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The American Indian Quarterly 27.3 (2003) 639-666

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Western Apache Oral Histories and Traditions of the Camp Grant Massacre

In 1928 John P. Clum published the first half of a two-part article that signaled an important shift in Western Apache historiography.1 In the essay titled simply "Es-kin-in-zin," Clum fashioned a life history of the legendary Western Apache leader haské bahnzin (Anger Stands Beside Him).2 Clum's article was written with great empathy and a genuine desire to understand past events from the viewpoint of someone whose life was irreversibly altered by the incursion of Euroamericans into the Apache homelands. However, when Clum described one of the most pivotal episodes in haské bahnzin's life, the so-called "Camp Grant Massacre" of 1871, surprisingly, he turned to non-Apache sources rather than depicting it from the perspective of his subject. Lamentably, nearly every author who has written on this topic has followed in Clum's footsteps.3 Of the scores of articles, books, and Web pages that portray the Camp Grant Massacre, practically all of the texts recycle the incident from the recollections of the American participants.4 Curiously, even those expositions sensitive to the Apache experience have tended to rely on these partial and incomplete sources.5

The Camp Grant Massacre remains a salient moment for contemporary Western Apache peoples.6 Although a difficult part of their history, it continues to instruct Apaches and non-Apaches about the sacrifices of those who have gone before and the circumstances that have shaped our modern world (figure 1; figure 2). The story of the massacre was first preserved by personal histories and has since been maintained in part through Western Apache oral traditions.7 Apache narratives are vital for better understanding the massacre, not so much because they necessarily constitute a more factual version, but because they afford alternative, even [End Page 639] complementary, accounts. Furthermore oral narratives reinvigorate the stories of the disenfranchised and dispossessed, shedding light on those lives that have long been excluded from this historical record.8 As many scholars have increasingly valued the historicity in oral traditions, another set of academics have concurrently critiqued Western-based textual histories for failing to render an unbiased gaze back through time.9 Given that written and verbal historical accounts are similarly the product of a complex process that entwines the past with the social and political present, theorists have progressively given consideration to how "the data of history and the data of tradition taken together form a congruous and more believable whole."10 While some fret about the contested nature of the past, other researchers more optimistically embrace the multiplicities of history.11 Sally Engle Merry, for instance, sanguinely argues that divergences are themselves an avenue for understanding people and the past, for varying accounts are "neither true nor invented but are cultural interpretations of events made within particular historical contexts."12

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Figure 1
The site of the Camp Grant Massacre on Arivaipa Creek, still recalled as gashdla'á cho o'aa (Big Sycamore Stands There). Photograph by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, February 18, 2002.

To write about the Camp Grant Massacre from the perspective of the [End Page 640]

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Figure 2
Old Camp Grant and the Camp Grant Massacre site in geographical relation.

Apache people empowers those voices that have previously been quieted and offers a much more intricate knowledge of the event because it spins another strand in the web of histories. In this paper, six Western Apache versions of the Camp Grant Massacre will be considered not to deduce one "true" account, but rather to extend an alternative viewpoint of the events preceding and following the terrible morning of April 30, 1871. While the murder and captivity of Western Apache men, women, and children in this instance does not discount the violence various Apache [End Page 641] groups perpetrated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it does help us better apprehend the broader context in which these...


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