A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek

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A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek
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A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek
Benson, Padraic
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Denver, CO
Center for Colorado and the West
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Auraria Library
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Auraria Library
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A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek | Center for Colorado & the West at Auraria Library[12/8/2015 9:28:33 AM] Home A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand CreekA Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand CreekSubmitted by nwharton on 4-21-2013 07:47 PMAuthor: Ari Kelman Publishing: Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. 363 pages. Black-and-white photographs, maps, notes, index. 6 x 9. $35.00 hardcover. Reviewer: Padraic Benson When uncertainties arose in 1993 over the exact location of the Sand Creek massacre, it was like suddenly losing track of the Gettysburg battlefield, according to David Halaas, then chief historian at the Colorado Historical Society, now known as History Colorado (45). His comparison to the iconic Civil War battle may have been apt in more ways than one. In A Misplaced Massacre Ari Kelman, a history professor at the University of California at Davis, argues that Sand Creek and the ensuing Indian wars have been set apart from their proper context in relation to the Civil War. The triumphalist narrative of a war for emancipation has no place for atrocities committed in the name of empire. It should be noted that Kelmans book is not a history of an 1864 massacre in eastern Colorado. Instead, it is an investigation into the conflicting memories of the event that have competed over the last century and a half. It is also a study in memorys counterpart, amnesia, in that the comforting view of the Civil War as a battle cry of freedom has often drowned the cries of those butchered at Sand Creek. The drawn-out, and often fractious, process of establishing the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site serves as Kelmans centerpiece. Competing interpretations of Sand Creek began almost before the smoke cleared on November 29, 1864. Hero of the battle of Glorieta Pass, the Fighting Parson Col. John Milton Chivington commanded Colorado troops during the attack on the village. He returned from the field declaring victory over belligerent Indians who stood in the way of civilization. For Chivington, Sand Creek was a battle. Not all of his subordinates agreed. Capt. Silas Soule refused to join in what he saw as the murder and mutilation of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho. For Soule, Sand Creek was a massacre, whose blame fell squarely on the shoulders of Chivington. However, he shied away from extending that blame to federal policy or the regular military. Victims of the assault also disagreed with Chivington. One of the Cheyenne casualties, George Bent, survived to tell his side of the story. For Bent, Sand Creek was a massacre born out of the aggression and racial fears stoked by the Civil War. Facing east from Indian country, the war looked less like a war of emancipation than it did a rivalry between opposing expansionist powers. Whereas Chivington argued that Sand Creek had made Colorado safer, Soule predicted, and Bent confirmed, that it fueled antagonisms and EXPLORE BY MEDIABook Reviews Photographs Video Biographies New Publications Resource Guides County Newspaper HistoriesEXPLORE BY TOPICLand & Natural Resources Government & Law Agriculture Mining Commerce & Industry Transportation People & Places Communication Healthcare & Medicine Education & Libraries Cultural Communities Recreation & Entertainment Tourism ReligionEXPLORE BY CULTUREHispanic Native AmericanWe were most agreeably surprised to find him a polished gentleman. Description of James P. Beckwourth, African American mountain man, fur trader and explorer.


A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek | Center for Colorado & the West at Auraria Library[12/8/2015 9:28:33 AM] the later Indian wars. General Grant and the U.S. military concurred with Bent. As plans for the Sand Creek National Historic Site got under way in the late 1990s, multiple interpretations persisted and at times threw into doubt whether there would ever be a national historic site. For instance, the Order of the Indian Wars (OIW), a group of history enthusiasts with selective historical amnesia, sided with Chivington in deeming the episode a battle and the proposed historic site misguided. The orders founder, Jerry Russell, asked, When did we decide that its always white people bad, Indians good? When did we decide Sand Creek was a massacre? (208). When, indeed? By 1865, two congressional investigations had condemned Chivingtons actions and the federal government had accepted culpability for the massacre with the Treaty of the Little Arkansas. For his part, Chivington had resigned from the army, preventing the likelihood of being punished by a court-martial. Meanwhile, Southern Cheyenne chief Laird Cometsevah kept alive Bents interpretation of what happened as a massacre and a turning point in Cheyenne history. Based on a map drawn by Bent, oral histories, and spiritual connection to another location, Cometsevah questioned where the National Park Service had concluded the massacre took place. Add the competing interests of locals, landowners, tribal groups, politicians, descendants, bureaucrats, historians, big money, and egos to the mix and the politics of memory became nearly insurmountable. The historic site finally opened on April 28, 2007. Among the speakers was former United States senator, Korean War veteran, and Cheyenne Ben Nighthorse Campbell. He spoke of healing and he safely blamed the atrocities neither on federal policy nor Civil War soldiers, but on the thugs and alcoholics and neerdo-wells of Skid Row in Denver, who served in the militia under Chivington (30). Like Chivington and Bent, Silas Soule echoed across the years. By accusing neer-do-wells, Senator Campell elided the fact that Chivington was leading companies of federal volunteers. Men serving under the stars and stripes committing atrocities makes the Civil War appear a little less glorious and the American military a little more imperfect. At one point along the arduous road toward the sites establishment, Darrell Flyingman, then-governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, joked that watching legislative proceedings is like driving through Kansas at night: dull and hard to see whats really happening (255). To his credit, Kelman steers clear of turning a complicated story into a nighttime drive across Kansas. Pulling together over a hundred interviews and contemporary sources with historical back story, Kelmans book reads less like a typical academic monograph and more like a work of journalism. Or perhaps a police procedural would be a better comparisona retired criminal investigator-turned-history sleuth makes an appearance (272). One minor criticism of Kelmans book is its failure to mention James Beckwourth in light of the racist tradition of western historians dismissing the African American mountain man as an unviable source. Hired as a scout for the Sand Creek expedition, Beckwouth knew of what he spoke when he later testified against Chivington. This quibble aside, readers interested in Colorado history, the Civil War, the Indian wars, and memory will find this book of interest. It is a must-read for those engaged in public history. As the story of memorializing the massacre demonstrates, history can be a hotly contested battleground in the culture wars. Reviewer Info: Padraic Benson earned an MA in history at San Diego State University and a C. Phil in history at the University of California, Davis, where Ari Kelman served on his dissertation committee. He then worked


A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek | Center for Colorado & the West at Auraria Library[12/8/2015 9:28:33 AM] Auraria Library 303-556-4587 1100 Lawrence Street Denver, Colorado 80204 In the News Partners & Donations About Us Contact Us several years with the National Park Service at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, DC. He now lives in Colorado.