Nits Make Lice

Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Mike Roberts, President of First Nations Development Institute.

By:  Mike Roberts

American Indian and American author, poet, theologian, and historian Vine Deloria Jr. frequently insisted that we should not sanitize America’s past.

And as we sit here this weekend talking about social justice, we need not use language that whitewashes our past and continued social injustice. Specifically, I am referring to the language in the Council’s insert to this year’s conference program, when it invites the attendees to travel to “Sand Creek, site of one of the most violent conflicts ever between government militia and Native Americans.”

As I read this, I was reminded of a quote by Confucius that is taped to my computer that reads:

“If language is incorrect,

Then what is said is not meant.

If what is said is not meant,

Then what ought to be done remains undone.”

Violent conflict. Really? Come on now?

Hendrik Busse outlines the various levels of ‘violent conflict’ and in each of the definitions is a reference to a battle, which is generally thought of as a general encounter between armies or armed forces. A massacre, on the other hand, is a general slaughter or the unnecessary, indiscriminate killing of a large number of human beings (or animals) as in barbarous warfare. Why can’t the Council’s materials say the word ‘massacre?’ Because in the case of “the Sand Creek Massacre,” that is exactly what happened.

In the case of the Sand Creek Massacre, there is not much dispute of this history and the events.

In November 1864, Black Kettle, a chief and his group Northern Cheyenne people, were encamped at Sand Creek. According to all accounts, Black Kettle flew an American flag over his lodge, as he was given assurance by officers of the U.S. Army that this would show he and his people were friendly and U.S. soldiers would not attack. Feeling safe with these assurances, Black Kettle reportedly sent most of his warriors to hunt, leaving only around 60 men, and women and children in the village, most of whom were too old or too young to hunt.

On the morning of November 29, 1864 Colonel John Chivington led his 700 troops, many of them drinking heavily, to Sand Creek and positioned them, along with their four howitzers, around the Indian encampment. The result was, at best, inhumane. Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, wrote that 133 Indians were killed, 105 of whom were women and children

Reports note that, “before Chivington and his men left the area, they plundered the tipis and took the horses. After the smoke cleared, Chivington’s men came back and killed many of the wounded. They also scalped many of the dead, regardless of whether they were women, children, or infants. Chivington and his men dressed their weapons, hats and gear with scalps and other body parts, including human fetuses and male and female genitalia.” They also publicly displayed these battle trophies in Denver theaters and area saloons. Much of this was captured in Congressional testimony:

“I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces … With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors … By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops …”

—- John S. Smith, Congressional Testimony of Mr. John S. Smith, 1865[15]

Chivington and his actions were condemned in the congressional investigation that followed, and he was later forced to resign. A military inquiry questioned Chivington’s men about why children had been killed, at which one of his soldiers attached to Chivington one of the most demeaning quotes ever spoken about American Indians, “NITS MAKE LICE.”

At a conference where we celebrate the Councils long-overdue inclusion of Indian Philanthropies and Tribal Giving Programs as full members, we should not dilute this historic event with a sanitization of America’s past social injustice with the use of language that is incorrect.

2 responses to “Nits Make Lice

  1. Chief Laird’s last name is Cometsevah.

  2. Southern Cheyenne Chief, and Chief of the Council of 44, Laird (Whistling Eagle) told me in an interview for our film that over 400 Cheyenne people were murdered during the Sand Creek Massacre.