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

[ 56 ] February 27, 2013 |

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.

Comments (56)

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  1. oldster says:

    First, a shout-out to Ari, and the late lamented EOTAW!

    Next: has metal-detector evidence pointed to some *other* site? I.e., is there some location, distinct from that remembered by Bent, where there’s a whole bunch of material evidence of a massacre of Indians by U.S. troops of the 1864 vintage, with Minie balls (or whatever) in situ?

    The point is, Ari, I’m trying not to buy your book, because I’m cheap.

    Congratulations on writing it!!

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Let me change the language in the review. They did indeed find the site, not too far from where they originally thought it was, but it did take quite some time and a heck of an effort.

      • Michael H Schneider says:

        They did indeed find the site, …

        I see what you did there: you assumed, as a prior, that ‘the site’ could only be properly identified by western rationalist methods.

        Fundamentally, do the Cheyennes have the right to determine the location of the massacre site based upon their cultural authority alone?

        That’s the wrong question. It assumes that there exists “the” location – a single identifiable geoppgraphic spot for any and all purposes related to these event(s)

        There’s nothing necessarily wrong about saying that there can be many locations, each identified for a particular purpose in some way that’s relevant for that purpose. That is, there can be a spot identified according to Arapaho traditions for Arapaho purposes, and a site identified by concensus westernized American traditions for westernized American purposes (such as the NPS).

        It seems to me that if the US, as a country, is going to mark some event it must mark it according to US culture – and that you can’t let sub-groups capture parts of the history to the exclusion of other constructions of that history. In other words, everyone has the right to construct their own history, and to believe their own history, but nobody has the power to impose their construction upon the larger group (of course I’m eliding the question of how any sort of neutral or dominant group history can be constructed without being imposed on the sub-groups, but no theory is perfect)

        and I hate Amazon. $24.58 for the book, free shipping on orders over $25. I really should read it. I’m sorry I’m so cheap that I checked to see if my public library has it (no).

        • Dave says:

          And if I punch you in the face, can there also be a face that I didn’t punch you in, for the purposes of avoiding prosecution?

          Whatever happened, it didn’t happen in 2 different places at once, regardless of whether some people, for whatever purpose, choose to claim that it did. Allowing closed groups “their own” history in contradiction to the material record gets you, among other things, the War of Northern Aggression.

          • Michael H Schneider says:

            And if I punch you in the face, can there also be a face that I didn’t punch you in, for the purposes of avoiding prosecution?

            Sure. All you have to do is convince the jury that you punched some alternate face and you get acquitted. That’s the way our formal legal system for determining consensual reality works.

            Of course if you fail to get the jury to believe in your reality, you end up convicted. That doesn’t stop you and your friends from continuing to believe that you didn’t really do anything wrong because I was wearing a short skirt and deserved it, or I have swarthy skin, or I’m a DFH, or whatever.

            A while ago we were discussing who got to decide whether domestic violence had occurrred on Indian land when the accused is a non-Indian. There were people here arguing that the Indians got to decide, as long as the alleged acts happened on Indian land. Is there some sort of fundamental distinction between a domestic assault today and a massacre long ago, such that in one case we must use scientific method and in the other we can use hand tremblers (or whatever)?

            My answer is that it depends on who is doing the determining, and what their purpose or the effect of the determination is. In other words, for some purposes some people can use hand tremblers, for others, not so much. What’s your answer?

            /s/
            Genuine Idiot
            who remains unpersuaded by your argument

            • Dave says:

              Ha! I knew it. Suck on that, ajay!

              And Michael, you need to reflect on the distinction between empirical reality [bearing in mind that, at its root, empiricism is a form of rigorous skepticism], and the cultural practice of assigning truth-value, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, to one account over another when faced with the need to decide. Only Schroedinger’s Cat gets to be both alive and dead. In all circumstances, it did either happen here OR there; it never happened here AND there. That the methods by which we choose to decide which account we accept for practical purposes may be fallible is not the same as saying, we must accept that people choosing the other account are right too ‘in their own way’.

              • Michael H Schneider says:

                Thank you for the reply. I’ve been reflecting on such questions for more than four decades now, so I’m always interested in improving my (obviously tenuous) grasp on reality.

                Only Schroedinger’s Cat gets to be both alive and dead. In all circumstances, it did either happen here OR there; it never happened here AND there.

                Okay, I udestand you to be saying (1) that inconsistent assertions can’t both be true (there is only 1 truth?); and (2) my counter example of how you could both punch me in the face and not punch me in the face is unpersuasive. I’m setting these points out so that you can correct me if I’ve misunderstood.

                In my experience the day to day world is full of assertions that are both true (for some purpose) and untrue (for other purposes).

                First: I’m looking at an unopened container of food marked “net wt 16oz”. Obviously that statement is false: were we to put the contents on an analytical balance I’m sure that it’d weigh either more or less than 16 ounces. However, the statement is also true: for the purposes of commerce it’s close enough to be considered 16 ounces, and so we take the statement not as meaning precisely 16 ounces but as meaning 16 ounces more or less, within the range f error we expect in weighing food packages.

                Second, yesterday I was on the highway looking at a sign that said the next town was a certain number of miles away. Again, if we took the sign to say something it doesn’t explicitly say – perhaps ‘if you go along this road it’s roughly X miles to the town’ – it’s true, but equally obviously, because of measurement imprecision it is false.

                Third: If we want to describe the path of a cannon ball, Newton’s laws will give us an approximation that’s good enough to be accepted as true in most ordinary circumstances. We accept it as true, even though we know that Newton’s laws contain errors (simplifying assumptions? Imprecisions?) that Einstein’s theories modify.

                Fourth, I was reading Utley’s biography of Geronimo recently. Utley was careful to note that although Geronimo described a certain individual as his sister, by Utley’s standards she wasn’t really his sister. Rather, she was a cousin whom the Apache classify as a sister in their kinship system. She was father’s sister’s daughter (IIRC). Sister? Cousin? Both? Neither?

                Fifth, there’s a whole very large category of assertions of which I’ll pick one example:
                “We believe (I believe) in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. (God of God) light of light, true God of true God. Begotten not made, …. .” Much blood has been shed over the question of the truth value of this statement, and the liberal answer seems to be “well, true for some people in some circumstance, not for others.”

                Finally, I’m confused by this:

                That the methods by which we choose to decide which account we accept for practical purposes may be fallible is not the same as saying, we must accept that people choosing the other account are right too ‘in their own way’.

                You can’t separate the answer from the question, or from the method of answering the question. You absolutely can say that for this purpose, among this group, this is the answer – without saying that it’s the answer for all people and all purposes forever. That’s rather the point of the weight and mileage examples above. Personally, I’d also say that if the Apache want to lump cross cousins into the same bag as siblings and call them both sisters – well, okey dokey for them. If the Arapaho want to designate this spot instead of that spot as the place where they memorialize the Sandy Creek Massacre, well, okey dokey for them.

                Sorry about the length. Also, I know that I’m promiscuously mixing and bowdlerizing pieces of linguistics and philosophy and a bunch of other disciplines – but this is a blog comment, not a PhD thesis (despite the similar length).

                • Michael H Schneider says:

                  Okay, no reply. I guess that means I’m talking to myself. Since the only one listening is me, I am relieved of the obligation to be polite.

                  What a bunch of assholes infest these comment sections.

                  I’m feeling a lot of sympathy for the people who say that empiricism is just another religion. All I’ve seen are affirmations of faith, credos, rather than reasoning.

                  In all circumstances, it did either happen here OR there; it never happened here AND there
                  … Whatever happened, it didn’t happen in 2 different places at once…

                  Yep, that’s the belief. Now where’s the justification, the reasoning? How about this:

                  Only Schroedinger’s Cat gets to be both alive and dead.

                  OMFG. He doesn’t understand the whole paradox of Schrodinger’s cat.

                  [pulling Schrodinger's cat from offstage] “You know nothing. You have completely misunderstood the gedenken experiment.”

                  The point is that the theories of quantum mechanics, which seem to do such a good job at the micro level, imply things that we think are nonsense at the macro level. In other words: QM is both true and untrue. That’s why it’s a paradox.

                  It’s not that the cat is special: exactly the contrary. It’s chosen to be perfectly ordinary and common. It’s not that QM has some special magical quality that allows it to be both true and untrue; it’s that our scientific method routinely produces results that are both true and untrue, true at one level and untrue at another (or, in my phrase, true for some purposes but not for others).

                  And consider this:

                  Allowing closed groups “their own” history in contradiction to the material record gets you, among other things, the War of Northern Aggression.

                  Well duh. News flash: history and culture are contested!!11!!. Film at !!. I hate to say this, but the idea that different world views and different cultural priors can lead to conflict should have been obvious somewhere around the time that the Romans met the Egyptians – but, in any case, it’s been conventional wisdom in the social sciences for at least a century. If he really thinks that as soon as everyone accepts that empiricism has all the true answers we’ll put an end to war – well, good luck with that.

                  Reflect on that, please.

                  And then:

                  No one talks that way outside the fever dreams of National Review Online.

                  Ii know, that’s not Dave, but he seemed to agree.

                  Totally wrong: the NRO position is Dave’s position: that OUR culture has the right and the truth and all them other folks are just wrong, and our methods prove it, and if you don’t agree with us you just haven’t thought about it enough. That’s usually called cultural imperialism, and it’s far more commonly associated with the right than the left in US politics.

                  So we’ve got someone who
                  - doesn’t understand science, as manifested in QM
                  - doesn’t understand culture and how knowledge is produced
                  - and doesn’t understand politics.

                  Why am I even here?

        • ajay says:

          That was hilarious, thanks Michael.

          • Dave says:

            Was I poe’d, or are you just hopeful?

            • ajay says:

              You were definitely poe’d. The “western rationalist methods” phrase is the key. No one talks that way outside the fever dreams of National Review Online. The only way it could have been more obvious would have been to use those irritating bracket titles, talking about “the site of the mass(acre)” or something like that.

              • Dave says:

                And yet, the way he half-contradicts himself in the middle there, then pulls it back – would you do that if you were actually shooting for plausibility, rather than running on the fumes of self-righteousness?

                I know, I’m reaching. I so nearly called it a poe myself, but then I thought, what the hell, there are still a few genuine idiots out there.

        • ari says:

          No kidding, tell the good people at your local library to buy the book. Unless you live in Ghana, they probably will, and you’ll be doing me a big favor.

    • joel hanes says:

      The rumors of EOTAW’s demise are greatly exxagerated.

      It lives on, but at a different URL

      http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/edgeofthewest/

      New front-page post by David Silbey 26 Feb 2013

    • bexley says:

      Hasn’t EOTAW started up again?

      • ari says:

        Also, EotAW never really ended. It’s just that Eric and I stopped posting there (very much at all). I mostly lost my blogging mojo a long time ago, and the move to the Chronicle site made things even worse in that regard. I’ve since (sort of) started (kind of) blogging again at my own (very little, out-of-the-way) site, but I can’t promise it will last. As for Eric, he tweets a lot, and very well, and sometimes posts at Crooked Timber. Am I allowed to mention Crooked Timber here? Probably not. Oh well.

    • ari says:

      Thanks for the kind words. That said, you should probably buy the book. I’m told it cures cholera.

  2. ari says:

    Thanks, Erik. If people have questions, I’ll try to answer them. Though most my answers will boil down to, BUY THE BOOK.

  3. SEK says:

    Ari! I’d comment, but you never replied to my email requesting a copy of the book, so I’m going to use the power of Jewish guilt to do … something that if you loved me you would’ve thought to do without my having to ask. But, you know, you have a busy life, and I’m just here, what can I do?

  4. Eric Rauchway says:

    It’s really an outstanding book. You all should buy one. Pohl, there’s Amazon.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      I do not have a credit card. But, even if I got one Amazon does not take credit cards issued by Ghanaian banks. Outside the privileged white world most people live in cash only economies. In Kyrgyzstan I never even had an ATM card and after the 2010 Revolution stopped putting my money in a bank. I know this is impossible for rich white American academics to believe that there are people in the world without credit cards or even the possibility of acquiring ones that will work with Amazon, but it is true. On the other hand you could donate one to the history department of the University of Ghana. Especially since you probably earn more as an individual than does our entire department.

      • wjts says:

        Do you even want the goddamn book?

      • ari says:

        Send me the address for the history department there, Otto. I’ll be happy to send you a copy of the book — if you actually want one. But since we’re bartering, here’s what I want in return: you have to stop talking nonsense. Many of us have friends at impoverished African/Central Asian/Central American universities, and our friends seem to be able to negotiate the wilds of online shopping.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          History Department, University of Ghana, PO Box LG 12, Legon, Accra, Ghana, West Africa.

          Why is it nonsense that I don’t have a credit card? How would I even get one acceptable to Amazon? Your friends may have credit cards issued from US or European banks. But, I do not have a US or European bank account anymore. I do not even travel back to the US ever. My official residence when I fill out the immigration card at the airport is Ghana. But, I am glad that your rich friends on sabbatical for a year in the “third world” have no such problems.

  5. Thom says:

    Good questions, Erik. On the question of oral tradition, though, there is an extensive literature in African studies about the validity of oral tradition (and other forms of oral testimony) as historical evidence, starting with Jan Vansina in the 1960s. Qualifications that have developed in the literature argue that oral tradition must be used with other evidence from e.g. archaeology, climatology, astronomy, linguistics, and, where available, written evidence. Oral tradition and other oral testimony is often a useful corrective to written evidence. One qualification is that due to the effects of telescoping in oral tradition, it tends not to be reliable for fixing chronology.

    The other questions you raise are much harder to answer, but I would certainly argue that we have to honor scientific evidence of the Bering Straights land bridge, even while acknowledging that native activists call it the “BS theory.”

  6. Timurid says:

    Wounded Knee has become a sort of cliche, the prototypical “Indian Massacre” and prime example of all the awful things done to Native Americans. I’ve always wondered why Sand Creek didn’t fill this role instead… Wounded Knee was a much more complicated event (the botched surrender process, the soldiers stumbling into a firefight in the middle of a crowded encampment, etc.) while Sand Creek lives up to all of the worst assumptions about the White Man. It really was a bunch of white guys waking up one morning and deciding that “we are going to straight up murder these fools…”

    • witless chum says:

      Some combination of Wounded Knee having a more evocative name and Dee Brown titling a pretty popular book after it because it had a more evocative name. Also, the photos of Bigfoot and his people dead in the snow. No pictures were taken of the dead at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee was the last one, while Sand Creek was really only exceptional in its brutality and proximity to Denver.

      • witless chum says:

        The whole dynamic of ‘we’re mad at some Indians so we’re going to kill some Indians but were not going to fuck with the ones that shoot back’ was repeated during colonial times and the revolution, with the Paxton Boys, Bacon’s Rebellion, the Gnadehutten Massacre being exceptional incidents.

      • ari says:

        I think this is pretty much right on. In the book (what a boring way to begin the sentence), I suggest that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (which also covers Sand Creek, of course), really does shape recent perceptions of federal-tribal relations more than any other document. Also, when I proposed this book way back in the day, several publishers said, in effect, “Great idea, but why not do the same thing with Wounded Knee? Because a book about Wounded Knee would sell!”

  7. thelogos says:

    I’ve seen that exhibit and it is powerful. Had me in tears (no easy task) and pensive the whole day.

  8. Coconino says:

    Funny, the SO and I were just talking about Chivington last night. Believe it or not, he somehow came up in the context of loss of NM Hispanic culture via loss of church prominence and loss of acequia prominence in small northern NM villages. (Acequias matter as a civic duty – if a landowner did not contribute to acequia maintenance as directed by the mayordomo, he would likely have lost access to irrigation water and become a community outcast.)

    Aside from the discussion on Chivington, the Indian School exhibit at the Heard Museum in PHX has reduced me to tears, twice. I don’t know if I could bear the Sand Creek or the Wounded Knee ones, though I’m sure I will, someday.

  9. [...] both blogging luminaries, have recently reviewed the book. Their reviews can be found here and here. Thanks to both of them for taking the time to engage with my work. I really do appreciate it. [...]

  10. tedra says:

    On the topic of methodological prejudices, etc, I just want to say (having reviewed the book my own damn self) that that question is central to Ari’s book, and Ari is quite explicitly concerned with it. Loomis’s representation of the Cheyenne viewpoint is not Kelman’s: Kelman is quite articulate and thoughtful about the strengths, weaknesses, and political implications of different methodologies. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that that is the real topic of the book; what “really happened” at Sand Creek is merely the occasion for asking those questions.

  11. [...] to support stark racial difference ensconced into the law. We see this all over. John Chivington, the architect of the Sand Creek Massacre, was an abolitionist. Lots of Republicans were perfectly happy to go along with the Compromise of [...]

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