A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek

  • Ari Kelman
  • Harvard University Press
  • 384 pp.

A deft weaving together of the massacre at Sand Creek and the struggle to reconcile and memorialize the tragedy.

Growing up in a West Yorkshire village in the 1960s, I’d see old men playing bowls in the park who had fought in the First World War. I remember wondering — I still wonder — what they had been through, what they had seen. The West Yorkshire Regiment sustained appalling casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and it always rankled me that Edinburgh, my favorite city, should honor the memory of the man who, it seemed to me, had needlessly sacrificed so many young lives. A bronze equestrian statue of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British commander on the Western Front, stood at the entrance of Edinburgh Castle until 2011 when it was moved to an inside courtyard. For many years, Haig was a national hero but by the late-20th century he was widely criticized for the futility of his tactics and the slaughter they caused. There were even calls in the press for the removal of his statues.

Times change and so does the way we think about the past. What we remember and how, and what we prefer to forget, say as much about who we are now, or who we would like to think we are, as about long-dead individuals and past events. Different people remember and come to terms with their common history in very different ways and the people and events we choose to memorialize can become bitterly contested terrain. 

Such disputes can be particularly bitter in the United States, where shared historic ideals provide unity and the Revolution and the Civil War serve as origin stories. But where slavery and the “Indian wars” reveal a darker side to the national narrative, they challenge cherished visions of the nation’s past and leave troubling legacies. Were the people who wrested the continent from its indigenous inhabitants freedom-loving pioneers seeking a better life and building civilization or were they genocidal agents of imperialism? What if they were both?

Perhaps no event brings these issues into sharper focus than the Sand Creek Massacre. In November 1864, while the Civil War still raged in the East, Colonel John Chivington and the Third Colorado Volunteers attacked a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians who were ostensibly under the protection of the United States government. In the ensuing carnage, the troops killed at least 150 Indians, mostly women, children and old people. Some soldiers refused to participate in the slaughter, but most appeared to have gone on a rampage of killing and mutilation. 

A congressional investigating committee denounced the massacre (and provided gruesome details of the atrocities) and in the Treaty of Little Arkansas the following year the United States apologized to the Cheyennes and Arapahos, promising reparations for what happened. But some Americans refused to accept that Sand Creek was a massacre; it was battle, they said, and if the soldiers “went too far” that was understandable: Indians who were known to have killed and scalped innocent settlers “had it coming.” A Civil War monument erected in 1909 on the steps of the state capitol in Denver included Sand Creek in its list of “battles” in which Coloradans had fought.

Not surprisingly, when plans began in the 1990s to memorialize Sand Creek by designating it a National Historic Site there was controversy and contention: just what was to be commemorated and how? Over the years, Sand Creek had been celebrated, lamented, misrepresented, forgotten and even misplaced — there was not consensus about the actual site of the killings.

The planning process involved a kaleidoscope of stakeholders: National Park Service employees, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, Kiowa County residents, local landowners, Civil War buffs, politicians, historians, archaeologists, casino interests and citizens with strong views about whether the nation’s past crimes should be memorialized or were best forgotten. Many people have written about what happened at Sand Creek, but Ari Kelman’s story of the struggle to create the historic site focuses on what people think about what happened, as issues of historical memory were fought out in meeting rooms, communities and the press.

The Cheyennes and Arapahos did not trust the federal government and its National Park Service employees; the tribes themselves did not always see eye-to-eye. Landowners pointed to the artifacts they had collected to verify claims that the massacre happened on their property; historians pored over documents and maps; archaeologists tested the ground; and Indians pinpointed the site of the slaughter by the screams of women and crying of children that they still heard. 

Contesting visions of the past and competing agendas for the future produced twists and turns, and apparently incompatible insistences on the exact location of the site threatened to derail the whole thing. New evidence that the creek itself may have changed course over time finally brought the parties sufficiently into line that things could move forward. As one Park Service employee noted, “It turned out that everyone, people who had been at odds for years or even longer than that, had all been right in some important ways.” The National Park Service finally opened the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in April 2007.

To produce his multidimensional narrative, Kelman had to absorb the literature and dig in the archives, as well as attend public meetings and conduct more than 100 interviews with the people involved in the planning process and its skirmishes. The story is tortuous and it could have been tedious, but Kelman tells it with style, sense and sensitivity, deftly weaving together flashbacks to the massacre, memories of the massacre and the multilayered maneuvers to memorialize the massacre. 

The long struggle over the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site laid bare deep wounds that remain part of the legacy of conquest. For many people the opening of the site represented an important step in the healing process; for others it was an affront. How the site is interpreted will likely remain contentious. As America still struggles with the ghosts of its past, Kelman concludes, the site will at least challenge visitors to confront the tragedy that occurred there and to grapple with competing narratives of United States history.

Colin G. Calloway is the John Kimball Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth College and author of many books on American Indian history.

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