Thursday, September 25, 2014

Whitewashing History

The Sand Creek Massacre
I see that a claque of conservatives in charge of Jefferson County, Colorado's education board have decreed that learning about the complications and ugly side of American history will not be tolerated any longer:

The materials should not include selections or works that encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law. Violence, if it appears, should be treated in the context of its cause and consequence. It should not appear for reasons of unwholesome excitement or sensationalism.
(i) Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.
This is probably the kind of history they are wanting to eliminate:


The same year the Yana were exterminated [1864], settlers in Colorado, where gold had been discovered in 1858, embarked on a similar program. In this case, the tribes against whom they were arrayed, particularly the Cheyenne and Sioux, were considerably larger and more warlike than the Yana. Thus the conflicts with whites were even more inevitable, and again, the pattern repeated: depredations by whites provoked violent, often murderous retaliation from Indians, which in turn sparked wanton slaughter of any Indian in the vicinity.

The Rocky Mountain News in Denver led the campaign to wipe out local Indians, editorializing in March 1863: "They are a dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race, and ought to be wiped from the face of the earth." After a series of skirmishes and killings, the News, in August 1864 proclaimed that August 1864 settlers and troops must "go for them, their lodges, squaws and all."

Col. John Chivington
Enter John Chivington, a Methodist minister and self-proclaimed Indian hater, who helped Colorado Gov. John Evans organize a "volunteer militia" constituted once again of "concerned citizens" whose characters were formed more by saloons than by churches. As Dee Brown notes in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Chivington made a public speech in Denver while organizing this militia in which he "advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants: 'Nits make lice!' he declared."

With his volunteer army in place, Chivington set out "on the warpath," as he put it, ordering his men: "Kill all the Indians you come across." When Indians attempted to negotiate, he was implacable, saying that he was not instructed to make peace, but only war.

When Cheyenne chief Black Kettle's peaceful band (which included some Arapahoes) traveled through Colorado en route to their new reservation in Oklahoma, they reported to Army officials at Fort Lyon, intent on avoiding conflict. Encamped at a site along a stream called Sand Creek, Black Kettle himself traveled to the fort in mid-November in hopes of securing their safe passage. The fort's new commander, Major Scott J. Anthony, met with Black Kettle in what appeared to be a friendly exchange.

As Brown describes it, "Several officers who were present at the meeting between Black Kettle and Anthony testified afterward that Anthony assured the Cheyennes that if they returned to their camp at Sand Creek they would be under the protection of Fort Lyon."

Whether Anthony was aware of Chivington's intentions or not -- and the evidence suggests he was -- his assurance had the effect of making Black Kettle's band sitting ducks. So certain were they of their security that they did not even set out watchmen to guard the camp at night.

Geoffrey Ward, writing in The West, describes what happened next:
Chivington and some 700 volunteers arrived at Fort Lyon on November 26, 1864, eager for a fight before their hundred-day term of enlistment ran out. Some officers protested that to attack the peaceable encampment would betray the army's pledge of safety. "Damn any man that sympathized with Indians," Chivington said. "I have come to kill Indians and believe it right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven ..."

At dawn on November 29, 1864, Chivington and seven hundred men, many of them full of whiskey they had swallowed to keep them warm during the icy all-night ride, reached the edge of Black Kettle's sleeping camp. "Kill and scalp all," Chivington told his men, "big and little; nits make lice." His men needed little encouragement.

One of William Bent's sons, Robert, was riding with them, commandeered against his will to show the way to the Cheyenne camp. Three of Bent's other children -- Charles, Julia, and George -- were staying in it. George Bent watched the soldiers come:
From down the creek a large body of troops was advancing at a rapid trot ... more soldiers could be seen making for the Indian pony herds to the south of the camp; in the camps themselves all was confusion and noise -- men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at the sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms ... Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole, with the flag fluttering in the gray light of the winter dawn ...

All the time Black Kettle kept calling out not to be frightened; that the camp was under protection and there was no danger.

Robert Bent was watching it too:
I saw the American flag waving and heard Black Kettle tell the Indians to stand around the flag, and they were huddled -- men, women, and children. This was when we were within fifty yards of the Indians. I also saw a white flag raised. These flags were in so conspicuous a position that they must have been seen ... I think there were six hundred Indians in all ... [T]he rest of the men were away from camp hunting ...

The volunteers began firing into the lodges. Warriors did all they could to defend their families. "I never saw more bravery displayed by any set of people on the face of the earth than by these Indians," a regular soldier recalled. "They would charge on the whole company singly, detemined to kill someone before being killed themselves ... We, of course, took no prisoners."

"After the firing," Robert Bent remembered,
the warriors put the squaws and children together, and surrounded them to protect them. I saw five squaws under a bank for shelter. When the troops came up to them they ran out and showed their persons to let the soldiers know they were squaws and begged for mercy, but the soldiers shot them all. I saw one squaw lying on the bank whose leg had been broken by a shell; a soldier came up to her with a drawn saber; she raised her arm to protect herself, when he struck, breaking her arm; she rolled over and raised her other arm, when he struck, breaking it, and then he left her without killing her. There seemed to be indisriminate slaughter of men, women and children. There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were killed. ...

"In going over the battleground the next day," a regular army lieutenant testified later,
I did not see a body of a man, women, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner. ... I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman's private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick; I heard another say that he had cut the fingers off an Indian to get the rings on his hand; according to the best of my knowledge and belief these atrocities that were committed were with the knowledge of J.M. Chivington, and I do not know of his taking any measures to prevent them; I heard of one instance of a child a few months old being thrown in a feedbox of a wagon, and after being carried some distance left on the ground to perish; I also heard numerous instances in which white men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows and wore them over their hats while riding in ranks.

Chivington and his men returned to Denver in triumph, claiming to have killed five hundred warriors -- instead of ninety-eight women and children and a handful of mostly old men. The Rocky Mountain News pronounced it a "brilliant feat of arms." "All did nobly," Chivington said, and one evening during intermission at the Denver opera house, one hundred Cheyenne scalps were put on display while the orchestra played patriotic airs and the audience stood to applaud the men who had taken them.

As word of these atrocities got out, there was a perhaps predictable outcry from white Americans with some vestige of human decency; but their outrage, as always, had no effect. The killers were downright gleeful about their "victory." David E. Stannard, in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, notes that the Rocky Mountain News declared that "Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send east."

Still, there was an outcry in Congress, and a Senate report eventually declared Chivington's "battle" what it really was: "a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty." As Stannard notes [p. 134]:
One of them, a senator who visited the site of the massacre and "picked up the skulls of infants whose milk-teeth had not yet been shed," later reported that the concerned men of Congress had decided to confront Colorado's governor and Colonel Chivington openly on the matter, and so assembled their committee and the invited general public in the Denver Opera House. During the course of discussion and debate, someone raised a question: Would it be best, henceforward, to try to "civilize" the Indians or simply to exterminate them? Whereupon, the senator wrote in a letter to a friend, "there suddenly arose such a shout as is never heard unless upon some battlefield -- a shout almost loud enough to raise the roof of the opera house -- 'EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!' "

The committee, apparently, was impressed. Nothing was ever done to Chivington, who took his fame and exploits on the road as an after-dinner speaker. After all, as President Theodore Roosevelt said later, the Sand Creek massacre was "as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier."

Trusting the word of such men was obviously a foolhardy proposition, but the Indians had little choice if they chose not to fight. As Black Kettle had found, making peace and trusting the word of white men was a mistake with broadly fatal consequences.

Incredibly, Black Kettle managed to survive the Sand Creek massacre, and his wife managed to survive nine gunshot wounds. But four years later, in 1868, they did not manage to survive their encounter with General Custer.

The only reason that conservatives want to eliminate students from learning about episodes such as this is that they make clear that the white-bread narrative of valiant white pioneers forging a greater America is a farce. Learning about Sand Creek might make young white Coloradans uncomfortable, just as learning about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II -- another subject likely to be dropped -- does.

And then these same folks turn around and complain about how education is being degraded these days.

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