Public Memory of the Sand Creek Massacre

by Lindsay Calhoun


Many historical books have been written about the Sand Creek massacre––some were sympathetic to the actions of Colonel Chivington while others acknowledged the injustice. The Sand Creek massacre is a complicated piece of Colorado history with very little consensus.

In the mid 1990s, Arapaho and Cheyenne people started visiting the location where the massacre was believed to have occurred with the permission of some local landowners. They claimed that their communities continued to suffer from the collective memories of the event, and they wanted to begin to heal through spiritual cleansing rituals.

This sparked a movement to establish a memorial at the Sand Creek location. After nearly ten years of extensive research financial negotiations and state and federal lobbying efforts, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was established as a national park by Congress. It opened to the public in April of 2007.

The Sand Creek Memorial National Historic Monument stands out because it shows the US federal government not only acknowledging wrongdoing towards American Indian people but also attempting to memorialize that wrongdoing in an official capacity. This memorial has set a unique precedent in American history. Unlike other monuments, this one begins with an acknowledgment of the injustice and tragedy that occurred at the location. For this reason, the Sand Creek Massacre National Park and Monument presents a unique opportunity to examine cultural identity, history and national identity.

While memorials that acknowledge tragedy have been examined by scholars, this is usually done after the completion of the design. The present study is therefore unique because it also examines the unfolding of the memorialization process prior to the completion of the memorial design. This unique site posed an opportunity to examine how the US dominant cultural interests would be able to manage such a tragic and unflattering narrative while maintaining a cohesive national identity in the face of such action. The site also presented an excellent opportunity to examine the collective memory and memorialization, in terms of the experience and cultural identity of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people, which is detailed in thus book. Finally, this study also analyzes and interprets how a memorial can contribute to long term peace and reconciliation interests amongst ethnic groups formerly engaged in violent and intractable conflict.

Many discussions of collective memory utilize a specific disciplinary perspective and methodology, but this unique book integrates ethnographic, critical, rhetorical, and historical methods of research. It also examines the performative and ritual aspects of collective memory and not just the physical, textual and historical artifacts of memory. As such, this study contributes to the theoretical discussion of how collective memorialization contributes to long term processes of peace and reconciliation.

This book will be a valuable resource to cultural anthropologists, rhetoric and communication studies scholars, American Indian studies scholars, peace studies and conflict resolution scholars, historians, as well as critical theory and cultural studies theorists.


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