My Sand Creek Moment

Sand Creek Experience #1: on a trip out west shortly after graduating from college, I happened into a museum in Denver, where I came across an exhibition on the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. As I wandered through the display, confused and horrified by what I was seeing and reading, the question came to me again and again: in all my years of schooling, why was I never taught about this? If the Boston “Massacre”, which killed a grand total of five, was plastered all over our textbooks, how could the slaughter of a hundred and fifty have been omitted?

Sand Creek Experience #2: several years later, then living in Italy, I discovered the music of Italy’s most celebrated singer-songwriter, Fabrizio de André. To my surprise, three songs into an untitled album with the illustration of an American Indian on the cover was one entitled Fiume Sand Creek (Sand Creek River), which began, in translation, like this: From underneath a dark curtain they have taken our souls/ We used to sleep without fear under a small dead moon/ He was a twenty-year-old general/ blue eyes in a blue coat/  He was a twenty-year-old general/ Son of a thunderstorm… Now the children sleep on the bottom of Sand Creek. And the question arose: why did it take someone from a different country, a singer from Italy, to write a song about such a seminal event in American history?

For those of you who don’t know – and if you were subject to American schooling, odds are you haven’t – the Sand Creek Massacre was perpetrated by the United States Cavalry against a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians encamped in a remote area 170 miles southeast of Denver. The contingent was led by a young colonel named John Chivington, the “general” of the De André song. As was already part of the playbook in such cases, Chivington spun it as a well-matched battle against well-armed foes, a great and glorious victory, boasting of “almost an annhilation of the entire tribe”. This storyline was later belied by a Captain Silas Soule, who refused to send his troops into the “battle.” In Soule’s account, “Hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy,” only to be shot and “have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.” Tribespeople were mowed down as they fled, desperately attempting to dig into the sand bank of the creek or taking to their heels across the open plain. Two thirds of the dead were women and children. The victims’ scalps were brought in triumph to Denver and even used as props in plays. Despite the ensuing scandal, Chivington was never punished for his actions.

A subsequent Sand Creek moment hit much closer to home – literally – when I read about the 1637 Mystic Massacre in southeastern Connecticut during what is known by history as the Pequot “War”. Here, a British force led by a Captain John Mason surrounded a fortified Pequot village inhabited mostly by women and children and set it ablaze. “The surviving Pequots were hunted but could make little haste because of their children,” Mason wrote. “They were literally-run to ground…tramped into the mud and buried in the swamp.” In the words of William Bradford, “Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.” The handful of lucky survivors were shipped off to the West Indies as slaves. And no, despite the geographical proximity of these events to the town where I grew up, we were not taught about this at school.

Truth be told, we were not taught much of anything in the way of American history at school: a smattering in fifth grade, a dab more in eighth grade, and then a year in eleventh. In point of fact, history as a subject didn’t even exist: at least in elementary and middle school, these feeble, once-every-three-year forays into our past were given the amorphously generic name “Social Studies” (no better example exists of the contempt with which history was held by our educators than this euphimistic attempt to avoid the word altogether). And what we were taught was rife with so many omissions as to create an overall narrative that was patently false. In a previous post, I lamented how little learning I received in exchange for giving up some 14,500 hours of my youth. In the case of our history, the situation is one step worse: in exchange for all those hours, I was taught a version of something that was patently wrong, or in the most charitable sense, woefully incomplete. The disconnect between this whitewashed version and a more honest attempt to come to grips with the complex beast that is history was to distort my vision of my country and its place in the world for years to come, requiring many more hours to supplement and, in certain clear and paradigmatic instances, to unlearn.

My case was hardly unique. In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen surveyed twelve common American history textbooks. What he discovered “was an embarrassing amalgam of bland optimism, blind patriotism, and misinformation pure and simple.” A more accurate description of the American zeitgeist would be hard to find. Of course I know that Americans are hardly exceptional in teaching misleading history; far from it. But considering it spends more on the military than the next ten countries combined, those lies are much more dangerous with a bomb attached to their underbelly. As opposed to the cruder methods of book-burning or open censorship, America tends to hide things in plain sight. No one will stop you from learning about Sand Creek; it just won’t be covered in school. No one will stop you from buying a book by Noam Chomsky; you just won’t read his articles in The New York Times even though they are distributed, with delicious perversity, by The New York Times Syndicate.

Over the years, one Sand Creek moment after another has accumulated in depressingly regular succession. General Jacob Smith’s order to turn the Samar Province into a “howling wilderness” during the American invasion of the Phillipines. The “indiscriminate killing of the natives” in Haiti. The rape, torture and destruction of My Lai. None of these events, of course, made it anywhere near our textbooks. In this light, the recently released CIA torture report, with its forced rectal feedings, ice water “baths” and death by hypothermia, is just another in our long procession of colorful, worldwide depravity.

There is a pedagogical point to be made here as well, and that is to question education-by-textbook in all of its incarnations. What do we gain by packaging knowledge into these big, boring bricks that freeze their would-be readers out of the learning process and which are, far too often, the only cover for teachers thrown to the wolves to teach subjects they do not master? What are the interests behind the companies that produce said textbooks? It is instructive that Waldorf schools, for example, eschew the use of textbooks almost entirely, facilitating a more active engagement on the part of their students, who create artistic lesson books of their own over the course of each academic year.

Incidentally, the debate surrounding Sand Creek is far from over. In 2013, the Colorado State History Museum was obliged to close its exhibit on the massacre. In surveying the exhibition, tribal historians found inacurrate dates, excerpts from letters which left out key details, and an attempt to explain American Indian-white settler conflicts as a ‘collision of cultures.’ “This wasn’t a clash of cultures,” said Dale Hamilton, a descendant of survivor Chief Sand Hill. “This was a straight-up massacre.”

A security guard passes as a woman views the darkened, closed-off Sand Creek Massacre exhibit.