Ari Kelman’s new book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, is a complicated and beautiful narrative about narrative, a series of connected and interwoven stories about history and histories. It is also a damned fine read, one that I savored slowly over several weeks (though I think reviewers are supposed to knock things out quickly) and will continue thinking about for a long time.
The book starts by recounting the story of the Sand Creek Massacre, although the massacre is not the actual subject of the book. Indeed, it becomes clear almost immediately that there is no such thing as “the” story of Sand Creek. Kelman introduces us to three characters—two perpetrators and one survivor of the massacre itself—through the primary documents, written by themselves, that describe what happened. And great characters they are. John Chivington, committed abolitionist, Union colonel, and inveterately racist Indian hater, led the attack and devoted himself to defending (and exaggerating) it in newspapers and official statements for years afterwards. Silas Soule, gold seeker, joshing mama’s boy, and Captain, refused to participate in it or order his men to, and blew the whistle afterwards in letters home and to Colorado patriarch Edward Wynkoop, leading to the investigation and condemnation of Chivington’s actions. George Bent, the son of a federal Indian agent and a Cheyenne woman, was a Confederate volunteer, captured by Union soldiers and released after swearing loyalty to the United States, who went to live with his mother’s people in part to protect himself from anti-Confederate sentiment in Colorado; he was wounded in the massacre, but survived, was ignored by the investigation but published his story in a six-part series almost forty years later, and died with his book-length memoir yet unpublished (it finally saw print in 1968).
These men and their stories of Sand Creek could easily be the subject of the book. Sand Creek is an important part of United States history, though one that most Americans know little, if anything, about. In late November 1864, towards the end of the Civil War, Chivington led the First and Third Colorado Regiments to a site near Fort Lyon, where a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, led respectively by Black Kettle and Left Hand, had been promised protection by the U.S. Military. Chivington’s troops proceeded to decimate the encamped Cheyenne and Arapaho in a massacre that not only fueled the subsequent Indian Wars throughout the American West but also demonstrated that the U.S. Civil War was both a war against slavery and, less nobly, a war of westward expansion. It freed the slaves, but it also opened the door to the near-destruction of the Plains Indians.
This is a timely story, and a profound one. But Kelman is not merely adding to our current fascination with the Civil War. He is also, and even more importantly, explaining to the educated general public how history gets made. That process is the book’s true subject, and accordingly, after this first chapter, we leave the massacre itself behind and focus instead on the real meat of the book: the 20th- and 21st-century struggle over commemorating it.
Here is where I must disclose that Kelman is an internetical friend of mine. We have corresponded on and off over several years, I met him once when I gave a talk at an event he had arranged at UC Davis, and I like him very much indeed. I agreed to review his book as a friend; but secretly I was a bit worried once I found out what it was about. A story about the legal wranglings over a US National Historic Site? Dear god, I thought: this is precisely the kind of arcane, dry monograph that I thought post-academia would ensure I never had to read again.
Luckily, what I found was not what I expected. It turns out that the negotations involved in establishing the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site are fascinating, involving a fair bit of situational humor, a cast of compelling characters almost big enough to warrant a Russian novel-style reference list, a genuinely engaging set of theoretical and ideological problems, and real emotion. I found myself tearing up as the book’s closing pages described the internment of the massacre victims’ remains, even while another part of my brain was admiring the way that Kelman’s epilogue resisted closure by introducing yet one more new character—Patty Limerick, “among the most renowned Western historians in the United States”—whose presence threatens to upset the apple cart when, barely a year after the site opens, she is brought in to help facilitate discussions of interpretation, a move that the Cheyenne descendants whose efforts and concerns have dominated the narrative to this point see as a “potential challenge to their cultural authority.”
This question of cultural authority, of course, is central to any process of historicizing. As another late entrant to the proceedings—and hence the story—expresses it, charmingly, “I think I know what I know. But what I know is still pretty limited.” This might serve as an epigraph, not only to the book itself, but to history as a field: Kelman expands, “put another way, he was reasonably confident about the question of where, but deeper analytical queries—How could such a thing have happened? Who should be held accountable? What were the massacre’s lasting implications?—were still, he acknowledged, ‘a matter of interpretation.’”
And the bulk of the book is about interpretation, both of Sand Creek specifically and of history writ large. Kelman’s methodology is his content, which makes the book fascinating both as a story and as a window into historiography. He relies heavily on interviews, which is both unusual for an academic historian and eminently appropriate to the subject. It also gives the book both dramatic thrust and a real sense of humor: again and again, some hurdle gets in the way of history, is overcome with a great deal of diplomacy and difficulty, and then some new character rises up with some new agenda that needs addressing. Two amateur historians go artefact collecting near a 1950 memorial to “the Sand Creek ‘Battle’ or ‘Massacre’”—so reads the obelisk that directs the public “north eight miles, east one mile” to the actual site. Only, it turns out, maybe it isn’t the actual site, since there are no artefacts to be found. The hobbyists contact the Colorado Historical Society, which begins a process of trying to determine whether the actual site of the massacre can be pinpointed, necessitating much combing through archives: history, it seems, has “lost” the massacre site.
It turns out that history—the official American version, at least—had also lost touch with the descendants of Sand Creek’s victims, members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who not only knew where the site was but had formal committees dedicated to memoralizing what had happened and visiting the site. This sets up the major, but by no means only, conflict in creating a new memorial: federal representatives, including scholars at state universities, members of the National Parks Service, and state and federal legislators decide that an extensive search and new memorial is called for. The Indian tribes on whom they call for help, however—represented primarily by Laird Cometsevah (chief of the Southern Cheyenne) and Steve Brady, head of the Northern Cheyenne Crazy Dogs society and Sand Creek Massacre Descendants Committee—are suspicious of the federal government. They are also amused by the feds having “lost” the site. Despite their suspicions, they agree to help “find” it and cooperate in establishing a National Historic Site because, as it happens, the tribes are pursuing reparations that had been promised but not fulfilled, and they hope that establishing a federally-recognized site will further that process.
Just as the reader begins to think that the fault lines here are clear, we meet William Dawson, a rancher who, in his own words, is “the son of a bitch who owns Sand Creek.” He is a character who will be familiar to those who know the rural west: intelligent but anti-intellectual, absolute in his devotion to private property but anti-government. He also, despite having originally thought that calling the events at Sand Creek a “massacre” amounted to “nothing more than politically correct pandering to ‘Native American groups,’” has come to like and respect Cometsevah and Brady, both as individuals—who he knows through their visits to his land to honor their fallen ancestors—and because he slowly adopts their view of what happened. His personal loyalty to them, his emerging hopes of profitably selling his land to the Federal Parks Service, and his anti-federal contrarianism combine so that, as the search gets underway and the FPS representatives start to question the authenticity of the traditional site, he inserts himself into and further complicates the process.
Dawson isn’t the only fly in the ointment, though. There is a map, drawn by George Bent, who was there; but it was drawn at least forty years after Sand Creek and, it turns out, agrees with a flawed U.S. Geological Survey map from the same era. A new map turns up, and it turns out to be an older one, drawn only four years after the massacre. It was drawn, however, by a second lieutenant who led an expedition to find “relics”—body parts—to take back to Washington D.C. The two maps conflict, and whether to believe the Cheyenne survivor’s map, which agrees with tradition, or the “new” grave robbing map, which contradicts it, becomes a charged question. Moreover, Chuck and Sheri Bowen, “mild-mannered people” who own a ranch adjacent to William Dawson’s, have done their own research and collected quite an extensive collection of battlefield artefacts found on their land, which becomes a third possible site. The NPS calls in an ethnographer, Alexa Roberts, who exercises extreme diplomacy in collecting oral histories from massacre descendants, and a battlefield archeologist, Doug Scott, who finds evidence of the massacre (on Dawson’s land) but whose lack of diplomacy in celebrating his finds risks permanently alienating the Cheyenne and Arapaho who are present at the search. Scott’s findings also create a rift between the Northern Arapaho, who support his findings, and the Southern Cheyenne, who remain firm in their location of Black Kettle’s encampment about half a mile south.
The NPS hires Christine Whitaker to draw it all together somehow, and a book and a map, “two lavishly illustrated volumes . . . monuments to the politics of memory surrounding Sand Creek” are produced, “flexible” documents that “acknowledge” the “conflicts embedded in the nation’s history.” The government is ready to move forward with purchasing the land. But Dawson demands above-market pricing, which federal law forbids, locals become concerned about the effect a federal memorial will have on their own property rights and whether tourism will change the character of the county, and 9/11 happens, reshuffling federal spending priorities and reinflaming questions about whether memorializing the massacre undermines patriotism. One casino financier offers to buy the land and transfer it to the Southern Cheyenne, in exchange for extending his contract for existing casinos, while another offers to exchange existing tribal lands for a casino near Denver, mentioning that doing so could help fund the memorial, which leads everyone to worry about whether the memorial is going to be sullied or even scuttled by casino interests.
In detailing the incredible complexities of establishing the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Kelman illuminates the hetereogeneousness of history. That he does so in such a readable way nicely demonstrates to the lay reader that both the subject and the process of history can be compelling. When my 12-year-old son asked me what I was reading, I told him it was a book about establishing a national historic site. Having been dragged to his fair share of historic highway markers, his initial reaction was “ugh,” but when I went on to tell him about all the different “sides” in the process, how the Indians had passed down stories of where their ancestors had been massacred but the U.S. Government had “lost” track of the site, how the man who owned the land wanted to cash in while his neighbors thought that maybe it had all happened on their property, his curiosity was piqued. We went on to have a discussion in which he learned about the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, deepened his understanding of the Civil War by linking it to Westward Expansion and the Indian Wars, talked about the ways that different people can have different points of view, and of course learned about the massacre at Sand Creek itself. Obviously the book is not aimed at 12-year olds, nor is it written at their level; but it eschews scholarly jargon for the most part and should be accessible to the educated general reader. It is aware of itself both as a study of the making of stories and as a story on its own terms, enough so that it appeals to its audience’s desire for a good yarn—remember being twelve and devouring book after book?—as well as to the more adult process of intellectual inquiry and critical acumen. A Misplaced Massacre is therefore that rare thing, a sound scholarly monograph that engagingly and successfully reaches out to a general audience. It teaches us a great deal about histories public, private, and political and shows us the importance of thinking carefully and thoroughly about the meanings, making, and purpose of history.