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  • Contested Events and Conflicting MeaningsMari Sandoz and the Sappa Creek Cheyenne Massacre of 1875
  • Kurt E. Kinbacher (bio)
Key Words

Cheyenne Indians, genocide, literature, military history

On April 23, 1875, a party of weakened and desperate Cheyenne was overtaken by parts of H Company of the Sixth Cavalry at Sappa Creek in northwestern Kansas.1 The column of about forty soldiers was commanded by twenty-eight-year old 2nd Lt. Austin Henely. He carried orders to intercept the party and return them to the Southern Cheyenne Reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) if they surrendered. If they did not, he was authorized to fight and subdue them.2 New to the region, Henely was guided by twenty-six-year old Homer Wheeler, then the post trader at Fort Wallace. The group was joined en route by a number of buffalo hunters. A fight ensued, two troopers were killed, but the army and its ancillaries gained a decisive victory in about three hours. All parties that have considered this battle agree to this much, but little else. Accounts on the number of Cheyenne dead, their ages, and their gender vary widely, as well as the ultimate purpose of the fight.

Scholars not only argue about the actual course of events at Sappa Creek, they debate the very meaning of the encounter. Mari Sandoz was among them. When she published Cheyenne Autumn in 1953 she insisted this “battle” was actually a “massacre.”3 More recently, indigenous peoples and their allies argue the event should be seen as part of a greater “genocide” of Native Americans.

Despite her best intentions, the story Sandoz told was not the final word, as her many sources never led her to the complete truth.4 However, she uncovered the spirit and the general causes and results of the Sappa Creek confrontations admirably. Although Sandoz was generally optimistic about the future of United States, she also found the Cheyenne world view to be “more humane” than prevailing American attitudes, and she became a tireless advocate for greater respect for and [End Page 309] fuller understanding of indigenous cultures.5 Consequently, Sandoz’s accounts deviated from the prevailing American notion that western settlement represented the expansion of “civilization.” Her narrative highlighted a waning Cheyenne world view based on balance. American encroachment first obliterated this balance and then nearly destroyed an entire culture. While her methodology was unorthodox—and consequently criticized—she interrogated the available materials and then made every attempt to corroborate the information by using indigenous sources. Always a person ahead of her time, shortly After the publication of Cheyenne Autumn she came to the conclusion that the American treatment of Indians was comparable to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.6

More recently, policies that spurred several centuries of Indian wars have been labeled genocide—still a new concept when Sandoz was writing. The United Nations insists that although genocide as a word was coined in 1944, it was not just a mid-twentieth-century activity. The organization recognizes “that at all periods of history genocide had inflicted great losses on humanity.”7 Social psychologist James Waller argues that “collective violence becomes genocide when a specific group is systematically and intentionally targeted for destruction.”8 Native peoples almost universally consider American military and educational policies prior to the 1960s as genocidal.9

World view, however, makes this realization especially problematic. James V. Fenelon (Lakota-Dakota) suggests that “Euro-Americans do not want to be seen, or to see themselves, as inheritors of a history that accommodates genocide.”10 Indeed, the United States has long thought of itself as the global protector of civil society and the enlightened rule of law. Consequently, confronting genocidal policy creates internal conflict; Raphael Lemkin—the jurist who is credited with introducing the word genocide—argued such killings amounted to the “overthrow of civilization.”11 The difference between a massacre and a battle is largely a matter of perspective.12 Historically, when Indians won, “the result is always a ‘massacre’; when whites similarly wipe out a group of Indians, it is a battle and a victory.”13 Admitting genocide in this world view is virtually out of the question.

Historian Ari Kelman argues...


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pp. 309-326
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