New Heritage center blends cultures involved in Washita attack 4-19-07


Associated Press Writer

CHEYENNE, Okla. (AP) - The two cultures that clashed in 1868 when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led about 700 soldiers into a dawn raid on a sleeping Cheyenne camp along the Washita River will be intertwined at a new federal museum set to open near the historic site.

A ribbon cutting ceremony will be held Friday for the Cultural Heritage Center at the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site near Cheyenne.

The 11,000-square-foot facility sits nestled in the western Oklahoma hills, a short distance from where as many as 60 Indians and about 20 members of Custer's 7th Cavalry died during the attack on Nov. 27, 1868.

Part of a winter campaign designed to attack Indian settlements when they were less mobile and therefore more vulnerable, Custer's assault came just four years after more than 125 American Indians, mostly women and children, were killed at the Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado.

Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Woman Later, narrowly escaped death in that slaughter but were among the Indians killed in the Washita attack.

Although some women and children died in the attack, Custer reportedly ordered his troops to capture women and children, and more than 50 women and children were taken captive. Custer and his men also burned the village and slaughtered more than 800 Indian ponies.

What Custer didn't know when he attacked the camp was that there were more Indian settlements, and thousands more Indians, farther down river. Nearly all the Army casualties that day occurred when Maj. Joel Elliot and his detachment chased a group of fleeing Indians down river and were surrounded and killed by Indians coming toward the site of the Washita attack.

Because the cultural center must tell the story of two distinct sides in the conflict - the U.S. Army and the native Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians - a delicate balance was reached while plans were drawn for the building's construction.

Evidence of the two separate cultures can be witnessed in the pathway leading to the doors of the building, which face east in accordance with Native American tradition, said Lawrence Hart, one of several members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma who had input into the building's design.

“As you get close to the building, you see two walls - one side is curved and one has straight lines - because we don't think lineally, we think in terms of circles,” explained Hart, 74, who operates a Cheyenne cultural center in Clinton. “Both are significant for the cultures they represent ... and one begins to realize that we're showing two cultures as you approach the building.”

Other recommendations incorporated into the building's design include circular windows and an emphasis on the number four, both of which are important elements of tribal culture, Hart said.

“You see the elements of our culture in the architecture itself, and we really appreciate that.”

The center, constructed with a $4.25 million appropriation from Congress approved in 2003, also will house offices for the National Parks Service and U.S. Forest Service, said Dave Schafer, chief of interpretation and operations at the site for the National Parks Service.

Schafer, who is crammed into an office in downtown Cheyenne with several other NPS employees, said they receive about 15,000 visitors at the site each year, a number that is expected to grow once the new facility opens.

The center will open temporarily for Friday's ribbon cutting, but inclement weather in recent months has delayed construction and pushed back the permanent opening until late May or early June, Schafer said.

As a government official, Schafer said he also must be careful to respect both sides of the conflict when he explains to visitors what happened at the site nearly 140 years ago.

“I'm conscious not to call it a battle or a massacre,” Schafer said. “The official name is the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site ... but for members of the tribe, they remember it as a massacre.”

Jerome Green, an author and historian who wrote “Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes,” said because Custer told his men to spare women and children during the assault, he does not refer to the event as a massacre.

“I've also come to not even call it a battle. This is a very one sided assault,” Green said. “A battle is something where the people have an opportunity to respond and fight back. The Army classified it as a battle, but I've come to think of it as less than that.”