Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interpreting and Using History

I’ll just right out with it: I loved Ari Kelman’s A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, London. 2013. Pp. xiii, 363). Somewhere in my progression through graduate study, I began to realize that history is not static, not universal, not one correct version of facts in the midst of other wrong versions. It is, rather, a set of histories, interpretations of a time or event with which we each engage through the lens of our varied experiences and viewpoints. Kelman’s profiling of Sand Creek’s journey to memorialization illustrated that in delicious detail.

As I progressed through A Misplaced Massacre, I frequently found that two works repeatedly rose to my consciousness. Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1995. Pp. x, 310) assesses the ways in which Europeans attempted to understand, mourn and come to terms with their losses in World War I. He examines a broad array of coping mechanisms, including art, architecture, film, literature, body recovery, and spiritualism; he also spent a good deal of time analyzing the meanings and politics of memorial sites. He states that, “war memorials [serve as] foci of the rituals, rhetoric, and ceremonies of bereavement. This aspect of their significance has not attracted particular attention from scholars in this field. Most have been drawn to war memorials as carriers of political ideas…or the multiple justifications of the call to arms.” Quite simply, says Winter, “War memorials were places where people grieved, both individually and collectively.” (78-79)

The opening of a memorial site at Sand Creek holds with Winter’s analysis. It was clearly a place where the Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples could (and do) bury and mourn their slain ancestors, both individually and as nations, with rituals and quiet personal moments. It was also a politically charged site from the moment Chivington’s soldiers finished firing. Not only was it the site of violence, it also held vastly different meanings for different people…

…which caused me to revisit Jerome de Groot’s Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture (sic) (Routledge: New York. 2009. Pp. xii, 292). I think historians, with their methodologies and standards and quests for unpacking what happened, can forget sometimes that people – all people, not just historians – use history in varied ways. History has meaning; “fact” and “truth” are not synonymous. De Groot opens his book with a challenging question: “Who, then, tells the public what ‘history’ is and what it means? If ‘the past’ is after all an empty signifier, just what are the semiotic processes involved in constructing, perpetuating and consuming purported meaning – what strategies are in place for pouring sense into such representational aporia?” (1) He proceeds to explore the various ways in which we “use” history, the ways in which it has (or finds) meaning to us as humans; he discusses historical films and reality shows, genealogies and, video games, historical reenactments, museums, documentaries, literature…the list goes on.

I thought about this as I read Kelman’s account of the many missteps and blunders that the National Park Service (NPS) made as it tried to work with Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and local Kiowa County residents to navigate toward opening a federal memorial site. The Indians who worked with NPS on this effort had strong “memories” of the massacre (I say “memories” because none of them were there, yet they cherish these “memories” as though they had been, much as an American of my generation might treasure “memories” of, say, a grandfather’s exploits during World War II; Alison Landsberg would call this “prosthetic memory”) that the NPS failed to understand. Not because the NPS folks were bad people or out to get the Indians, but simply because they were human and viewed the massacre through an entirely different lens, a lens which, I believe, was not less valuable or “right” than the Indians’, only different.

History is messy. As de Groot concludes in Consuming History, “The fact that history pervades contemporary culture demonstrates the keen importance for the scholar in understanding the ways that it is manifested and in which it is conceptualised (sic)…The past is fantasy, lifestyle choice, part of the cultural economy, something which confers cultural capital, something to win or desire, a means of embodying difference and a way of reflecting on contemporary life. It is engaged with on a personal, group and family level; it can be experienced in a range of ways at the same time.” (249) Kelman’s book demonstrates how challenging it can be to marry popular consumption and scholarly exactitude for today’s historian.


  1. Carol- I seem to be coming back to your blog often to comment. I have to say that you consistently provide thoughtful and well articulated analysis each week. That said, in addition to the books you mention in your blog, when contemplating the impact of loss by the Cheyenne and Arapaho I kept thinking of the book, This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. In it, Faust argues that the massive and overwhelming death toll caused by the American Civil War was the leading catalyst to the major social, cultural and political changes between the antebellum and post-bellum United States. When contemplating the even greater percentage of death and devastation within the Cheyenne and Arapaho communities during this same time period, the impact on their communities and culture is unimaginable.

    1. That sounds like a book worth searching out, Dan. I'll add it to my list for holiday reading. Thank you for mentioning it, and for your very kind compliment.

  2. I also enjoyed this one a great deal. Fine storytelling and compelling subject matter. This made me think of "Here, George Washington was Born" by Seth Bruggeman--a very fine book on the struggles surrounding the presentation of George Washington's boyhood home. A local group that had safeguarded the site insisted that a particular spot was the site of Washington's boyhood home. They then built a replica home on the spot--demolishing the archaeological evidence on the site in the process. The group fought other notion tooth and nail and there was much more going on here than a cold assessment of the best evidence. "A Misplaced Massacre" tells a similar story. Clearly the Park Service needed to be sensitive to the local sensibilities but it also had a duty to the general public to pursue the truth to the best of their ability. Another foundation was discovered and the best evidence suggested it was Washington's home. It was also much more modest than the "replica" house that was not really moored in any sort of evidence. The house has evolved and become part of the story of how we represent history over time--a very sensible approach. I look forward to Monday's class and seeing if anyone has dug up how the story ends and Campbell's notion of how the site changed was correct. It seemed a happy ending loomed but I remain skeptical. I still would place the most faith in the archaeological evidence, which seemed very strong to at least point to the site of the encampment.


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