Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mystic Chords of Memory

Having recently had my comments blocked by a Christian who took exception to my characterization of one of his sources as a hack apologist rather than a real historian, it was interesting to read a book that illustrates just how difficult the practice of history can be.  In Misplaced Massacre:  Struggling with the Memory of Sand Creek, Ari Kelman explores the November 1864 encounter between  a village of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahos in eastern Colorado and 650 troops led by Colonel John Chivington, as well as the varying interpretations of the event offered up until the present.

Most of the book deals with efforts of the National Park Service to balance competing interests and viewpoints as it sought to establish the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2005.  There were many to deal with, including representatives of four tribes, the first native American U.S. Senator, land owners, the local populace, state officials, historians, archeologists, and cranks who viewed the memorial as political correctness run amok.

The first major issue to be resolved was whether the encounter was a battle or a massacre.   Military experts and historians agreed fairly early on that "massacre" best described the attack on peaceful Indians who had been promised protection by Colonel Chivington if they camped near Fort Lyons.   However, the State of Colorado never quite gave up on the notion that it was a fair fight.  Towns and buildings were named after the white participants and memorials were erected commemorating the Battle of Sand Creek.  Coloradans liked to think of their ancestors as fearlessly conquering the wilderness, not wantonly slaughtering its inhabitants.

The second major issue was the exact location where the encounter took place.  This might seem to be a straight forward question of fact, but it turned out not to be.  The spot where the massacre was always thought to have taken place was supported my a map drawn by one of the Cheyenne survivors several decades after the battle.  Contemporary Cheyenne had treated it as a sacred place.   Unfortunately, the ground at that site did not contain the kind of artifacts of battle that it could have been expected to have contained.

Having been burned in the past for misplacing a historic site, the National Park Service was reluctant to move forward without confirming where the massacre had taken place.  As it turned out, the artifacts of battle were found about a mile north of the traditional site.  Although finding the right spot made the NPS happy, many of the tribal representatives took the rejection of the traditional site as an insult to their cultural memory and history (not all though--the representatives of the Northern Arapahoes seemed to accept the empirical evidence).  This led to a lot of cultural friction. My main takeaway from the book is the confirmation that politics has a huge influence over how history gets told.

I think that this is a very interesting book for anyone who is interested in how history really gets written.  It was a little difficult to keep the cast of characters straight and I wish the maps had been a little clearer about the property lines so I could tell which parts of the massacre took part on which of the modern ranches.  Those quibbles aside, it was an interesting read.

There was one ironic point which the author never mentioned but which amused me to no end.  In consideration of his conservative Republican constituents who distrusted the federal government, the Colorado senator who proposed the legislation establishing the site insisted that no land would be acquired by eminent domain.  The National Park Service could only buy land from willing sellers. After all, the last thing that any Coloradan would want to be a part of would be the federal government forcibly dispossessing people of their land.  It's not like the only reason Colonel Chivington had ridden in the first place was that the governor of the territory begged the federal government to take care of an Indian problem that the settlers couldn't handle themselves.  I'm always amused by anti-government libertarians who don't see the role that the government played in their acquisition of property.

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