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It Did Happen Here: Sand Creek, Scholarship and the American Character

By Ward Churchill

From “Fantasies of the Master Race” (1998)

Nits make lice. . . . Kill all, big and little. . . . [And] damn any man who takes the side of the Indians.

— Colonel John M. Chivington Commander, Colorado Volunteer Cavalry, 1864

At a number of levels, the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in what was then called Colorado Territory have come to symbolize the manner in which Euro-America "settled" the entirety of the western United States. More than the comparable slaughters which ensued along the Washita River, Sappa Creek, Bear River, Wounded Knee and hundreds of other sites throughout the Plains and Great Basin regions, Sand Creek had everything necessary to commend it as an archetypal event: a white population, moved by gold fever, knowingly tramples upon legally binding treaty provisions with a massive invasion of Indian country; the federal government, rather than attempting to honor its own existing treaty obligations to protect the Indians' solemnly guaranteed national borders, engineers a second—utterly fraudulent—instrument purporting to legitimate its citizens' illegal occupation of the Cheyenne-Arapaho homeland; a conspiratorial circle of merchants and politicians among the in­vaders glimpses the potential for vast personal wealth and power in liquidation of the "savages" and the resultant Colorado statehood this might make possible. A propaganda campaign to whip up a public blood lust against the Indians is therefore initiated, a ”phony war" is conjured up, and special dispensation is secured from Washington, DC to create bodies of soldiers devoted exclusively to Indian killing.

The Indians, pushed to the wall, are divided as to whether they should fight back or simply surrender to the onrushing wave of national and cultural oblivion which threatens to engulf them. Either way, they are tremendously outgunned and beset by the murderous frenzy of an alien population bent upon their eradication as "a species." A large number of the Cheyennes and a few Arapahoes attempt to remain at peace with their opponents, allowing themselves to be mostly disarmed and immobilized in exchange for official assurances that they will be safe from attack so long as they remain at a location selected for them at Sand Creek, in southeastern Colorado. They live there quietly, under protection of a white flag flown above the lodge of their leader, Black Kettle, until the very moment of the preplanned attack which decimates them. No sparkling hero arrives to save the day at the last moment, and the matter is never "set right." A large though undetermined number of Indians, mostly women, children and old people, are killed and grotesquely mutilated. Those who survive are driven permanently from the territory, and the plotters' plans are largely consummated. Colorado duly becomes a state. Many of the conspirators prosper. Evil wins out, pure and simple.

Literature concerning the wanton butchery occurring at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864 began to emerge almost immediately. This was first the case in the pages of jingoist local tabloids like the Rocky Mountain News, where the massacre was heralded as a glorious event, and then in lengthy reports issued by three separate governmental commissions charged with investigat­ing what exactly had happened. Each of these—Massacre of Cheyennes (U.S. Congress, 1865), The Chivington Massacre (U.S. Congress, 1865) and Sand Creek Massacre (Secretary of War, 1867) — concluded unequivocally that there was no merit to the rationalizations advanced by those responsible concern­ing why they'd acted as they had, and that mass murder had indeed been per­petrated against the Cheyenne and Arapahoe. That said, however, each report stopped well short of recommending any sort of criminal punishment for any of the perpetrators, never mind abortion of the process of state for­mation their collective misdeeds had set in motion. To the contrary, the only tangible consequence visited upon anyone who had played a major role accrued to Colonel John Milton Chivington, a former Methodist minister cum overall commander of the troops (the 3rd and portions of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry Regiments) who'd done the actual killing. "Disgraced" by the official findings, Chivington was forced to abandon his previously promising political career in favor of other lines of work.

Over the years since then, Sand Creek has found a ready place in the recounting of Euro-America's takeover of the Great Plains ranging in tone, tenor and intent from Frank Hall's four volume History of the State of Colorado (Blakely, 1899), through Frederick Jackson Turner's The Significance of the Frontier in American History (Holt, 1947), to S.L.A. Marshall's The Crimsoned Prairie (Scribner, 1972) and E.S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star (North Point, 1984). Similarly, it has been integral to those works — such as George Bird Grinnell's The Fighting Cheyennes (Scribner, 1915) and The Cheyenne Indians (Yale University, 1923), or J.H. Moore's The Cheyenne Nation (University of Nebraska, 1987) — seeking to chronicle the effects of US westward expansion upon the indigenous people at issue.

The massacre and its implications have also been central to biographies of certain of the non-Indian principles involved—Edgar Carlisle MacMechen's Life of Governor John Evans, Second Territorial Governor of Colorado (Wahlgreen, 1924) and Reginald S. Craig's sympathetic study of Chivington, The Fighting Parson (Westernlore, 1959), spring immediately to mind—as do the auto­biographical accounts of lesser players like Morse Coffin in his The Battle of Sand Creek (W.M. Morrison, 1965).

The authors of the biographies in particular have taken considerable lib­erties with the record, both factually and philosophically, in their quest to, if not completely vindicate and rehabilitate their subjects, then at least neutral­ize the genocidal negativity of their central figures' words and conduct. In this, they are joined by the writers of several books focusing directly upon the massacre itself, notably Eugene F. Ware's The Indian War of 1864 (Crane & Co., 1911) and William R. Dunn's "I Stand by Sand Creek": A Defense of Colonel John M. Chivington and the Third Colorado Cavalry (Old Army Press, 1985).

Such lies, distortions and unabashed polemics in behalf of Sand Creek's perpetrators have, in combination, provided a convenient umbrella under which "more responsible" scholars have persistently sheltered, avoiding the unpleasantness inherent not only to the specifics of Sand Creek itself, but of the far broader sweep of policy to which it was inextricably linked. The conventional academic wisdom has thus landed squarely on the comfortable proposition that, while the massacre was undoubtedly a "tragedy," its real meaning and place in American history remains somehow "unknowable" or "stubbornly mysterious" (see Raymond G. Carey's "The Puzzle of Sand Creek" [Colorado Magazine, 41:4, 1964] and Michael A. Sievers' "Shifting Sands of Sand Creek Historiography" [Colorado Magazine, 49:2, 1972]).

There have, to be sure, been efforts which have gone in decidedly different directions. Noteworthy in this regard, albeit to varying degrees, have been William H. Leckie's The Military Conquest of the Southern Plains (University of Oklahoma, 1963), Ralph K. Andrist's The Long Death (Collier, 1964), Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), and John Selby's The Conquest of the American West (Rowman and Littlefield, 1976), each of which treats the massacre for what it was and attempts to situ­ate it within an accurate contextual rendering of overall policy and public sen­timent. Paramount among this genre is Stan Hoig's The Sand Creek Massacre ' (University of Oklahoma, 1961), an honest and meticulously researched vol­ume which has stood for nearly thirty years as the definitive study for those pursuing a genuine understanding of the whole affair.

Aside from the obligatory inclusion of Sand Creek in Father Peter Powell's works on the Cheyenne, however, there has since the mid-'70s been something of a hiatus on the generation of worthwhile material. It is thus a circumstance of some interest and importance that a single six-month period, spanning the years 1989 and '90, saw the release of two new book-length examinations of the topic.

Of the two — David Svaldi's Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermination: A Case Study in Indian-White Relations (University Press of America, 1989) and Month of the Freezing Moon: The Sand Creek Massacre, November 1864 by Duane Schultz—Schultz's book follows by far the more shopworn and predictable pattern. It is a standard history of the "who did what to whom" variety, tracing the by now familiar progression of events leading up to, comprising and immediately stemming from the massacre itself. In this, it is accurate enough on the main points, although essentially duplicative of Hoig's earlier and much better written volume.

Were this all that was involved, Month of the Freezing Moon would be nothing so much as a vaguely plagiaristic redundancy, more or less harmless despite its tendency to include easily avoidable errors of detail which serve to muddy rather than further clarify the record. A good example of this comes at page 135, where Schultz places Left Hand, a primary Arapaho leader, among those slain at Sand Creek. This myth, created by the glory-seekers of the Colorado Volunteers, has been debunked long since by Hoig (p. 154) and Margaret Coel in her exhaustive biography of the supposed victim, Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapaho (University of Oklahoma, 1981), among others.

Schultz, however, goes much further, and this is where his work is transformed from being merely irrelevant into something truly malicious and objectionable. This comes with his adoption of the Euro-American standard of "academic objectivity" decreeing that whenever one addresses the atroci­ties committed by the status quo, one is duty-bound to "balance one's view" by depicting some negativity as being embodied in its victims. This holds as an iron law of "responsible scholarship" even when counterbalancing infor­mation must be quite literally invented. Hence, while Schultz follows Hoig's lead in dissecting and refuting assorted untruths about specific Cheyenne actions manufactured and disseminated by the perpetrators in the process of entering their own justification of the massacre, he simultaneously embraces those same sources—or those like them (e.g., Richens Lacy "Uncle Dick" Wooten)—as credible and valid when it comes to describing the broader dimensions of Indian character and behavior:

[B]efore there were whites to rob and plunder and steal from, the [Indians] robbed and stole from each other. Before there were white men in the country to kill, they killed each other. Before there were white women and children to scalp and mutilate and tor­ture, the Indians scalped and mutilated and tortured the women and children of the enemies of their own race. They made slaves of each other when there were no pale­faces to be captured and sold or held for ransom, and before they commenced lying in ambush along the trails of the white man to murder unwary travelers, the Indians of one tribe would set the same sort of death traps for the Indians of another tribe (p. 16).

None of this is substantiated, or even plausible. It instead flies directly in the face of most well-researched and grounded contemporary understandings regarding how the Cheyennes did business in pre-contact times as well as the early contact period. Deployed in the otherwise "critical" (of the whites) and "sympathetic" (to the Indians) setting so carefully developed by the author, such disinformation serves a peculiarly effective propaganda function. The general reader is led to conclude that, while it's "a shame" the good citizens of Colorado were forced to comport themselves as they did, the intrinsic bestiality of their enemies led inevitably to this result. The inherently horrible nature of the victims themselves—not the fundamental nature of the process by which they were victimized—accounts for the nature of the fate imposed upon them. The process itself thereby becomes "necessary" and consequently beyond need of justification.

In this construction, Evans, Chivington and the others are indeed guilty, but only of what are conventionally described as "excesses." This is to say, by definition, that they undertook a good thing (the conquest of native nations) and "pushed it too far" (using methods which were overly crude). The reader is the left to ponder whether even this might not be excusable— or at least "understandable" (which is to say, "forgivable")—"under the circumstances" or "in the heat of the fray."

Such techniques of presentation are hardly novel or unique to Schultz, having been well-refined since 1950 by various apologists for Nazism seeking to vindicate the "core impulse" guiding the Waffen SS to its gruesome performance in Eastern Europe during World War II. That the author of Month of the Freezing Moon might actually desire that his revision of Hoig join the ranks of North American corollaries to such Germanic endeavors would not seem especially out of character in view of his earlier record of cranking out uniformly hyper-patriotic accounts of U.S. military prowess: Hero of Bataan:The Story of General Jonathan M. Wainwright (St. Martins, 1981), Wake Island:The Heroic Gallant Fight (Jove, 1985), The Last Battle Station:The Story of the USS Houston (St. Martins, 1986), and The Doolittle Raid (St. Martins, 1988). To observe from this perspective that Schultz makes no worthwhile or commendable contribution to the literature on Sand Creek is to extend a very substantial bit of understatement.

David Svaldi's first book commands an altogether different assessment. Anchoring his analysis in the whole range of public pronouncements emerging in Colorado contemporaneously with the massacre, the author drives home the point that the will to exterminate Indians (any Indians, of whatever character) was an hegemonic force among the territory's settler population throughout the crucial period. There simply was no generalized dissent from the prevailing view—isolated figures like Edward Wynkoop and Silas Soule are rightly treated as such exceptions as to prove the rule—to be found in this quarter until well after the fact. Meaning is assigned to this phenomenon through reliance upon already established theoretical structures elaborated in William Stanton's The Leopard's Spots: Attitudes Towards Race in America, 1815-1859 (University of Chicago, 1960), Murray Edelman's Politics as Symbolic Action: Mass Arousal and Quiescence (Markham, 1971), Reginald Horseman's Race and Manifest Destiny (Harvard University, 1981), and elsewhere.

The broader insights gained from these latter connections entail extension of Svaldi's rhetorical examination comparatively and longitudinally from the moment of Sand Creek to a number of other instances occurring both earlier and later in U.S. history. Following the same sort of trajectory plotted by Richard Drinnon in his superb Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building (University of Minnesota, 1980), the analysis offered in Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermination therefore picks up the thread of Euro-America's genocidal mentality in colonial New England dur­ing the mid-eighteenth century, and carries it through to the Mai Lai Massacre in Vietnam more than 200 years later. Under such scrutiny, any notion that Sand Creek was an "aberration" is rapidly dispelled. Although U.S. citizens residing east of the Mississippi River widely condemned the massacre at the time, such condemnation fell uniformly short of demanding either criminal prosecution for the perpetrators or redress for surviving victims. Why? It’s because the inhabitants of each state of the union were uncomfortably aware that their own antecedents had, in the not-so-distant past, done precisely the same thing to the indigenous people of their region.

No area within what are now the forty-eight contiguous states of the United States is exempt from having produced its own historical variant of the Sand Creek phenomenon. The very existence of the U.S. in its modern territorial and demographic configuration is contingent upon this fact. Racially oriented invasion, conquest, genocide and subsequent denial are all integral to it, constantly recurring and thus defining features of the Euro-American makeup from the instant the first boat load of self-ordained colonists set foot in the "New World." At base, nothing has changed for the better in this regard up through the present moment. Nor will things be likely to improve until such time as denial is supplanted by a willingness to face such things squarely, without evasion or equivocation. Towards this positive objective, David Svaldi has performed sterling service, joining the still tiny group of Hoigs and Drinnons who strive to inject a measure of accuracy into the pop­ular consciousness of what has transpired in North America since 1600.

This is by no means to say that Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermina­tion is a perfect book. It suffers from being written in a dry, overly academic, almost dissertation like manner. It passes over numerous examples—from Lord Jeffrey Amherst's use of bacteriological warfare against Indians in 1763, to the slaughter of a million "Moros" by U.S. forces in the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century—which were deserving of mention and would have provided further support to the author's thesis. Similarly, it would have been useful and instructive had Svaldi devoted time and attention, even transiently, to exploration of the rhetorical similarities (and dissimilarities) between genocidal policies and ethnic cleansing in the U.S. and those of the Third Reich. A sharper comprehension of that ugly relationship might well have emerged from such handling, strengthening our grasp of Svaldi's overall premises.

It is nonetheless apparent that the book accomplishes much in improving our posture of understanding about Sand Creek and its implications. It also lays a sound foundation for investigating the conceptual crosscurrents between fascism/Nazism and Euro-American ideologies of genocide called for above. Perhaps this will be David Svaldi's next project. Be that as it may, Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermination must be assessed as tangible proof that the whole truth of "the American experience" will eventually come out despite the best efforts of those who would seek to block or confuse it. There is reason enough in this for us to enter a certain hopeful applause.

For a summary account of the Sand Creek Massacre: http://www.skeptic.ca/Bury_My_Heart.htm


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