For four generations, my family has ranched on these same windswept plains of Colorado. Growing up, my public education mostly skipped over the events of the Sand Creek Massacre. And neither was it retold by my own family. Instead, there was tell of the legend of Captain John C. Fremont, trapped by Native Americans on top of the highest butte around, using a piece of mirror to catch the sun’s reflection and signal for rescue by the Calvary.   

Here, on the shoulders of Captain Fremont’s Butte, I grew up immersed entirely in the white race. I had never looked into the face of an American Indian, never reached out a hand, or spoken a conversation with anyone of this descent. By the late 1970’s, the legendary Fremont’s Butte was just an awfully good spot for a summer keg party and an all-night bonfire.

Fast forward 33 years, and I found myself seated at a council table with tribal representatives and government officials, discussing the goal of a National Historic Site that would commemorate the events of the Sand Creek Massacre. The National Park Service wanted us involved, and with wise counsel from senior staff we took on the project.  

Back in D.C., Congress would authorize an area encompassing 15,000 acres for the site.  There was one hurdle—all this land was in private ownership, in the hands of descendants of European homesteaders.  My role was to see if these folks would like to sell their property, so the federal government could get on with its new National Historic Site.  

Never in my life had my learning curve felt so steep. I attended council meetings with expectations of a 9:00 a.m. start, but quickly learned patience.  You see, the 1864 event scattered the survivors in three directions to Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Montana. Council meetings would begin whenever the handful of direct descendants had arrived from their now distant homes. These hours were filled with government brewed coffee in Styrofoam cups, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth-donuts, and time to ponder whether sleeping fully clothed might be the best approach at the local motel.

"For four generations, my family has ranched on these same windswept plains of Colorado."
— Christine Quinlan, Colorado Associate State Director, The Conservation Fund

But I came to understand that these people were worth waiting for. Like Mildred Red Cherries, who, when I explained with all the diplomacy I could muster that we could not pay more for the land than it was worth, she replied that the place where her ancestors were massacred could bear no relationship to money.  

We were successful in acquiring several pieces of land at the Site, and another piece we couldn’t acquire came into the site through the involvement of a reservation casino operator. In 2007, 142 years after the event, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was dedicated and opened to the public. To celebrate, tribal descendants, local ranchers, and government dignitaries joined together at the remote site to talk, photograph, drum, dance, eat, walk and pray.  

I was proud to have played a part in creating the Historic Site. But somehow my whiteness felt, still feels, conspicuous. I longed to shout out my innocence to the crowd that had gathered. Instead, I kept quiet, and let the clear blue sky over the wide prairie speak for itself the brutal truth.  

Today, and always I suppose, I have to take in a little extra air, and then practice inside my head a time or two, before I can spit out the word—massacre.