Commemorating a Massacre: Queries for Political Scientists

by Nancy D. Wadsworth

As we approach another Thanksgiving, people interested in politics and history in the American West may be thinking about November 29th, a date that lives in infamy in the annals of U.S. governance, military history, and the long struggle of Native people in the face of an expansionist settler state. On that cold day 150 years ago, federalized regiments led by Colonel John Chivington slaughtered more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, in an event that came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

This massacre and the understudied role of a political official named Dr. John Evans in the events preceding it have been the subjects of recent reports by Northwestern University and the University of Denver (DU). (Evans founded both institutions.) I chaired the interdisciplinary committee that produced DU’s report and a set of recommendations based on it. As a result of that eighteen-month crash-course in settler-colonial and Native American history, in which we worked with both descendants and historians of the massacre, I have been contemplating why this and related subjects are so understudied in my home discipline of political science.

In more fully describing the massacre, I’ll offer some queries to contemplate.

In late-September 1864, the most prominent peace chiefs in the eastern plains region of Colorado had come to Camp Weld in Denver to council with John Evans, the territorial governor and ex officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs. The chiefs were responding to Evans’s call for “peaceful Indians”—those not fighting the waves of settlers increasingly trespassing Native people’s legal land rights in the rush for gold—to report to territorial authorities and surrender resistance. In an August proclamation Evans had endorsed all citizens to kill and effectively pillage from “hostile Indians,” though he gave no criteria for distinguishing “hostiles” from “friendlies.” But at the Camp Weld council, Evans told the peace chiefs he could not negotiate, as the territory’s affairs were now in the hands of the military. (This was a curious claim, given Evans’s mandate as superintendent to negotiate peace treaties with precisely these tribes, and the fact that Evans himself had sought the imposition of martial law.) He directed the Indians report to Ft. Lyon, a military outpost in southeastern Colorado, suggesting their people would be safe there until military officials could broker a treaty. About 750 individuals eventually reported to the fort and were sent to camp at a bend in Sand Creek about 30 miles away, where they could hunt for provisions to sustain them.

Query #1: How do political scientists understand the ménage a trois of U.S. political, military, and legal power as it was imposed on the vast milieu of Native societies the United States confronted in the nineteenth century period of expansionist institution-building? Why do we have strong studies in American Political Development about institution building and the Civil War, but so little on the “Indian Wars” and other removal strategies upon which the federal government depended for its expansionist mission? Kevin Bruyneel and Paul Frymer have done excellent work on aspects of this; where are the rest?

Two months after the September meeting, the government that had offered the tribes protection mowed them down without mercy. Most of the murdered were women, children, and the elderly, but also at least seventeen prominent peace chiefs. (Query #2: Why has political science not seen fit to study the political organization, strategies, and leadership of Indian nations in the post-revolutionary period—or at all? Is there a reason we leave these studies to historians, anthropologists, or comparativists working in non-U.S. contexts?) The first of the chiefs shot down was the seventy-five-year-old White Antelope, a respected leader who had received a peace medal in a visit to Washington D.C. in 1851. Soldiers immediately set upon him in death, stripping him and cutting off parts of his body, which would be later paraded around Denver in frenzied celebrations. Countless others, including pregnant women, toddlers, and babies, underwent similar unspeakable atrocities.

Governor Evans was in the East Coast by the time it happened, but he had single-handedly lobbied for the 3rd Regiment of federalized, 100-day volunteers that Chivington used to attack the encampment, and which committed the vast majority of the atrocities. Evans had raised the unit explicitly to “kill Indians,” and he had made a series of decisions in late-1863 and 1864, which both university committees find escalated the prospects for war and left Cheyennes and Arapahos in an impossible situation, caught between an 1861 treaty that did not protect them and a settler society ready to kill them off if necessary.

Brutal and illegal massacres of Native people were not uncommon in the history of U.S. settler colonialism, but the Sand Creek Massacre was the Abu Ghraib scandal of its time. It was distinctive in several respects. Two military commanders, who had ordered their companies to stand down when they understood the situation, wrote their commanding officer, describing the massacre in excruciating detail. Two congressional committees and a military commission conducted investigations, each declaring the attack a massacre and condemning the decisions and actions of officials involved with it. Although no individual was ever criminally prosecuted (Chivington was protected by virtue of his military commission having expired), Evans was forced to resign as a result of recommendations from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War. Two years later, in The Treaty of Little Arkansas, the U.S. government repudiated the massacre and promised land and monetary reparations to survivors and descendants for the damage done. Consistent with the United States’ record on Indian treaties, those debts were never paid. Finally, this is the sole attack against Native people in our boundaries that the U.S. government recognizes as a massacre.

Queries 3-5: How did lax or non-existent systems of accountability enable a democratic state to execute genocidal policies in full view of the public? What can the nineteenth century teach us about the twenty-first in this respect? How do settler societies like ours cope with—or suppress—collective memory when it comes to Native people?

It’s worth remembering that political science as a codified discipline rose with the rest of the nineteenth century empiricist missions; our very epistemologies are tethered to a worldview that sees, counts, and values fairly narrowly defined concepts of “the political.” Part of the social science enterprise, early political science pursued agendas largely blind to or devaluing of human communities figured as outside the modern state. Even the older field of political theory has long depended on heuristic devices such as the “state of nature” that ignore the actual social structures and political arrangements of indigenous societies. Critiques of such practices by Will Kymlicka and others are fairly recent. It would seem that the politics of modern foundings, and the legal, institutional, and cultural power tools settler societies in particular have wielded in their service, should be major field areas in political science. So, final query: Why are these subjects so sparsely studied?

In their reports, both university committees agree that Evans abrogated his duties as Superintendent of Indian Affairs and made dangerous leadership decisions as governor that put the tribes in harm’s way. These report are not trials of individuals conducted in absentia. They are records of institutions trying to comprehend the role of their forefathers in the founding violence—and amnesia—that were standard tools in the arsenal of American progress. As the 150th anniversary draws year and the Arapaho and Cheyenne prepare for their annual Healing Run in remembrance, these studies should give political scientists much to ponder.

Nancy D. Wadsworth is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver. She is the author of Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing, and co-editor, with Robin Dale Jacobson of Faith and Race in American Political Life. She recently wrote about teaching about settler colonialism and indigenous politics in political science in PS: Political Science & Politics.

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