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  • A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek by Ari Kelman
  • Thomas Brown (bio)
A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. By Ari Kelman. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 376. Cloth, $35.00.)

A Misplaced Massacre traces the making of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, which opened in April 2007. This unit of the National Park Service (NPS) recognizes the November 29, 1864, slaughter of approximately two hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women and children, by Colorado regiments of the U.S. Volunteers under the command of Colonel John Chivington. Drawing on survivors' testimony and reports of Union officers who did not participate, military and [End Page 136] congressional investigations agreed that Chivington was a cold-blooded murderer, though he had staunch and even violent defenders in Colorado. Backlash to cultural pluralism and rigid support for U.S. troops have generated some recent apologists, but Ari Kelman's focus is not on these outliers. The struggle of his subtitle is primarily between the NPS and Native peoples, despite the large overlap in their understandings of Sand Creek. Kelman describes a commemorative contest that is more about control than content. Remembrance is in this book not merely a form of historical interpretation but an act of sovereignty.

As the title promises, place is at the heart of the struggle. Kelman's story begins with Native Americans' belief that on the eve of the massacre, the village of peaceful chief Black Kettle was located at a sharp bend in Sand Creek, where Kiowa County dedicated a historical marker in 1950. Their principal documentation is two maps produced in the early twentieth century by western historian George Hyde and Sand Creek survivor George Bent, the son of a prominent Cheyenne woman and a successful borderland trader. They also invoke nondocumentary evidence, including oral tradition and anguished voices of victims heard at the site by their descendants. The most revered Cheyenne spiritual leader consecrated the ground in 1978. But NPS officials and consultants become doubtful that the massacre took place on this spot, as archaeological studies yield no relevant artifacts. A map drawn by army officer Samuel Bonsall for William T. Sherman's western tour in 1868 points the NPS team toward a large cache of Sand Creek artifacts about seven-tenths of a mile from the bend position venerated by the Native leaders, many of whom consider Bonsall's evidence tainted by his participation in the removal of victims' remains for medical study. The owner of the land along the bend is eager to sell his farm for the authorized national historic site at a premium price; he maintains that generations of treasure seekers have stripped the property of artifacts. Although he had previously shared racial antipathies common among local whites, the landowner's dislike of government strengthens his alliance with Native peoples long distrustful of the United States. The NPS hopes to find an interpretive formulation that will reduce tension between the consecrated site of Native tradition and the nearby site supported by Bonsall's maps and modern archaeology, for the massacre took place over a considerable area. But the NPS can only pay the landowner the locally prevailing value of his property, which is far less than the price he demands.

This predicament reaches a neat resolution that is somewhat at odds with Kelman's sensible skepticism toward rhetoric of reconciliation or collective healing. The Cheyennes and Arapahos use casino revenues to buy the bend site at the landowner's price and convey the property in trust for [End Page 137] NPS management. The federal government will control use of the land, but Native peoples will have some space of autonomy, notably in a cemetery established for victims' remains that the federal government agrees to repatriate. Kelman ends the debate over the exact spot of Black Kettle's village with one independent researcher's hypothesis that the bed of Sand Creek has moved in such a way that "there might be no discrepancy between . . . Samuel Bonsall's depiction of the massacre site and Bent's, between firsthand accounts offered by perpetrators and oral histories collected from survivors, between social...


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