Vagneur: A dark stain on this brave land | AspenTimes.com

Vagneur: A dark stain on this brave land

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

We never talk about it much, those terrible things we did in our war against the "savages." Sprinkle a little Christianity on us and inculcate the idea of "manifest destiny," and all things become possible. If historical accounts can be believed, the Mormons shot Utes with an indiscriminate ferocity that challenges those today who believe in the idea of prairie dog eradication by rifle.

The Sand Creek Massacre is still memorable in our minds: The 1864 attack by U.S. Army Col. and Methodist preacher John Chivington and his troops on a peaceful encampment of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. The lodge of the Cheyenne chief, Black Kettle, flew the U.S. flag as well as a white flag of surrender. Chivington and his men, without provocation, killed 133 Indians, 105 of whom were women and children, including babies. The rest were men either too young or too old to fight. The fighting men, the warriors, believing they were under the protection of the U.S. government, had gone out to hunt. The atrocities committed upon the bodies of the Indians, including children and babies, are too gross to mention here. This carnage took place in what is now southern Colorado.

There was the tragedy of Wounded Knee, another infamous and one-sided attempt by cavalrymen of the U.S. government to eradicate the Sioux from South Dakota. In that massacre, approximately 300 Sioux, mostly women and children, died, compared with 25 deaths among the soldiers. Ironically, the troops were apparently so highly strung on the idea of Indian extermination that their indiscriminate gunfire brought down some of their own troops with what today is called "friendly fire." In an additional insult to the Sioux, Medals of Honor were given to 23 soldiers for their dexterous hand in the momentous murder of the already-surrendered Sioux.

Creepier still might be the death of Mangas Coloradas, head chief of the Mimbrenos Apaches. Down south in New Mexico, the Apaches were having trouble with the Mexicans, who had recently gained their independence from Spain and had decided the Apaches must go. By 1835, the Mexican government had put a bounty on Apache scalps and had absolutely no mercy for any who got in their way. It was during this time that Mangas Coloradas, an exceptionally tall, thin-lipped man, became the tribal chief of the Mimbrenos Apaches.

Being an astute politician, Mangas Coloradas took the side of the U.S. in its 1860 war with Mexico, promising the U.S. military safe passage through Apache lands. This led to a tenuous peace treaty with the U.S., primarily because Mangas respected the U.S. government for conquering the hated Mexicans.

This treaty held until gold was discovered in the mountains of New Mexico. As Native Americans learned the hard way, peace treaties were made to be broken, and the onslaught of gold-seekers and other settlers across their land led to a war with the whites that would last for the next 27 years.

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Cochise, Geronimo and Mangas Coloradas became a fearsome triumvirate, determined to drive the white man out of Apache territory, and they were certainly a force to be reckoned with.

However, in 1863, recovering from a severe chest wound sustained in battle and 70 years old, the warrior road was beginning to wear thin on Mangas and he succumbed to a peace negotiation overture from Brigadier Gen. Joseph Rodman West and walked into a malicious trap at Fort McLane in southwestern New Mexico, carrying a flag of truce.

As a surprised and confused Mangas was taken into custody, the evil plot played out. "I want him dead," was the order West gave his troops, and after a night of beatings and torture with red-hot bayonets, Mangas was beheaded, his grotesque and bodyless head boiled in water for delivery to a phrenologist in New York City. For what possible purpose?

Mangas' skull ended up in the Smithsonian Institution, so the story goes, but it claims to have never received the skull. It is entirely possible that the skull of Mangas Coloradas was returned to the Apache nation in 1990, unmarked and mixed in with other artifacts from the Smithsonian. An ignominious end for a man little recognized in today's historic press, a man who spent his adult life fighting for the freedom of his people.

Not far behind us is a closet where we'd like to keep such brutal, blood-chilling events as those detailed above locked out of sight. But as we learned from the Indian wars, you can't kill a people unless you kill all of them. We obviously failed, and our treachery will forever be a dark stain on this brave land we call home.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.