- A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek by Ari Kelman
On November 29, 1864, peaceful Native American men, women, and children under the protection of the U.S. flag were slaughtered indiscriminately by U.S. soldiers. In 2007 the National Park Service opened the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site to protect the geographic location of the carnage and provide a venue to teach the public about the tragic events that preceded and followed [End Page 353] the killing at Sand Creek. Ari Kelman’s masterful new book focuses not on the horrendous events of the soldiers’ murderous rampage itself, but on the history of the memory of the Sand Creek tragedy, and how those memories affected the creation of the National Park and shaped relations between Native Americans and European Americans from the nineteenth century to the present day.
The title of the book refers to several ways various groups of Americans “misplaced” the memory of the massacre, a theme that recurs throughout the book. Not only had the location been forgotten, misplaced, or misidentified by white Americans, but non-Indian and Indian Americans often disagreed over where the massacre should be situated in U.S. history. White Coloradans had a rough sense of the location of the land upon which the killing had taken place, whereas tribal descendants of the victims knew for certain where their ancestors had died (and felt insulted when white archeologists proposed alternate maps of the massacre location based on archeological evidence). Some Coloradans had included Sand Creek in a list of Civil War battles recorded in a monument to Coloradan Union Civil War service. However, as the twentieth century progressed, the Sand Creek massacre was disassociated from an increasingly glorified Civil War. Eventually, late-twentieth-century whites decided Sand Creek should be excluded from inclusion in Civil War memory and instead relegated to the “Indian Wars”—a viewpoint not shared by “Native people gazing east from the banks of Sand Creek,” for whom the Civil War “looked like a war of empire, a contest to control expansion into the West, rather than a war of liberation.” Kelman proposes that the correct placement for the massacre is within both the Civil War and the Indian Wars, “a bloody link between interrelated chapters of the nation’s history” (xi).
There is nothing simple about the memory of the massacre or the creation process of its national park. Kelman navigates his subject matter carefully, clearly articulating an otherwise dizzying variety of perspectives and agendas surrounding the Sand Creek memorialization project. The page-turning narrative is superbly written; Kelman moves expertly and grippingly between recent history and the more distant past as the reader wonders if the competing interests in the site—National Park Service, Native American descendants of victims, ranchers, landowners—will ever understand each other amicably or be able to agree on the park’s formation.
Kelman’s heavy reliance on in-person interviews allows him to tell much of the story in the participants’ own words. With professionalism and sensitivity, he steps back and objectively portrays the frustrations, emotions, and competing stories of the many individuals and groups involved. Occasionally, however, one [End Page 354] wishes he had registered his opinion as a historian, such as on the merits of the unscientifically gathered evidence of a competing landowner who claims part of the Sand Creek site (if Kelman did not wish to comment directly, a map of the NPS site with the competing landowner’s location roughly marked would have sufficed). Additionally, the later chapters contain repetitive portions, as Kelman cycles back to history he has already covered before adding fresh material. It struck this reviewer as regrettable that Kelman did not seek permission to access the oral histories collected by Native Americans during the site search process, as he was therefore unable to quote from them (311). A section retelling that oral history would have been a useful addition to the published eyewitness sources he used; otherwise...