Some native tribes appear to have used this custom of singeing hair over a fire after a loved one had passed away. The smoke from the hair and the fire drifted upward symbolically releasing the spirit to the afterlife. The exact nature of the ceremony is unknown to me, but interestingly was portrayed in the television series Into the West.
The broken kettle symbolizes the Cheyenne Indian Chief Black Kettle. Black Kettle was an important chief of the Southern Cheyenne tribe. Southern Cheyenne were very proud people and from the 1830s up to 1860 had generally enjoyed favorable relationships with the white man. They had a long-standing trading relationship with the people at Bents Fort,and many white traders and mountain men had taken Cheyenne wives. William Bent himself had married two sisters from the Cheyenne tribe.
The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie was designed for peace between the Plains Indian tribes and white immigrants. Provisions of the treaty were never really honored completely by either side. In the end the treaty was unrealistic. The Plains Indians nomadic hunting way of life was not really compatible with massive immigration, development of farms, ranches, and mining interests. Even if the people could live side-by-side, the ways of life could not. Whether an Indian or a tribe chose resistance, or concession in the form of a treaty, the result was going to be the same. The Indians were going to be dispossessed of their lands, and hunting as a way of life was over.
Black Kettle was a pragmatist and realized that white immigration numbers and civilization was overwhelming. The Cheyenne tribe had a proud and effective fighting tradition. Capitulation was a very foreign concept to them, particularly to the Dog Soldiers.
In 1861 he signed the Treaty of Fort Wise. In 1864 with very heightened tensions in Colorado, he negotiated with Colorado Gov. Evans,and was able to achieve a peace agreement at Fort Weld outside Denver. The Southern Cheyenne tribe was assigned to the Sand Creek Indian Reservation. This agreement was signed on September 28, 1864. On November 29, 1864 the Cheyenne village at Sand Creek was attacked by 700 men of the Colorado militia under the command of Col. John Chivington. Most of the Cheyenne warriors were out hunting and the village consisted largely of women and children, 163 of which were shot or stabbed to death.
At the time, this was viewed as a great victory by the people of Denver. Denver had in fact existed only since 1858 after the discovery of gold on Cherry Creek. Rapid expansion of the white population in Denver and the Pike’s Peak gold rush of 1859, had really put the white population in direct conflict with the Cheyenne tribe for resources of water, timber, and game. People going out from Denver to travel or hunt were at risk, and some were certainly attacked and killed by Cheyenne Dog Soldiers.
Col. John Chivington was a hero of the union victory over Confederate forces at Glorietta Pass. He was ambitious, and respected. He had a low view of Indian culture-as was common during his time. His ambition, combined with settlers fear and loathing of Indians, set the stage for the Sand Creek massacre.
His version of the battle was heralded on his triumphant return to Denver, featuring mutilated Indians and souvenir body parts. It wasn’t long, however, until the federal government came to understand the true nature of Sand Creek, and Chivington was discredited.
Black Kettle and his wife managed to escape Sand Creek. He ultimately would sign another peace agreement known as the Medicine Lodge treaty on October 28, 1867. Other Cheyenne bands however, did not sign on, and Indian attacks remained a real concern for white settlers. Black Kettle continued to try to live in peace with the growing white population. The Indian way of life was deteriorating, many bands were starving, and young man of some bands continued raiding. To many white people nuances of Indian tribes were unknown. The concept of the Indians as savages was common, and for many it came down to”the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”.
Gen. Philip Sheridan designed a plan to destroy the Indians ability to fight and carry on any further raids. It was not dissimilar to the Union strategy that ended the Civil War. He wanted to attack Cheyenne winter camps, destroying their lodges, food, supplies, horses,etc. In effect eliminating their ability, and will to resist.
On November 27, 1868 cavalry under the command of George Armstrong Custer attacked Black Kettle’s sleeping village on the Washita River. This time Black Kettle and his wife did not survive the massacre.
Black Kettle is generally viewed as an Indian who truly wanted peace and understood that resistance to the civilization of the white man was not possible. Many agreements were made with him and the Cheyenne by United States federal government and were never honored. I believe these events are black mark on the history of the United States.
People at the time, however, living in the area under threat of Indian attacks viewed this the situation very differently. They had friends and neighbors who were killed by Indians, and Indians at times were a real obstacle to their own business interests, and even their lives. It’s certainly possible that some of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers would retreat back into otherwise peaceful Indian villages for support. At that point, one could argue that the distinction between hostile and friendly Indians was sufficiently blurred to justify military attack. Certainly this logic is employed by Uncle Dick Wooten in his biography.
At the end of the day, however, there can be no justification for attacking an Indian village that just signed a peace agreement with the federal government, where American flags are flying over the Chiefs tent, and the murder of many women and children. Chivington was eventually disgraced for his actions, and Custer would meet his end at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Little Big Horn.