Our Thanksgiving responsibility: Native Americans, honest history and the simple power of remembrance

It has taken us hundreds of years to come to terms with the damage done. True memorials liberate us from forgetting

Published November 29, 2014 11:30AM (EST)

Along the horizon-chasing highways of Wyoming stand 88 signs commemorating the routes taken by Arapaho and Cheyenne people who escaped the brutality of the Sand Creek Massacre. This brazen attack on a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho people, carried out by the Methodist minister/Col. John Chivington, took place in southern Colorado territory on Nov. 29, 1864—a date the eminent Cheyenne scholar, and survivor descendant, Henrietta Mann has described as being “seared forever in my DNA.”  Spanning well into the next day, soldiers under Chivington’s command murdered as many as 200 people, the majority consisting of women, children and elderly, on that expansive shortgrass prairie. According to the National Park Service, the massacre site encompassed an area of more than 45 square miles.

Stretching from the Colorado border to the Northern Arapaho’s Wind River Reservation, and connecting the towns of Medicine Bow, Casper, Riverton, Arapahoe to Ethete, the austere commemorative signs recall one of the most infamous chapters in 19th century American history. Authorized by the Wyoming state Senate in 2002 with the passage of the Sand Creek Massacre Trail joint resolution, the 88 sheet metal signs, including two detailed interpretive panels, were conceived to “support relations with the Arapahoe tribe, and tourism ...” Although some may consider this gesture trivial or even inconsequential, for many of the region’s Arapaho residents, particularly descendants of those who were at Sand Creek on that day such as Gail Ridgley, the signs affirm the capacity of “historical remembrance, educational awareness, and spiritual healing of the Arapaho people.” The Sand Creek Massacre Trail was dedicated on Aug. 16, 2006, which is 141 years, eight months and 19 days after the massacre occurred.

One hundred and forty-one years is certainly a long time to wait for tribal memories to achieve the status of historic fact, much less an official public apology—one that Cheyenne and Arapaho people have yet to receive. But the recognition afforded by memorials such as Wyoming’s demonstrate the power of a memory that fuels an enduring presence in the face of victimry and deracination. The memorialization of the Sand Creek Massacre Trail is an essential expression of what the White Earth Chippewa writer, Gerald Vizenor, has called Native survivance, which emerges as a product of historical agency, resistance and perseverance. Indeed, the placing of these simple markers are important gestures and the people are honored by them.

* * *

Five thousand miles away a soft-curving section of sidewalk along Freidrich-Ebert-Ring in Würzburg, Germany, bears the inscription: Wir Wollen Erinnern. Following a portion of the route that Jewish citizens of the town were forced to march on the way to the train station where they would be deported to ghettos and concentration camps between the years 1941 and 1943, these words, “we want to remember,” convey an active sense of presence that is intended to function as a resolute witness to the unimaginable.

Nearby, on the same street following along the southern edge of the verdant Ringpark—where Würzburg’s besieged residents sought refuge during the bombing of the city by the British Royal Air Force on March 16, 1945—there is a memorial sculpture depicting a scattering of shoes as if hurriedly left on a set of steps. The dates of six deportations of Jewish people from Würzburg, with their destinations, are inscribed on placards affixed to the façade: Nov. 27, 1941: Skirotawa/Riga; March 24, 1942: Trawniki/Lublin; April 25, 1942: Izbica/Lublin, Sept. 10, 1942: Theresienstadt; Sept. 23, 1943: Theresienstadt; and June 17, 1943: Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. The bombing by the British Air Force occurred one year, nine months after the last reported mass deportation of Jewish citizens from Würzburg.

* * *

In front of the north entrance to the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver rises an 8-foot bronze statue of a union soldier set atop a concrete pedestal known as the Civil War Memorial. On one of the plaques affixed to this monument, “SAND CREEK, COLO. 1864,” is included in a list under the heading: “Battles and Engagements.” This memorial, designed by Captain John D. Howland and sculpted by Jakob Otto Schwiezer, was commissioned by the Colorado Pioneers Association and unveiled on July 24, 1909, 44 years, seven months, and 26 days after the massacre occurred.  Nearby, however, after years of efforts by Arapaho and Cheyenne people to have their story told, another plaque recognizes the deeply fraught nature of such classifications and the assertion that the memorial “has become a symbol of Coloradans' struggle to understand and take responsibility for our past.”

The location of the massacre itself is managed by the National Park Service and is officially known as the Sand Creek National Historic Site. It is unique in the inventory of federal land, having the distinction as the only massacre site officially recognized as a United States National Park. It was dedicated on April 27, 2007, 142 years, four months, and 30 days after the massacre occurred.

* * *

I’d resided in the picturesque German city of Würzburg, nestled on the border of the Lower Franconian wine country, while assigned as a Fulbright lecturer at Julius-Maximilians-Universität. I’d come with much hesitation at the urging of my father, who was in the process of dying of lung cancer, for a four-month assignment to teach courses on Native American fiction and the literature of the American West. His father had told him stories about Italy and Germany from his experiences in the American 5th Army during World War II, but my father had never been to Europe. I was there for him, to “see the place and feel the ground.”  He’d given me the commemorative medal engraved with an image of Mount Vesuvius that his father had brought back from the war and that he’d worn for most of his life.

Both of my classes were enrolled beyond capacity and the students displayed much enthusiasm for the texts assigned for each course, reflecting historic European interest in such curious and exotic topics. As we delved into Native American stories and discussions of the frontier I noticed that numerous students displayed a particular interest in America’s so-called Indian Wars, and especially the seemingly ubiquitous massacres that mar this period of our collective national history.  Several asked why the world didn’t look upon the United States for its treatment of Native people in a similar way that Germany is still viewed in the aftermath of World War II? It was a shrewd question, but one spoken with zeal and emotion, while also as a repudiation of what one student referred to as Kollektivschuld. Denoting collective guilt, this term also invokes the notion of cultural “debt,” and for some Germans, this guilt and debt is of a sort that can never be absolved or recompensed. I carried this question with me for the rest of my stay in Europe and then brought it back to the United States. I have yet to reach a satisfactory answer, but the question has come to inform my thinking in the days and months since. In one of our last conversations, I told my father of a visit I’d taken to Naples, Italy, the city his father entered on Oct. 1, 1943. My father died 10 hours after I arrived at the sterile white room hospice where he passed his final days, which was 69 years, 10 months and nine days after the Allied liberation of Napoli.

* * *

Along Interstate 96 in southeastern Colorado there is a small hamlet in Kiowa County named Chivington. Founded in 1887, 23 years after the massacre occurred, this settlement lies approximately nine miles from the site where most of the killing took place. Named after the minister-officer who commanded the soldiers responsible for the massacre, Chivington enjoyed a few years of prosperity brought by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, but then fell into a slow decline after the turn of the century. It stands today as a different sort of memorial that has been given over to the shadowy tracings of intractable attitudes and profound blindness; there are no longer any services in Chivington, and only a handful of occupied homes remain among the invading tumbleweed, scrub and buffalo grass, where antelope and coyote roam. But there are no buffalo on the plains surrounding this place.

The acknowledgment of historic wrongs, especially where marginalized people are concerned, is often slow in coming in an America raised on victory culture, where war and progress have become irreproachable synonyms of a sort. It is, however, deeply traumatic events such as the Sand Creek Massacre and the ways in which we remember and memorialize them that lay bare the ironies of frontier historicism, where the gulf that lies between stagnant orthodoxies and nuanced accounts of interlinked stories and experiences can seem interminable.

* * *

For the first two weeks of my stay in Würzburg I’d failed to notice the haunting sense of presence that the modest plaques were designed to assert. A German friend and colleague had also pointed out to me several Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” which are unadorned memorials created by the Cologne artist Gunter Demnig. These memorials evolved out of an idea that was first given substance in 1992 with an engraving made into a sidewalk to commemorate the deportation of Sinti and Roma to extermination camps at the direction of Heinrich Himmler. The unveiling of this artistic gesture was done to mark the 50th anniversary of Himmler’s order. By the following year Demnig had adapted the technique, engraving the names of murdered Jewish people, as an instrument of remembrance for individual victims of the Holocaust. The brass-covered cobblestones bear witness to the vast “horror” of the crimes committed against the Jewish people of Germany, which “began in the apartments and buildings” that they considered home. Since then over 40,000 10-by-10 cm memorials have been placed in sidewalks throughout Germany, and at least nine other European nations, in front of the last known residences of the deported. An individual’s name, birth year and place of death is inscribed upon each Stolpersteine, urging remembrance through reference to the intimacy of identity rather than the abstraction of unspeakable sums.

As I became aware of the presence of these memorials on the streets of Würzburg in early May, and began to read and attempt to memorize the names inscribed there, I wondered how I could have failed to notice them from the beginning of my stay. For those first few weeks Demnig’s stark testimonials had escaped notice on my daily wanderings along the winding streets; they had not caused me to “stumble.”

* * *

As an American not accustomed to public displays of the burden of historical responsibility, perhaps I had not been prepared to see such an unequivocal approach to such trauma. I had, however, experienced an acute sense of anguish in the presence of the sculpture of a human arm formed out of the bodies of suffering prisoners that reached skyward out of a tranquil pond at the Holocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. I’d also been moved while standing before and walking among the stelae at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and yet I had failed to notice Demnig’s cobblestones. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened 60 years and nine days after the capture of the Reichstag by Russian soldiers during the Battle of Berlin.

* * *

I wondered if my inability to see what was inscribed on the very ground I’d walked upon was the natural aftereffect of an upbringing in a nation where the meaning and nature of events that occurred at Sand Creek, the Marias River, and Wounded Knee are still heavily contested, or worse yet, ignored. Where the shadow of war retains the capacity to efface the stain of injustice and to transform massacres of women, children and the infirm into commonplace frontier skirmishes in which the very meaning of progress and civilization is presented as hanging in the balance. Indeed, America is not lacking in memorials. But those grand monuments of soldiers frozen in the poses of war—mythological national heroes balanced upon charging horses, and tragic indian figures riding off into what we are taught to see as a darkening horizon—act to codify rather than question, obscure rather than evoke, and ultimately venerate rather than reconcile.

* * *

After becoming aware of Demnig’s Stolpersteine, I also began to notice that some Germans seemed to actively avoid the acknowledgment of their presence. Of course, testimonials such as these draw attention to the burdens attached to German property and the deportation of its rightful Jewish owners, proving, perhaps, too much to bear just as some Americans remain steadfast in their refusal to acknowledge what occurred at Sand Creek as a massacre, or recognize Native claims to a land that was often violently and illegally appropriated. As I began to search out the stumbling stones of the people Demnig had given a means to remember—Reinstein, Gutmann, Stahl, Hellmann, Adler, Frankenfelder, Häfner ... —and to suffer the sense of profound absence evoked by those names—the anxiety created by my own recognition of these memorials in the midst of my German neighbors was felt. In the act of observing the ways in which these memorials had become naturalized and rendered imperceptible, I wondered if Demnig’s project had failed.

* * *

The doubts I harbored led me back to the tangled matters about the responsibility of perceptions, the value of knowledge, and the collective duty we all share to the memory of the past that dwells at places like Sand Creek. What did these memorials accomplish if people could not or would not see or acknowledge them? Did such devices as small brass cobblestones or metal highway signs really amount to anything of significance; a collection of objects voided of meaning within a proliferation of images where the function of penance far outweighs the mantra of “never again” in the transfiguration of monuments into cynical sites of historical flagellation? This must not be; thoughtful and caring people cannot bear to allow it. The names engraved on the Stolpersteine, like the 88 signs that follow the highways of Wyoming, testify to different times and histories that linger as horrific specters that plague the psyches of Europeans and Americans alike, where the physical anchors of memory call out from the darkness and demand to be known. And they must be. Not simply or even primarily to condemn historical violence, but to overcome the tyranny of silence and forgetfulness that conspires to forestall healing and inhibit the sense of empathy that is essential to a shared understanding of the past.

* * *

The monument dedicated to the Sand Creek Massacre sits low to the ground, like a tombstone on the bluff above the place where Black Kettle’s band was camped. Engraved with a Native figure—a caricature really, adorned in a feathered headdress—we are now beyond a time when the words, “SAND CREEK BATTLE GROUND” can be read without irony. The binding of these images and words are disorienting in a way that contrasts with a large metal sign I was met with outside the Wittenbergplatz Untergrundbahn station in Berlin listing 12 concentration camps in Europe as “Orte des Schreckens, die wir niemals vergessen dürfen,” or Sites of Horror, we must never forget.” In the former case, the configuration that renders massacres as battles, battles as wars, and wars as just, conveys just such a kind of historical lie that Americans would also do well not to forget. For in all such acts of forgetting is instigated an even more subtle but violent act of erasure. The granite monument to Sand Creek was placed by local citizens on Aug. 6, 1950, 85 years, eight months and nine days after the massacre occurred. The site was part of a private ranch at the time.

The reason I minded my dad’s request and left him in that hospital room thinner than I’d ever seen him, was to provide a means through which his stories and his father’s stories could unite upon the land where a part of himself had been lost in the fear and horror of war. I would like to think that through my travels from Sand Creek to Würzburg and back again, I not only came to understand why my father thought it so important for me to feel that ground, but by that experience I have also gained a deeper understanding of the history of the place where I now live and work. For we are all similarly lost when we assent to a narrative that is designed to eradicate the memories and experiences of others, and in such acts the long and arduous process of healing is obstructed. As both Native American and Jewish people know, true healing can only be achieved through the honest engagement with the past; and it is through such memorials that we can begin to be liberated from the tyranny of silence, forgetting and absence.

By Billy J. Stratton

Dr. Billy J. Stratton is an associate professor of English at the University of Denver where he teaches American/Native American literature, film, and culture. He has written books on Indian captivity narratives and Stephen Graham Jones, with articles in a variety of venues including TimeThe HillLos Angeles Review of BooksThe IndependentArizona Quarterly, Wíčazo Ša Review, Transmotion, and here at Salon, among many others. He also writes fiction. Follow him @BillyJStratton

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American History Holocaust Native Americans Sand Creek Massacre Thanksgiving