Unit 6: American Indians and Public History

Will the Real Sand Creek Site Please Stand Up?

On November 29, 1864 the Sand Creek Massacre, or battle, depending on whose historical lens one chooses to look through, occurred in Kiowe County. The “correct history” in this story illustrates how “memories are shaped by politics” (3). Both the Cheyenne and Arapaho, as well as the National Park Service (NPS) and multiple other historians and residents argued over very different events that occurred in the massacre. John Chivington, the Colorado militia who led the Sand Creek Massacre, was “pressed by examiners on whether his troops had violated the rules of civilized warfare, killing women, children, and the elderly and plundering the enemy’s camp for valuables Chivington first dodged the question and then dug in, maintaining that Sand Creek had been a legitimate engagement” (13).

The NPR’s Mary Bomar noted that the story of America needs to be told “faithfully, completely, and accurately,” be it noble or shameful (20). It was looked at through George Bent’s Cheyenne lens and Chevington’s patriotic hero lens. Was it a massacre or a battle? The Indians raised white flags but soldiers from the 1st Colorado Regiment “paid no attention” (23).

In A Misplaced Massacre, Kelman explains how the “correct history” depends on the audience. For example, “disentangling the massacre from the Civil War served both nationalist and internationalist aims at the time,” because the Civil War was supposed to be seen as “a good war.” (55) Once again, history was molded to fit the intended audience. To memorialize the massacre, the project had “incommensurable goals: national unity versus local autonomy versus tribal sovereignty” (43).  The Cheyenne and Arapaho are different entities so even on a tribal level, there were different stories. Both claimed to have a living memory of the horrible massacre and on another level, whites claimed the memory as a battle from the civil War. Who owned this collective remembrance? And where exactly did the massacre happen?

Lysa Wegman-French and Christine Whitacre believed their historical work could help both the NPS as well as the tribes. They were able to look back at history through an indigenous lens because of their education. Wegman-French attended the University of Boulder-Colorado where Patricia Nelson-Limerick, a leading scholar who has “placed the experiences of Native Americans on par with those of European settlers.” (90) Wegman-French’s excitement grew upon realizing that the Bent-Hyde regional maps mirrored an 1890 U.S. Geological Survey map of southeastern Colorado, but her hopes deflated when faced with the reality that it was drawn from a “flawed original” (99). And then came the “Eureka moment” with the finding of Samuel Bonsall’s map of military sites in 1868 (101).

Once the NPS was ready to tell the story, they had to accept that the massacre was “a central part of the Cheyenne’s past and future” and therefor the narrative should not be told by federal authorities (109). The NPS confidently presented a draft of “the village site,” angering the Cheyenne who already distrusted the government. And then another clue appeared. The Soule-Cramer letters were found which “validated much of the testimony taken during the congressional and Army hearings from Sand Creek” (174).

Once the site was identified, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site Establishment Act was marked with a powwow and “people in the West congratulated themselves for having opened the door to cross-cultural reconciliation” (181). But the fight was not over. Conflicting narratives continued to pester the Sand Creek memory. While Greg Michno peered through a “military and pioneer perspective,” and told the Indians to “get over it,” the rebuttals poured in (225). Eventually, the “right” place was found and according to Laird Cometsevah, “Sand Creek will never be forgotten” (262).


Photo courtesy of nps.gov http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Sand_Creek_Massacre_National_Historic_Site.html

Whitesboro To Change Racist Town Seal After ‘Daily Show’ Visit

Similar to the Sand Creek memorial story is the Whitesboro town seal episode. After the Daily Show visited Whitesboro, the townspeople voted to change the seal illustrating a white man choking a Native American that “was meant to depict a historic wrestling match between the village’s white founder and an Oneida Indian.” The truth of the Oneida Indians may stand a chance at telling the real history through a broader lens.

Buzzfeed, 9 Questions Native Americans Have for White People

The Buzzfeed website asks whites questions that are “thought provoking.” For example, “Why do you tell me I don’t look like a Native American?” Some people may view Native Americans as people with long hair and war paint, and while this is wildly inaccurate, the movies can and have shown a stereotypical version of Indians, similar to Chivington’s story of “faceless savages.” Why do people think Native Americans look a certain way? There is an expectation that we have learned from someplace, either the entertainment industry or school, that is selling stereotypes.

Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket) (ca. 1884-1936)

Christine Quintasket, an Interior Salish woman, “collected tribal stories among Northern Plateau peoples in the early twentieth century.” Once again, history was molded due to a certain audience. Because Heister Dean Guie “envisioned the collection as a series of children’s bedtime stories, all mentions of sex and violence were eliminated, and most of the legends were simplified and shortened.” Mourning Dove and McWhorter, who remained active in the editing process, removed moral points, “superstitions,” and creation stories that might bring ridicule from a white audience.



Photo courtesy of nps.gov http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Sand_Creek_Massacre_National_Historic_Site.html




2 thoughts on “Unit 6: American Indians and Public History

  1. You talk about one of the principal issues, national unity and local autonomy, in the interpretation of historic sites. We as public historians need to be aware of this when developing public history projects. It could be hard to memorialize the Stars and Bars without lapsing into an interpretation that ignores the American people and emphasizes the American government and the imagined idea of what it is to be American.


  2. After reading your post I think this weeks theme should be “White people co-opting Native American stories and history.” Through everything we read this week white people have continuously rewritten or completely negated Native history, and generally seem to have trouble seeing the other sides point of view.

    Liked by 1 person

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