This is an extremely well produced and detailed work on the Sand Creek Massacre and the process of the National Historic site that opened on April 28, 2007. I have to start out by saying Ari Kelman did a fantastic job in constructing this work. Not only are Kelman’s methods of research well rounded and respectable; his structure, tone and assembly of this book does something most historical works do not. He makes a detailed history, memory and historical site preservation story understandable. Not just enjoyable for scholars with a historical background but just as accessible for anyone interested.
The Sand Creek Massacre took place in the southeastern plains of Colorado in 1864. From the date of the event onward it was riddled with conflicting facts, points of view and figures. Kelman describes these points of view equally and in great detail, beginning with three people directly involved in the event, John Chivington, George Bent, and Silas Soule. Each recorded his own interpretation of the events leading up to and including the massacre, and these competing versions have been partially responsible for creating longstanding disagreement about what happened how it should be remembered. At the heart of the disagreement are arguments about terminology and context: was this a massacre or a battle? Was it part of the larger Civil War or the Indian Wars? These and other questions have plagued the memory of Sand Creek with endless controversy. Conflicting collective and individual beliefs made the process of studying, finding, interpreting and opening a National Park site there extremely difficult. The conflict between history and memory made the process both practical and emotional for all involved.
As a class, we are mainly concerned with understanding the roles public historians served during the process the Sand Creek Site interpretation and preservation. The National Park Service undertook a multidisciplinary method of conducting research. The whole project needed political and tribal support. When people like Senator Ben Campbell showed interest, the project took off. Having a tie to the native community, local Colorado communities, as well as political power to get legislation involved, was essential. Campbell and others in the book serve as all examples of how the people involved in this project needed to include the Tribes in the process. Because they had long protected the memory of the massacre as part of tribal and genealogical research, they were reluctant to simply give up control of the story to others who have a different calculation of legitimacy or authority.
The first task was to locate the site of the massacre, and the National Park Service assembled a team to do that. The historians involved looked at very specific questions: What historical evidence was there about the location and shape of Sand Creek at the time of the massacre? What period maps could give information of that location? What is the proximity and path Chivington’s troops took to get to the tribes? Where did the troops camp after the event? Essentially they wanted to know “where, exactly, the violence had unfolded” Of course their process meant that they assumed formal written documents were more valuable and accurate than oral history or other forms of evidence. One historian on the project had prior experiences which made him accepting of “participant testimony” as a way to reconcile conflicts in the sources. National Park Service staff were held to the highest standards of academic research procedure. Having a staff of historians, aerial photographers, battlefield archeologist, anthropologists and geo-morphologists working at the highest scholarly level and working together is important. I would say throughout this book a success would be the team working together. Having a diverse staff all working towards a common goal such was the case here made the results more reputable and richer.
The two primary public historians that were mentioned were Wegmans-French and Whitacre. Both are experienced in the field. They were given the task of examining the connection between history and place. Also they had to consider what historic preservation would do to the community and landscape. This was a pretty massive task especially when dealing with such a strongly debated place. When Kelman introduced both he spoke of them and their work with passion and pride. Labeling just those two as public historians I do not think is accurate. Many other historians and NPS employees were doing things that can be considered public history work as well. For example, Alexa Roberts and Barbara Sutter were in charge of working along side the descendants. Alexa Roberts has her PhD in Anthropology but throughout this project she was in charge of oral histories. In doing so she was navigating the issues with trust and the sacred memories of the tribal people. Having to get people who were historically misused and abused by the Federal Government to let you into their sacred memories is something public historians deal with. David Halaas was also involved by conducting public history work. Halaas’ involvement with an earlier Sand Creek study became familiar with the tribes and very connected to the massacre. He, throughout the process, would be called upon as a historical voice of authority and trusted intermediary with construction of the site.
Navigating conflicting ideas, emotional and sacred spaces, and making community members happy in this process was something no one could do perfectly. Whether the massacre is told “correctly” or not is not answerable from the book. If anything it just shows how diverse the ways this can or should be seen. I think not taking the word of just the power hungry General Chivington and the account of his men as truth, but digging deeper was NPS biggest success. Using the victims and their descendant’s stories shows just how much parks and historical services have grown. Overall, one quote I think sums up the Sand Creek Massacre NPS site and its formation. “Memorializing the massacre never meant for NPS what it did for the descendants. Again, this was not because the NPS personnel did not act in good faith; they almost always did. Rather, the politics of memory separated them from the tribal respective.” Could public historians have done any more than they did? Did the NPS make the story too much of an American narrative instead of primarily an Indian one? Very informative book that not only answers questions, but also makes the reader wonder if there is anything more or better to be done with such a contested landscape.
Kelman, Ari. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. N.p.: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print.
 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. N.p.: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print, 88.
 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. N.p.: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print, 72.
 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. N.p.: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print, 84.
 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. N.p.: Harvard University Press, 2013. Print, 85.
Edited from Source: The Misplaced Massacre by Jordan Ritchie