Updated: June 30, 2014 at 1:26 pm
At a dusty memorial to a mass killing in eastern Colorado, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky says it's time to repent and seek forgiveness.
"Part of our church tradition is to recognize our sins," she says while accepting a share of the blame for one of the uglier chapters in Colorado history.
Stanovsky, who presides over a four-state region of the United Methodist Church, led 650 church members on what she called a "pilgrimage" to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site near Eads this month to formally recognize the church's role in the killings of at least 150 American Indians, many of them women and children.
The faithful arrived through the morning and into the afternoon on 13 rumbling tour buses after a three-hour drive from Pueblo. While stepping off the buses, each participant leaned to receive an ashen cross on the forehead and then went off to tour the grounds.
The June 20 visit was among the latest efforts by the church to come to terms with a follower's involvement in the slayings.
It was a Methodist preacher, Col. John Chivington, who led the Nov. 29, 1864, raid, training a force of 700 militiamen on 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians who were camped near the creek, by some accounts intending to make peace following a series of violent confrontations.
After a surprise attack, unarmed women and children were slaughtered as they fled or begged for their lives, according to reports from soldiers who refused to participate.
In late May, a report by a panel of historians convened by Northwestern University blamed another Methodist, Colorado territorial governor John Evans, for creating the conditions and drafting polices that helped lead to the raid.
The panel said Evans, the founder of Northwestern University and the University of Denver, displayed a "moral failure" in not condemning the attack.
In 2012, the church's top legislative body participated in an "act of repentance" for Chivington's actions and agreed to further study of the massacre.
The delegation's recent visit to Eads was part of the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church, composed of 260 churches in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Stanovsky said the pilgrimage was meant to educate faith leaders about the events and to emphasize the call to mend ties with American Indians.
"There's a fatal flaw in our relationships that goes back to that day in 1864," she said. "By and large, tribal people have kept that memory alive and Methodists don't know the history."
She rejected oft-repeated arguments that accounts of atrocities have been exaggerated by Chivington's personal enemies, saying that the Sand Creek Massacre "has been studied as much or more than any similar event in history."
"There were eyewitness accounts within a week," she said. "I've not heard a version of the story that would relieve my sense of grief and profound error. Even the best version of the story is part of a long, long story of dislocation of a people and in claiming lands that didn't belong to the settlers moving in."
Joining the delegation were several descendants of those who survived the attack. Hundreds managed to escape, some after digging for cover into sandy creek banks.
Karen Little Coyote, a Southern Cheyenne Indian from Seiling, Okla., counts herself a descendant of Chief Black Kettle, who survived the raid.
Black Kettle had wanted to negotiate for peace at the time of the attack, she said.
"It took a long time for the tribes to trust him again because he led them to the spot where they were massacred," she said. "I'm proud to carry his blood in my veins."
She added: "I'm thankful for today. I can't speak for the rest of my Cheyenne people."
Said Henry Little Bird Sr., an Arapahoe Indian from Geary, Okla.: "I would like to get the story out about what a strong people we were to survive - and to be here today."
Both Little Bird and Little Coyote offered words of praise to the Methodists for what they characterized as a step in the right direction.
Others on the tour said they appreciated the show of contrition but wouldn't reconcile until reparations have been paid to descendants, a remaining source of tension among them.
Reginald Killsnight Jr., a Northern Cheyenne Indian from Lamedeer, Mont., grew tearful when asked about the experience of visiting the massacre site.
Scanning the fields that were riven by violence 150 years ago, he said: "You can almost see how it happened," he said. "You get that picture in your mind."
After regaining his composure, he said, "We can't change the past, but we can move on and continue with the healing."