- Not Over:The Nineteenth-Century Indian Wars
In A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek (2013), Ari Kelman recounted the details of a remarkable 2003 encounter between officers of the Colorado National Guard and descendants of the Cheyenne and Arapaho survivors of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. The guardsmen were visiting Sand Creek in the course of a “Staff Ride,” a study of a historical episode that could inform their work as military leaders. Dressed in uniform, the Colorado officers were, in a sense, contemporary representatives of the Colorado militia who had killed more than 150 Cheyennes and Arapahos there who believed that they were under the protection of a nearby federal fort. As described by Kelman, it was a day for both commemoration and difficult truths. Chief Laird Comestvah of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes staked out his position plainly. “The Cheyennes will not accept an apology for what happened at Sand Creek,” he told the Colorado guardsmen, “for the simple reason that Sand Creek is not over.”1
Kelman’s book told the story of the long and winding path that led to the opening of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site in 2007, and it explored in great detail the challenge of remembering a historical event that, for many, raises unresolved questions. As he continued speaking, Comestvah referenced reparations that were promised—but never paid—to the survivors of Sand Creek in the 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas. Moreover, we should [End Page 277] hear something even more challenging in Comestvah’s claim that “Sand Creek is not over”; the statement makes an implicit claim that the violence that transpired in the second half of the nineteenth century transformed the tribal communities living in the Western United States so radically that its full effects are nearly impossible to compass. This violence, to be sure, took many forms—legal, economic, cultural—but it was enforced and made most visible through military action that could turn indigenous homelands into theaters of war. Kelman’s book is so significant because it connected the military actions of Plains warfare to a broader campaign of anti-indigenous dispossession, revealing how this history reverberates through contemporary struggles over commemorative practices.
I was thinking of Kelman’s Misplaced Massacre as I read Jerome A. Greene’s American Carnage: Wounded Knee, 1890. Greene is one of the preeminent historians of the Plains Indian Wars, and his knowledge of both the military and tribal leaders during this period is prodigious. As in his earlier books on U.S. campaigns against the Southern Cheyennes and the Nez Perce (or Nimiipuu), he has left no archive unsearched in his quest to unravel one of the most shocking scenes of bloodshed in American history. Most readers will already know the outlines of the story of Wounded Knee: In 1890, a growing number of Lakotas began to practice the Ghost Dance, which they believed would purify the dancers and lead to the restoration of the world. Civilian authorities on the Lakota reservations feared that this dancing was the prelude to a violent insurgency; they outlawed the Ghost Dance and sought military aid. In late December, the Army accepted the surrender of a group of Ghost Dance adherents under the leadership of a Miniconjou Lakota named Big Foot. The soldiers surrounded a camp near Wounded Knee Creek, and began to disarm the Lakotas as a step toward bringing them to the Pine Ridge Agency. During this process, close-range shooting broke out—its origins still unclear—between a small number of Indians and soldiers. Then the violence devolved into wholesale slaughter. Even Greene suggests...