Saturday, November 29, 2014

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

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.


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