Complicated Histories

Sand CreekAfter much debate, negotiation, and contention the site is open to the public.

Public history involves many members of the public, and compromises must be made to satisfy those on each side. As Ari Kelman’s book Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek displays, public history can be even more complicated than compromises. This beautifully written book examines the memorialization of the Sand Creek Massacre throughout history and the modern movement to preserve the site as a national historic site. Kelman’s writing makes the reader feel like they are actually experiencing this along with the other cast of characters. You get to know many of the individuals in the book and his imagery paints a picture in which you can actually see what the different events and scenery look like. For example, at Sand Creek, “Spring through the coming of autumn, colors explode. Verdant buffalo and grama grasses, interspersed with orange, red, and purple wildflowers, blanket the sandy earth, and an amazing azure sky stretches to the distant horizon.” (1).

Many different groups were involved with Sand Creek including: Native Americans, land owners, National Park Service personnel, historians, and local residents. Most had different motivations and goals and coming to a consensus proved almost impossible. As we have seen throughout the quarter, through a variety of examples, cooperation between groups can be both a positive and negative. But the Sand Creek site seems as though there were more obstacles than usual: the site was in private ownership, most groups could and would not agree on where the massacre actually took place, and almost all sources surrounding the event were conflicting.

The push to memorialize the site started in the very early 1990s but hit some significant roadblocks along the way. National events like 9/11 stalled their progress, “with federal authorities encouraging Americans to view the world through a black-and-white lens-us versus them-an event like Sand Creek, which raised questions about the consequences of American imperialism and the actions of the U.S. Army, prompted renewed controversy.” (190) Another local, but still very contentious issue was the building of a casino on Native American land close to Denver. The public immediately jumped on the project stating that it “rested on the dubious proposition that the horrors of Sand Creek could be swept away for the affected tribes by waves of corporate profits.” (234) Most Native Americans did not want Sand Creek associated with a casino in any way, and a significant land transfer of the historic site was held up because of the casino shenanigans.

In the afterward it seems as though all sides have their stories legitimized. Through some significant research of a former criminal investigator, it was determined the creek had moved a significant amount over the past one hundred and fifty years. This meant that no side was wrong, but those who looked to the creek for reference on where the massacre took place were dependent on a moving target.

One of the major reasons for the drawn out nature of discussions about Sand Creek was the Native Americans’ inherent distrust of the American government. Wronged more times than should be possible and in just about every way, the Native community still harbors significant distrust, and even sometimes disdain. In Vine Deloria Jr’s chapter “Anthropologists and Other Friends” he provides an excellent example why Native Americans inherently distrust the U.S. government through the Oglala Sioux’s experience on their reservation. “Their population has grown faster than their means of support. The government allowed white farmers to come into the eastern part of the reservation and create a county, with the best farm lands owned or operated by whites. The reservation was allotted and when ownership became too complicated, control of the land passed out of Indian hands. The government displaced a number of families during the last world war by taking a part of the reservation for use as a bombing range to train crews for combat. Only in 1968 was the land returned to tribal and individual use. (90) This systematic disregard for basic human rights has inflicted deep wounds, wounds that may never be fully healed.

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One thought on “Complicated Histories

  1. This is not necessarily connected directly to our readings, but the picture you posted at the top made me think of it. Do you think years from now we will look to commemorate more recent massacres? Such as Columbine or Sandy Hook Elementary. It seems as though our way of processing those events differs greatly from the way we processed Sandy Creek.

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