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Book Review: Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek

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On November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington, a former abolitionist preacher, led a military expedition against an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, having seen their power diminish rapidly with the arrival of whites since 1859, were there under an understanding of peace. Despite this, Chivington and his men mercilessly attacked without warning. Up to 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed in one of the most brutal incidents in the history of white colonization of the United States. Chivington thought this would make his political career. But two officers testified against him before a congressional committee investigating the incident, of which one was soon murdered by a Chivington supporter. Sand Creek led the Cheyenne and Arapahos into full-fledged war that would not stop until military defeat in the late 1870s.

In 1998, Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the first Native American to serve in the Senate, introduced a bill to acquire the Sand Creek Massacre site for the National Park Service. It required compromise between the many stakeholders the project, including the NPS, local landowners and residents of isolated, conservative, and nearly all-white Kiowa County; the Northern and Southern Cheyennes, and the Northern and Southern Arapahoes, as well as other interested parties in Colorado.

Ari Kelman, who many of you may know from his former blogging at Edge of the American West, has a new book out detailing the intense struggle over commemorating Sand Creek. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek does a fantastic job at exploring the process of officially memorializing Sand Creek. Calling it a “‘history front’ in a simmering ‘culture war,'” Kelman details the painful and complex process that remembering our past necessitates when both conqueror and conquered have roughly equal voices in determining what that remembrance will look like.

Perhaps the best way to review this book is to focus on one primary issue: where the massacre actually took place. Fairly quickly after 1864, people couldn’t figure out quite where it had happened. The general area was known, but even those who had participated were unsure when they returned. An exception to this was George Bent. The half-Cheyenne trader, Bent survived the massacre and produced maps with a sympathetic white historian between 1905 and 1914, over forty years after the fact. For the Cheyennes and Arapahos, Sand Creek is a “living memory,” a defining point in their history that still resonates today in a world where its consequences include in entrenched poverty on reservations in Montana, Wyoming, and Oklahoma. Because of that and because of the importance of Bent’s testimony in giving them a mental map to that site, the Cheyennes and Arapahos insisted that Bent’s map showed precisely where the battle took place. Even questioning it reeked of colonialism. For the tribes, officially memorializing the massacre was a positive potential step, but it wasn’t their top priority, which allowed them to use it as a tool for reparation claims against the federal government. They were determined to not just hand over a site so central to their tribal memories to the federal government without stipulations, so maintaining cultural sovereignty and prioritizing their traditional memories of the place were of the utmost importance.

The National Park Service had different priorities. Some looters came out to the massacre site with metal detectors, but found nothing. They reported this to the Colorado Historical Society, leading to a long search for evidence of the battlefield. It was during this process that Campbell crafted legislation for the park, which made finding the site imperative for the NPS.

Now we can rightfully question whether “finding Sand Creek” should have been a necessary condition to the NPS commemorating it. As Euro-Americans, we have an overly inflated sense of the importance of actual physical sites where something happened. If it was close to the massacre site, I’m not sure that it should have mattered much. But for the tribes, this process was infuriating. Bent said it was there so it was there. Period. Never mind the lack of physical evidence.

As a historian with a pretty conservative methodological viewpoint, this question of Bent’s memory as arbiter is a tough one, even if I know the historical background of why this is so. Fundamentally, do the Cheyennes have the right to determine the location of the massacre site based upon their cultural authority alone? If we accept that idea, do we also have to accept Native American claims that they have been in the Americas forever, Bering Land Bridge evidence notwithstanding? Or Mormon cosmology? Or the Creation story? In other words, does cultural cache and politics trump evidence, even when a history of very real oppression gives particular stories moral weight? There’s no easy answer. Similarly, to what extent do we as historians take oral traditions as evidence that holds the same weight as written or other forms of evidence? If we do take them as methodologically equal to other sources, what are the implications for the accuracy of the history? If we don’t, are we part of a larger racist and colonial project? Moreover, it’s not like the Cheyennes and Arapahoes necessarily see eye to eye, or for that matter the Northern Cheyenne and Southern Cheyenne. Some Cheyennes, including many of the most prominent involved in this struggle, denied the Arapahoes were even at Sand Creek in 1864. When they don’t agree, whose histories and ideas get prioritized? Does that the fact that a few Northern Cheyenne families took a particularly aggressive stance in this process mean their views receive the most attention? In this case it did. They did eventually find the site, not all that far from where Bent said it was. Late in the process, a cartographical study suggested at an irrigation ditch probably changed the channel of the creek at some point, which made it possible that Bent (and the Cheyennes) were right after all.

Kelman’s fascinating book is filled with issues like this. Campbell’s Sagebrush Rebellion-esque concerns about federal ownership of public lands gave the white landowners enormous power to determine the selling prices. Colorado whites arguing amongst themselves over whether Sand Creek is a battle or a massacre or whether “political correctness” has taken over our triumphalist history. The sometimes bumbling though well-meaning actions of the NPS, unnecessarily alienating stakeholders through its top-down approach. There’s a lot to chew on in this tale.

In the end it came together. You can visit it today. That hardly means that relations between the Cheyennes and whites have improved. The installation of a Sand Creek exhibit at History Colorado has caused all sorts of headaches, despite the fact that the exhibit is so disturbing in its portrayal of Sand Creek that there’s a warning against kids going inside. But the Cheyennes still see the idea of state interpretation of their history, as sympathetic as it might be, as something extremely suspicious. Still, the fact that this got done shows, as Kelman states, “each of the interested parties understood that a commitment to remembering the past meant accepting the existence of multiple, sometimes even competing, recollections rather than a single, unified collective memory.” And really, we should probably take this stance with most of American history.

In the end, the commemoration of Sand Creek should matter to all of us because these are unhealed scars that matter a great deal to a lot of Americans. We can’t just express white guilt about what our ancestors did 150 years ago and forget about it. For the Cheyenne and Arapaho and conservative whites in Colorado and a lot of people, these battles are still fresh and there’s no easy answers in even how to talk about them, not to mention officially memorialize them.

So buy a copy and try to figure out the politics of historical memory for yourself.

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