CHEYENNE - In the history of the West, certain events take precedence.
Schoolchildren will strain their arms to answer questions about the Oregon Trail or Thomas Jefferson's impossibly good deal on the Louisiana Purchase.
But mention the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre to most anyone but an Arapaho or Cheyenne Indian, and you won't get much.
A ceremony in Wyoming's capital today aims to fill in the blank on Sand Creek, one of the most horrific events in the conquest of the West by European-Americans.
Northern Arapaho tribal members will join state officials on the Cheyenne Depot Plaza at 3:30 p.m. to designate the Sand Creek Massacre Trail - a 600-mile ceremonial link between the Colorado massacre site and the headquarters of the Northern Arapaho Tribe on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation.
The ceremony, which is open to the public, will feature speeches, tribal dancers and a healing ceremony. Officials also will unveil the design for the official trail highway sign.
A group of Arapaho runners is scheduled to make the roughly 10-mile journey on foot from the Colorado-Wyoming border to Cheyenne in time for the gathering.
This is part of "an educational awareness, historical remembrance and spiritual healing for one of the greatest atrocities to happen to Native American people during the development of this country," said Gale Ridgley, a Northern Arapaho descendant of massacre survivors Lame Man and Chief Little Raven.
On the morning of Nov. 29, 1864, about 500 mostly women, children and elderly Arapaho and Cheyenne were waking from sleep on the banks of Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory.
Both tribes were resting easy after the end of prolonged conflicts with the U.S. government. They had recently ceded their land and agreed to move to reservations in exchange for an end to war.
Assured peace, the tribes' men were away finding meat.
Nearby, Col. John Chivington prepared his 800 volunteer troops from Colorado and New Mexico for battle by instructing them, according to some accounts, to "kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice."
The soldiers fell on the Indians that morning, slaughtering between 150 and 184. Fewer than a dozen soldiers died. Accounts note extreme brutality by the soldiers.
"They weren't just killed," said Nelson White of the Northern Arapaho Business Council. "They were butchered.
"Some of the stories that was passed on was that even the ladies that were going to have newborns, the newborns were cut out and the private parts of both men and women, after the massacre, they were taken to Denver and they were paraded through," White said.
Shocked the nation
Newspapers initially reported a valiant victory by Chivington and his men. The true story, when it came out, made even bigger headlines and shocked the nation.
Three government investigations revealed "a foul and dastardly massacre" that included "the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man."
Chivington "surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women and children of Sand Creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities," investigators concluded.
The massacre heightened tensions between U.S. troops and militant Indian groups and probably contributed to retribution against non-Indian civilians.
Harold Smith, a Northern Arapaho spiritual leader, said tribal members at Sand Creek were killed and brutalized because they were Indian, much like the Jews were persecuted during the Holocaust because of who they were.
"It's basically the same thing," Smith said.
Chivington and his men were never punished.
Quick to forget
Over time, the horror of Sand Creek faded from the public consciousness. Even some tribal members refused to talk about it.
Ridgley said he only heard whispers of the battle as a child. His grandfather eventually revealed the family connections in the 1960s.
"You don't hear about them in the school system," he said.
Ridgley, now principal at the Arapaho Charter High School, said his tribe still suffers from "generational trauma" inflicted by the brutal deaths of ancestors less than six generations ago. He said the suffering and other hardships in the tribe's history contribute to the Arapahos' ongoing struggles with poverty, suicide and depression.
"When you are beaten down like a dog, it carries over to generations," he said.
In 1996, Ridgley and his brother, former Northern Arapaho Business Councilman Ben Ridgley, were selected by the tribe to work with other tribes, states and the federal government to resurrect the story of Sand Creek and honor those who died.
The decade-long effort involved an 18-month scientific study of the massacre site and an "oral history" study that brought together the collective knowledge about the massacre passed down by tribal families.
A nation remembers
Congress adopted legislation in 2000 that formally recognized the significance of the massacre in American history.
In Wyoming, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, Sen. Bob Peck, R-Riverton, and the late Rep. Harry Tipton, R-Lander, pushed for a resolution to designate several sections of highway as the Sand Creek Massacre Trail. After attempts by three Legislatures, the measure passed both houses unanimously.
Case said the resolution could be one of the most important ever adopted by the Legislature in terms of achieving cultural understanding between the state and the tribes at Wind River.
"I think this is a recognition by the Wyoming state government of a very significant and tragic event, and I think that's a very healing thing," said Case, whose Senate district includes much of the western half of the reservation.
In 2000 and 2002, tribal members ran relays from the massacre site in Colorado to the Wind River reservation. About 60 people made the run each time over the course of five days.
Nelson White said today's ceremony is intended to honor those killed at Sand Creek. And it's a way to promote healing among Arapaho people.
"We're trying to go on," White said. "We're trying to educate our younger people to be aware of what had happened."
"We're all descendants of what happened down there," said Al Addison, co-chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council.