Sand Creek

     One hundred fifty-three years have lapsed since one of the most infamous chapters in the annals of Colorado, the Sand Creek Massacre, on November 29, 1864. While the Civil War was raging in the East, in the West conflicts with American Indians defending their homeland from intruders had increased in frequency and severity. When territorial Governor Evans formed a temporary 100 day militia in August 1864 to deal with the “Indian Problem”, he invested Colonel John Chivington with its command. Hero of the Battle at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico in 1862, his forces had helped prevent an army of Texas Confederates from taking over the Colorado gold fields.

     Evans and Chivington, both Methodists – the latter an ordained minister before his military career – did not conceal their hostile views of the Indians which reflected the attitude of most settlers. They conspired to attack an encampment of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, about 40 miles north of Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado, choosing to disregard that leaders of this group had sought out the Governor in Denver to express their peaceful intentions, as well as his own earlier proclamation to the “friendly Indians on the plains” to go to designated “places of safety”. Evans wanted to placate Coloradans who were demanding forceful actions against worsening attacks by marauding Indian bands. He was determined to use his volunteers before their term of service expired, even if he had to overlook that this gathering of Indians at Sand Creek was nonviolent.

Colorado Territory Governor Evan’s blatant proclamation about how to deal with the Indians who were in the way of “progress”

     Chivington marched the volunteers of the 3rd Colorado Regiment from Denver to Fort Lyon, where he arrived on the evening of November 28. He immediately imposed a lockdown, thereby preventing any potential sympathizer from warning the Indians. Under cover of night, he led nearly 700 men, his contingent reinforced by troops from Fort Lyon, to Sand Creek, where the American flag was flying above the camp. As the army advanced in the early morning hours of November 29, Chief Black Kettle, one of the recent delegates to Denver, hoisted a white flag. Since most of the warriors were away hunting for food, the majority of the remaining 600 to 700 villagers were elderly men, women and children. Nevertheless, the soldiers attacked, supported by field Howitzers. At least 150 Indians were murdered and a similar number injured, while the rest managed to flee, having to leave all their possessions behind, with winter looming.

Location of the Indian encampment

Sand Creek provided vital water for the inhabitants of the camp

     The casualties would certainly have been higher had two officers, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer from Fort Lyon not refused to fight people who had been assured safety at their Sand Creek site by the US Army. Thanks to their eyewitness accounts, the extent of the bloodshed and the subsequent mutilation of the victims became common knowledge. The public display of body parts of the “savages” paraded in Denver once the “victorious” brigade returned corroborated their descriptions. Soule and Cramer testified in the subsequent government investigation and by doing so, risked not only their military careers, but also their lives. Captain Soule was, in fact, shot in Denver several months later in what was generally acknowledged to be retribution for his courageous moral stance. His murderer(s) were never brought to justice. Evans and Chivington, even though they stepped down from their respective posts and were reprimanded by Congress, never suffered legal consequences and were considered heroes in the eyes of many throughout their lives.

     To defenders of this massacre who point out that the perpetrators were children of their age and merely represented the existing worldview I reply that many contemporaries condemned the crimes committed, Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer first among them. In Colorado Springs, writer Helen Hunt Jackson, profoundly affected by the speech of a different Chief, Standing Bear, became an American Indian Activist. She called a spade a spade, and publicly criticized the mistreatment of North America’s native inhabitants. They are heroes I can look up to.

Monument at what became Sand Creek National Historic Site in 2007

     Since 1999, descendants of the survivors of Sand Creek honor Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer with their annual 180 mile Spiritual Healing Run in late November, from Sand Creek to Captain Soule’s grave at Riverside Cemetery in Denver.

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Traces of New Spain

     It is a truth universally acknowledged that to the victor go the spoils. In the wake of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1492 for the King and Queen of Spain, the colonial realm “New Spain” supplanted the Aztec Empire. It comprised much of the land mass north of the Isthmus of Panama and included vast stretches of the future United States. After Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 those became Mexican, but only two and a half decades later were ceded to the U.S. following the Mexican American War (1846-48). Portions of the yet-to-be-founded states of Colorado and New Mexico lay in this ceded territory.

     Spain lost no time in sending expeditions north to search for gold. In 1540, Coronado traveled as far as modern-day Kansas. In the early 1600s, the invaders commenced the Christianization of the native North American tribes with the help of Franciscan missionaries and Catholic colonists. In the process, Christian churches were erected, usually with the sweat of the local “infidels”, or of recent converts. These edifices were built from local materials and plastered with the traditional adobe also used in the construction of indigenous pueblos. Catholicism became the sole “tolerated” religion. Once America lay claim to those formerly Mexican regions, it continued to be practiced by those believers who were suddenly US citizens.

     This history comes alive in October, when my husband and I journey from Colorado Springs southward. South of the Arkansas River, the former dividing line between Mexico and the United States, multiple towns in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and in New Mexico abound with names that harken back to this Hispanic heritage. Catholic churches and symbols dominate the scenery, such as the crucifix in the featured photo above, in Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, founded in 1851 by settlers moving north from New Mexico.

     My photos represent a small selection of these peaceful places of worship where the Virgin Mary reigns supreme, and is often bedecked with flowers and additional tokens of adoration. As alienating as this adulation appears to this skeptic, I can’t help but respect the sincere faith in and hope for a better world – even though I desire it for the present, and not just for a future life.

San Miguel Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico, circa 1610, considered the oldest church structure in the United States

Interior of San Miguel with altar and wooden ceiling, typical of many churches

Ruins of the former church and “convento” at Pecos National Historic Park, New Mexico, circa 1717, replaced an older structure destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680

San Jose de Gracia, Las Trampas, New Mexico, circa 1760

San Miguel del Vado, near Villanueva, New Mexico, circa 1806

Mosaic on the wall surrounding San Miguel del Vado

Santuario de Chimayó, near Taos, New Mexico, circa 1816

Mary statues at Chimayó

Santo Tomas El Apostol, Abiquiú, New Mexico, circa 1935

La Capilla de Todos los Santos, San Luis, Colorado, circa 1997, the culmination of a trail lined with bronze statues depicting the Stations of the Cross

A small shrine inside this chapel

Stained-glass window inside this chapel

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Painter of the Desert

     Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) first lay eyes on the “Land of Enchantment” in 1929 at the age of 41. It cast a spell on her that nothing but death could break – if that: “When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore, unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.”

One of the colorful rock formations near her adoptive home

     Whenever her tumultuous marriage to noted photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz, and her blossoming career in New York City as America’s foremost abstract painter allowed, she escaped to the remote reaches of New Mexico’s little known and less developed desertscapes. Like many artists, she came at the behest of Mabel Dodge Luhan, legendary Taos patroness of the arts. Unlike many, she kept returning, and after her husband’s death in 1946, relocated there permanently. She possessed a house-cum-studio in the town of Abiquiú as well as a small parcel of land and cabin on the Ghost Ranch, located 14 miles farther west. Privately owned until 1955, the ranch has since been administered by the Presbyterian Church as a spiritual retreat center, and continues to profit from its lengthy association with the painter who kept returning as long as her health permitted.

Her house and studio in Abiquiú, built in the widespread adobe style

Entrance to the Ghost Ranch off US Highway 84

     Away from throngs and distractions, Georgia O’Keeffe, often portrayed as a recluse, was able to forget the noise of the East Coast, drink deeply of the silence, partake of the colors, shapes and silhouettes of a sere, stark land, and capture its soul on canvas like few artists before or since. When exploring this region and sensing its heartbeat today, it is easy to relate to the urge to evoke its essence through brush – or pen. We saw O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiú only from the outside (tours are offered, but must be prescheduled), and tread only on portions of the Ghost Ranch property open to the public which did not include her refuge, but everywhere we encountered motifs she immortalized.

The mountain Cerro Pedernal, one of her favorite motifs, seen from the Ghost Ranch

     Our visit coincided with a string of astonishingly auspicious autumn days during which we eagerly absorbed the sun’s warming rays like the local lizards. The color of cottonwood trees lining the rare but vital waterways set the desert ablaze, while competing with a riot of multi-hued rocks.

Rio Chama near Abiquiú

For eight nights in a row, we slept in our tent without a rainfly, gazing at the same star-studded firmament and milky ribbon that Georgia would have peered at. Coyote songs serenaded our slumber, the no less moving melodies of birds our waking hours.

Sunrise near one of our campsites along the Rio Chama

     Like Georgia O’Keeffe we were fortunate to set foot on this sunbaked and sandy earth, and like her, we fell under its spell.

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Butterfly Fever

     Late summer and early fall brought an invasion of the Rocky Mountain region by legions of gossamer-winged Painted Ladies. Denver weather radar detected large swarms of these lovely lepidopterans undulating across the screen in what amounted to a seventy mile band. While this is not an unusual phenomenon in eastern states, it was a novelty for Colorado. Many were the reported sightings and resulting delight shared in newspapers, on television, and numerous blogs.

     Between the end of August and the latter part of October, Colorado Springs residents and guests were also treated to a winged visitation of another kind. Thanks to the 10th annual “Flight” event organized by the Rotary Club, twenty-four handcrafted butterflies landed on the lawn of our local Pioneers Museum, where they contributed color and whimsy to an active downtown arts scene. Those steely individuals with three foot wingspans alighted on seven foot tall poles after they were fashioned by Colorado artists. They were subsequently auctioned off at a special fundraiser and the proceeds will support arts and science programs in our largest school district, besides additional worthy causes.

     One of our incredible bluebird autumn days found me at my favorite museum. I benefitted from perfect climatic conditions and clicked away with my camera. Being encircled by a cloud of enchanting, enormous creations resulted in difficulty electing favorites. Each butterfly was named and each told its own story on its ventral and dorsal surfaces, the intricacies of which were impossible to capture. My photos show a small selection of these inspired labors of love.

Transformation-The Flight of the Phoenix

Tiger Passion

Sunset Silhouette

Harmonious Dream

Huichol Wilderness

Into the Light

Beauty and the Beast

The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons

     When, among those immovable creatures, I perceived the quivering of so many mobile wings, delicate in detail yet sturdy enough to convey their owners to distant lands, I was both humbled and exalted to witness this magical moment.

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Horsing Around

In a post about bird banding a few weeks back, I mentioned Chico Basin Ranch, an active, environmentally-friendly cattle operation. Next to cows, the ranch offers a home to horses, so for me, each birding expedition turns into a horsing expedition as well. Despite having left my teenage riding days (far) behind, I have not done the same with my admiration for equine quadrupeds, resulting in an utter inability to bypass them without activating my camera.

As some of you might remember, earlier this year I had the unforgettable opportunity to spend 24 Hours Among Wild Horses. While the horses at Chico are not wild in that sense, they appear to live rather freely, at least during the summer, getting to roam and graze the meadows adjacent to Headquarter Pond, with Pikes Peak looming in the West, and the Great Plains stretching to the East. A good place to spend one’s days.

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