) than as a person culpable for the massacre.”

“I get asked all of the time why I’m doing this,” Gail Ridgely said. “It’s a healing process, not only for the victims, but for the people of Colorado. … We’ve got to remember what happened at Sand Creek.”

Local governments have also pursued closer ties with the indigenous nations —- in June, Arapahoe County renewed its partnership with the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming with an agreement signed by Nancy Jackson of the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners and tribal elder Ben Ridgley.

Later in the summer, Jackson and fellow commissioners Jeff Baker, Bill Holen and Carrie Warren-Gully visited the tribe’s Wyoming reservation and were given a tour of tribal facilities and programs.

In Aurora, the discussion of how to honor the city’s indigenous history trended recently toward land acknowledgements — a statement read before the meetings of an organization recognizing indigenous tribes as the original stewards of American land.

Denver’s council began reading an acknowledgement before its meetings in 2020. A proposed acknowledgement came before the Aurora City Council in August, naming the Cheyenne, Ute, Arapaho and Lakota people as the region’s original settlers:

“The City of Aurora acknowledges that we gather on the territories and ancestral homelands of the Cheyenne, Ute, Arapaho and Lakota peoples, past and present. We also recognize the 48 contemporary tribal nations that are historically tied to the lands that make up the State of Colorado. Indigenous people have remained committed to the stewardship of this land over many centuries.

As these words of acknowledgment  are spoken and heard, the ties that these nations have to their traditional homelands and to their vital place in the ecosystem are renewed and reaffirmed, and we are called to be better stewards of the land we inhabit as we continue to work to meet the needs of our entire community.”

The idea was shot down by council conservatives — one member, Danielle Jurinsky, said she was “adamantly against” the acknowledgement as written and would only support an acknowledgement that recognized Aurora as “God’s country” — but Mayor Mike Coffman opted to read the statement anyway at the start of the council’s Aug. 22 meeting.

“While I joined with some members who complained that some of the language of the resolution was controversial, the actual language of the Land Acknowledgement, in my view, is not controversial,” Coffman wrote in an Aug. 16 social media post, adding that he would include the statement “at my discretion” in the council’s opening prayer.

Other conservatives said at the time that they thought an acknowledgement could be divisive and questioned why the acknowledgement focused on the harm done to Native Americans rather than the injustices of conquest in general.

“Land has been conquered from all racial groups, and that’s where I’m struggling with this,” Councilmember Angela Lawson said. “It seems like this could be kind of divisive in a way.”

Council progressives were supportive of the acknowledgement, with Crystal Murillo saying it would “show a sign of respect to our indigenous community,” and Ruben Medina saying the practice was common in other colonial nations.

“It’s just respecting the past,” Medina said. “It’s something that’s going on worldwide.”

While some have criticized land acknowledgements as performative, Hunt said he believed the statements send an important message of awareness and openness to those residents of settler communities who can trace their roots back to the indigenous tribes of Colorado.

“They’re still here. They didn’t vanish. There are still tribal members living and working in Aurora, and being insulted by the city council, and living along the Front Range. They’re not a vanished people,” Hunt said.

Ortiz said he thought acknowledgements like the one considered by Aurora’s council was “just the beginning” of healing, but would be appreciated by the Arapaho people.

And for Ben Ridgley — whose ancestor, Little Raven, reportedly said during treaty negotiations in 1865 that “it will be a very hard thing to leave the country that God gave us” — the land where Aurora was built was more than property changing hands.

“We didn’t look at it as an asset. It was our nature of living. It was our home,” he said. “When you’re living somewhere, you’ve got to remember the people who came before you.”

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Michael L Moore
Michael L Moore
17 days ago

It’s such a shame that something as simple as an acknowledgment of real history is met by the ignorant resistance of Ms.Jurinski. It seems that we have a lot of real problems to solve in Aurora without manufacturing issues out of thin air. The Sentinel is correct! History and the people who made it don’t just disappear. We need to be reminded of events that happened years or centuries ago so we learn from our mistakes. Thanks for gathering, writing, and printing this information.