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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.

The World’s Worst Designed Apartment Complex

[ 166 ] February 27, 2013 |

Good god.

But wait, there’s more.

Someone make it stop. What did the British do to deserve this?

For Dennis Rodman

[ 23 ] February 27, 2013 |

In honor of Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea, I thought a North Korean propaganda cartoon was in order.

There’s no subtitles, but like you really need them

Among the many problems with this cartoon is that no one under the age of 30 in North Korea has ever seen an actual tree.

“Big Labor”–Another Example of Right-Wing Terminology

[ 34 ] February 26, 2013 |

Given its namesake, Mother Jones is not exactly great on labor issues. I want to point out this problematic article by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella about AFSCME’s opposition to closing an Illinois prison. The problem isn’t that they are wrong to criticize AFSCME. Although it is the primary job of a union to fight for their members’ jobs, supporting terrible social and political policies is hardly the way to do it, not to mention hardly the way to build alliances with other groups to fight for a better future.

No, the problem is tainting all of labor with the charge that, “It was perhaps the most visible and contentious example of a phenomenon seen, in one form or another, around the country: otherwise progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration. In terms of prisoners rights in general, and solitary confinement in particular, unions are seen as a major obstacle to more-humane conditions.”

The authors provide absolutely no evidence for this statement. I’m not even saying it isn’t true. But they need to show their work in order to make such broad-based claims. The authors talk about SEIU and the Teamsters but offer no concrete examples. They talk about the AFGE’s support for solitary confinement, but that’s different than opposing all prison reforms. Are “progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration?” I’m pretty skeptical of that claim.

In addition, it is completely unfair to dismiss union’s claims of security for prison guards. I know that prison guards often do bad things. I know the system has a lot of corruption and that guards can abuse their power. I also know that profit margins for privatized prisons and underfunding for public prisons means that guards can be overwhelmed. Solitary confinement is bad public policy. But from the perspective of the prison guards, I don’t doubt that they are genuinely very scared when dealing with some of these prisoners. Part of a union’s job is protecting its members. We have to respect that position.

Again, none of this is to say that AFSCME is right or that any of the union stances are per se correct on this issue. I am saying that this is poor labor reporting.

The entire term “Big Labor” is terrible. It assumes that all labor unions are the same, which is absolutely not true. It assumes that the AFL-CIO leadership sets all policies and acts as a monolith, with a white guy in a big cushy office telling everyone what to do. This is most definitely not how the AFL-CIO operates. It also repeats right-wing talking points about organized labor and obscures both the movement’s complexity and reinforces stereotypes.

And lo and behold, who should pick up on the story but a writer for Reason, an already anti-labor publication.

“It’s Time to Thank the Man Instead”

[ 79 ] February 26, 2013 |

Of course the conservative response to comparing Ted Cruz and Joe McCarthy is to embrace McCarthy.

The Office of the Future

[ 34 ] February 25, 2013 |

Walter Cronkite previews the office of 2001, in 1967.

Marissa Mayer would obviously disapprove. Working from home! Of course, Cronkite couldn’t imagine a woman in this office.

Via

Cornucopia of Asian Food Links

[ 87 ] February 25, 2013 |

A few interesting pieces on Asian food and history.

1. This is an interesting discussion of the origins of pad thai, a dish that is fairly minor within Thai cooking but is the singular dish of Thai food overseas. It’s connections are closely related to a nationalistic, modernizing project developed by Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram in the mid-20th century:

In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy. After all, he had already changed the name of country from Siam to Thailand as part of a series of mandates meant to shroud its people under a modernized Thai identity. Forks and spoons would be used instead of hands. More European-style clothing must be worn. Thai products should be preferred above all others. Pibulsongkram wanted to create a new Thai diet while making more rice products available for export. According to his son’s suppositions in the 2009 Gastronomica article “Finding Pad Thai,” the codified modern variant of Pad Thai may have originated in Pibulsongkram’s household, perhaps the devising of the family’s cook. Its recipe was disseminated throughout the country, and push carts were sent into the streets to make this newfangled on-the-go meal available to the masses. To eat Pad Thai would be a patriotic act. Thus was born the Volksnoodle for an emerging Thai nation-state.

The name Pad Thai, however, negates the considerable non-Thainess of the dish. Noodles were the domain of Chinese immigrants in Thailand, and pan-fried rice noodles like Pad Thai likely arrived with them hundreds of years ago when Ayutthaya had been the kingdom’s capital. The thin rice noodles used in making Pad Thai is also similar to Vietnamese noodles, like the ones used in making pho. It’s no coincidence that the Saen Chan noodle used in many Pad Thai recipes took its name from Chanthaburi, an eastern province close to Vietnam and Cambodia. Had Pibulsongkram been more purist about his nation-unifying dish, Pad Thai should have been a clump of rice smothered and fried with fiery Nam Prik chile paste, arguably the most Thai of all Thai food. His nationalist ideals of Thailand weren’t deeply rooted in reverence for the past; they were synthesized new from whatever was most expedient.

His choice of a noodle dish is all the more curious in light of his policies against the Chinese ethnic population—immigration quotas, bans on Chinese associations, and the seizing of Chinese businesses. Pibulsongkram had not only decided to curtail the growing Chinese influence in Thailand (China, at the time, sheltered his political rival) but also to subsume its culture under the Thai umbrella. He would later choose to ally with the U.S. in its nascent war against communism, and just a few decades later, GIs on R&R leave would be part of the first wave of Americans to taste Pad Thai.

I’m not an expert on southeast Asian history, but I do have some knowledge and this passes the smell test. It’s really almost a prefect 20th century nationalist project, combining stealing ideas from minority populations while demonizing those very people.

Also, as the article states, most of the pad thai served in the United States is an abomination.

2. Who was General Tso? Zuo Zongtang. And at least according to this article he was the Chinese version of William Tecumseh Sherman, although I have no idea what that means. He also seems to have loved pork, though the dish named for him is a chicken dish. Also, Henry Kissinger shows up in this article.

3. Korean death soup. I lived in Korea for a year. The idea of a place serving a soup so spicy that it causes most customers to vomit, yet is extremely popular, makes a whole lot of sense to my experiences.

The Paraguayan Argo

[ 10 ] February 25, 2013 |

Very interesting:

Which is where Paraguay’s own “Argo” enters into the story. After Jimmy Carter denied Somoza asylum, he headed to Paraguay, where General Alfredo Stroessner’s right-wing military regime governed. Outraged at the presence of this symbol of right-wing repression, corruption, and greed, according to archival materials four men and three women from the ERP pretended to be actors and producers working on a film about Julio Iglesias. Renting a house under the auspices of working on the “movie,” they plotted the assassination of Somoza. On September 17, they successfully carried out their plan, ambushing Somoza near his home and killing him. Paraguayan authorities managed to arrest only one of the seven, Santiago Irurzún, who died under torture. And so it was that one of the most infamous of 20th century dictators in Latin America died, and Paraguay was host to its own strange “Argo.”

Julio Iglesias bio-pic. Heh.

Horse for All!!

[ 58 ] February 25, 2013 |

As a historian of the Gilded Age, the sequester is very exciting to me. With each passing day, a big leap back to the halcyon days of the 1890s seems more likely. Here’s an old rundown I did at Alternet. Doesn’t it sound great?

And maybe we can just lay off all of our meat inspectors. Then we can all eat horse or whatever other product ends up in our meat!!!!

Everything That’s Wrong with Politics and the Media and America and Everything

[ 19 ] February 24, 2013 |

Let Alex Pareene be your guide into the weekly circles of Hell known as the Sunday talk shows. Why anyone watches these things, I do not know.

Note: you may want an alcoholic beverage of choice at hand while reading.

Physical Alterations and Acting

[ 89 ] February 24, 2013 |

I am agnostic over the question at hand in this article, whether Anne Hathaway is a good actress. This is largely because I can’t think of a reason why I would watch most of her movies unless the wife wanted to go. Rachel Getting Married was pretty interesting. My wife did force me to watch The Devil Wears Prada, which was decent enough for the genre I suppose. In any case, I certainly have nothing against Hathaway, even if I never quite understood the buzz.

But I do have an opinion on the point about whether the weight loss and short hair in Les Miserables (which I most certainly did not see) constitutes something in itself that means good acting.

A part like Fantine also caters to the industry’s weakness—shared by most actors, male or female—for flagrantly masochistic martyrdom. Since Hollywood’s definition of “winning ugly” is different from the NFL’s, it doesn’t hurt that Hathaway starved herself silly to play Victor Hugo’s tramp with a heart of lead. Then she consented to having her hair done by the guy from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She may shill for Lancome in “real” life, but in Les Mis, she looks and carries on like the spokesmodel for a pricey but pungent new fragrance named Nostalgie de la Boue.

At least since Robert DeNiro gained all that weight in Raging Bull (or maybe even since he gained weight for Godfather, Part II), the idea of physical transformation as great acting has had a lot of appeal. DeNiro was truly amazing in those films, although especially in Raging Bull a lot of the popular conversation about it revolved around the weight gain. Maybe the most egregious actor in this genre today is Christian Bale, where both in Rescue Dawn and The Machinist, he put himself through masochist sacrifices in order to satisfy his directors. A subsection of this is the idea that playing someone with a mental or physical disability is also a way to get notice for your acting. The first time Leonardo DiCaprio came to fame was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As an actor once told me, that kind of role is not particularly hard. Far more difficult is an actual portrayal of mental illness that makes sense (say Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King, although that’s hardly a film without problems) or having a physical aliment that can shut off the brain and force an actor to switch back and forth, a la DeNiro in Awakenings.

I think all this shows is a willingness to throw oneself into a role, which is fine. At this point, I certainly can’t blame someone for doing it because, for whatever reason, that sort of physical transformation is a great way for people to think you’ve created a great performance. But I’d argue that it really is more or less irrelevant. While I suppose we wouldn’t want Philip Seymour Hoffman playing someone in a concentration camp in 1945, it’s also a bit ridiculous to expect living people to starve themselves in order to play a role. And if they do, the added touch of authenticity or whatever doesn’t mean much either way to the quality of the acting or the quality of the movie.

In other news, Oscar night, etc. I didn’t see enough of the films nominated to have too strong of an opinion. If Lincoln wins, well, it’s middle-brow enough to fit and will probably be forgotten about by 2015, but it clearly superior to the average Best Picture winner.

Embracing the Evil

[ 27 ] February 24, 2013 |

It’s nice that the Yankees are embracing what we here at LGM have known forever:

Part of the Yankees’ argument: a concession that in the baseball world, they are, in fact, the “Evil Empire.” In its legal papers, the team referenced a number of articles from the past decade using the term in connection with the Yankees, and conceded that the team has “implicitly embraced” the “Evil Empire” theme by playing music from Star Wars during their home games.

The panel of judges sided with the Yankees, ruling that the Yankees are strongly associated with the phrase. Allowing anyone else to use the phrase exclusively would likely cause confusion, ruled the judges.

“In short, the record shows that there is only one Evil Empire in baseball and it is the New York Yankees,” wrote the judges. “Accordingly, we find that [the Yankees] have a protectable trademark right in the term . . . as used in connection with baseball.”

Now if we can only get the Chicago Cubs to trademark the term “irritating morons” we’ll be getting somewhere.

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