By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Four descendants of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians slaughtered in 1864 by U.S. federal troops in Colorado sued the federal government on Thursday for reparations over what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver accuses federal authorities of reneging on an 1866 promise to compensate victims of the massacre, and is demanding an accounting for the money that was set aside to pay the claims.
The Sand Creek Massacre, which took place when Colorado was a U.S. territory still 12 years away from statehood, was one of many skirmishes in the 19th century Indian Wars as white settlers expanded westward.
The suit says the U.S. federal government is responsible for an army that "committed acts of genocide, torture, mutilation, harassment and intimidation" against Indians who were camped along the Colorado creek when they were attacked without provocation, the lawsuit said
A spokesman for the Interior Department could not immediately be reached for comment.
At dawn on the morning of the massacre on November 29, 1864, about 700 U.S. cavalry troops, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, descended on an encampment of some 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along the Sand Creek near Fort Lyon, Colorado.
The Indians at Sand Creek were non-combatants in the Indian Wars and were led to believe under the terms of the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise that they were in a safe haven. Nevertheless, cavalry troops opened fire with "artillery and 12-pound mountain howitzers," according to the lawsuit.
An elderly Cheyenne Chief, White Antelope, ran toward the troops and crossed his arms, signifying that the villagers did not want to fight.
He was shot dead, and the "plaintiffs still have the bullet hole-riddled blanket" the chief wore when he was gunned down, the lawsuit said. An estimated 165 Indians - many unarmed women, children and the elderly - were killed over the next several hours.
The massacre grounds are now a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service.
The federal government conducted an investigation and promised to pay reparations to the survivors under the Treaty of Little Arkansas but never made good on the promise, the lawsuit claims.
"The DOI (Department of the Interior) is believed to have since 1866, controlled and held in trust reparations owed to plaintiffs and their ancestors," the lawsuit said.
The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which a federal judge must approve. The suit names the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as defendants.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)