This is Ari Kelman’s book on the memory of the Sand Creek Massacre. This book has justly won the 2014 Bancroft Prize from Columbia University and the 2014 Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians. The prose is wonderful and the book details the story of how the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site came into existence. It’s not so much a history of the massacre as a history of how the massacre has been remembered. The massacre came about during the time of a national struggle, and the massacre has itself been the subject of a struggle over how it would be remembered almost from the time it happened down to the present day. The basic details of the massacre are that at daybreak on November 29, 1864, a force consisting of the Third Colorado and elements of the First Colorado, under the command of Colonel John Chivington, attacked an Indian village that housed 130 Cheyenne lodges under their chief, Black Kettle, along with 8 lodges of Arapahos under their chief, Left Hand. The village was supposed to be under the protection of the U.S. Army and was even flying the American Flag. The village was destroyed and hundreds of Native Americans were killed, many of them having their bodies desecrated by the soldiers. While Chivington sought to portray it as a great battle and victory, controversy surrounded it from the beginning. An officer under Chivington, Capt. Silas Soule, refused to send his troops against the village and called it a shameful massacre from the beginning. The first struggle was whether it was to be remembered as a battle or a massacre, whether it was a glorious victory or a shameful, disgraceful case of murder and desecration. That struggle persisted and finally and only fairly recently it’s become accepted that this was a shameful, disgraceful massacre of peaceful Native Americans. Another significant struggle dealt with the exact location of the massacre. George Bent, a survivor of the massacre, had created a map showing its location, and this map was used by descendants of the Native Americans as a guide for their ceremonies honoring the victims. The problem is that, as the title of the book implies, the site of the massacre had been misplaced. This became a huge struggle because the descendants saw it as another example of the government disregarding the views of Native Americans and being insensitive to the cultural differences. Surrounding that struggle were the interests of the then-current owners of the land and the value of the property.
The book reads like a novel, and Kelman weaves the story with great skill, showing the real-life drama as politicians, NPS personnel, ranchers, Native Americans, and other interested parties interact, sometimes angrily, sometimes sadly, to try to bring about this memorialization in a manner that gets at the truth of the event, though a major question that has to be resolved is whose truth is going to prevail.
Tangential to this story is the question of whether or not the Sand Creek Massacre was part of the American Civil War. I started out being skeptical of this, and to a great extent I am still skeptical. In order to place Sand Creek as part of the Civil War, we have to define the issues of the Civil War as including how the territories would be governed beyond whether or not they would be free territory. I have yet to see anything from that time period defining any issue of the war as including that. Where the territories were mentioned, the issue was whether they would be slave territories or free territories, and the status of Native Americans in those territories wasn’t mentioned. Chivington and his supporters wanted to place Sand Creek as an action of the Civil War, but that was self-serving on Chivington’s part. I would at this point in time place Sand Creek solidly as part of the American Indian Wars, particularly since Sand Creek led to other clashes between Native Americans and US soldiers/Colorado militia. I’m definitely open to further evidence on this, particularly since some historians I greatly respect, such as Ken Noe, Megan Kate Nelson, and Nick Sacco, are convinced Kelman is right to place Sand Creek as part of the American Civil War. So let’s just color me unconvinced at this point and awaiting further evidence, particularly contemporary evidence that shows either the status of Native Americans in the territories was an issue in the war or that governing the territories beyond the question of slave or free was an issue in the war. I did speak with Ari during the CWI conference, and he told me he meant this only in a small way. I’m open to that, but I’d like to see the evidence.
That small issue aside, I highly recommend this book. It is a wonderful read and it really opened my eyes to many of the cultural clashes that still exist today, as well as the sensitivities that have to be developed in order to bring about a memorialization of a controversial event. The fact that American Indian bodies had been used for scientific study was a particular insult to the descendants, and that was something of which I had no previous knowledge. The repatriation of those bodies was a major step in the healing process and is something I believe all of us who are not Native Americans need to understand. It’s yet another reminder that we need to try to see events through the eyes of others as well as through our own eyes. There is much to learn and consider in this book beyond what happened at the massacre.