On the Plain of Sand Creek, in the Valley of Washita
Robert L. Spude, May 2008
Editor's Note: The following essay is part of a series that is aimed at describing and discussing interpretive programs in the National Park Service. The series was conceived and coordinated by Art Gomez, historian in the NPS and a former member of the AHA's Council.
In the windswept plains of eastern Colorado and in the red dirt rolling country of western Oklahoma are two sites closely connected by tragedies of the 1860s. On November 29, 1864, the Third Colorado Volunteers under Colonel John Chivington attacked the peaceful village of Black Kettle, White Antelope, Left Hand, and other leaders along Sand Creek, killing over 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho, mostly women and children. On November 27, 1868, nearly four years later, along the banks of the Washita River, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a dawn surprise attack of Peace Chief Black Kettle's village, killing an undetermined number of Cheyenne, including Black Kettle. The massacre of native peoples at Sand Creek and at Washita has been a controversial topic for over a century and a half.
Today both sites are units of the National Park Service (NPS). On April 20, 2007, the Washita Heritage Center opened, which was followed in April 28, 2007, by the dedication of Sand Creek by NPS Director Mary Bomar. Both Washita and Sand Creek symbolize a major shift in the sites interpreted to the public about the West and its peoples. Both tell not only of the tragedies of the 1860s Indian Wars, but also of the continuation of the Plains Indian culture. Both were designated as serious, reverential places, where major calamities occurred with the Plains tribes. But they also have become springboards for discussion of endurance and continuance. Outdoor areas in both sites will provide space for Native American traditional activities to be shared.
Washita Battlefield National Historic Site has been the focus of a number of traditional cultural resource management studies before it was authorized in 1996. These included archaeological surveys, historic resource study, ethnographic overview, and cultural landscape inventory. The studies helped superintendents, first Sarah Craighead, now Wendy Lauritzen, in the development of trails, wayside exhibits, and visitor facilities on site. The location of Black Kettle's village, the movement of soldiers under Lt. Colonel Custer, and the significant places related to that tragic day, for the most part, have been identified and interpreted. A hiking trail takes visitors through the landscape.
The new visitor center at Washita is situated east of the battle site overlooking the Washita River. Its interior will have exhibits about Plains Indians life, the military, and the events of 1868. The visitor center also includes an entrance gallery that will be used for changing exhibits and displays about the continuance of culture, art, and heritage, broadly interpreted. During the past five years, the park's staff met with various interest groups, especially the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, to develop the themes to be interpreted and the placement of exhibits and objects. The tribal input helped to ensure the respectful display of items that came from the riverside site, either found archaeologically or passed down through hands and presented for display. For example, White Antelope's robe will be displayed in a reverential location, not visible from the entrance, and with state-of-the-art conservation. It pulls the viewer into the power of the moment in 1868—a place to touch the past, reflect, and then move on.
The new visitor center will help the park expand upon the interpretation of the stories related to the Washita. During the dedication, Peace Chief Lawrence Hart spoke of the value of the new center to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, lessons that can be learned, and the cultural values that can be shared here. He and other members presented to the park the "Cheyenne Peace Chief Statue," the first item to go on display in the new gallery. The entry gallery will provide a space to exhibit more contemporary artistic and cultural items on a rotating basis.
The visitor center will provide permanent exhibit space to display artifacts and cultural items which will describe and interpret the rich history of the Plains Indians. The exhibits are scheduled to be installed by spring 2008, 140 years after the attack.
Washita's new visitor center will emphasize learning from the past but will look to the future. The center will, for example, provide room for distance learning in a high-tech multimedia environment that can connect with Oklahoma's schools, 90 percent of which are wired for distant learning. As part of that effort, children participated in the dedication ceremony. Students from the regional History Day contest displayed their exhibits, introduced and showed their documentary films, and presented a play, all related to the theme of "Tragedy and Triumph." They all won at the state level, and moved on to national competition in June.
Like its sister park, the recently dedicated Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Washita is moving from what at one time was a too simplistic tale of military actions and Indian Wars tragedies, to a broader and deeper understanding of the Plains Indians, their changing traditional life ways, as well as the endurance of their artistic and cultural strengths.
The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, though authorized in 2000, was not officially designated until April 28, 2007. The site sits in a massive expanse of former range lands in eastern Colorado. Despite the isolated location of the site, the formal designation ceremony attracted more than 2,000 people. At the event Director Bomar said, "As I looked out at Sand Creek and across its valley onto the surrounding plains and bluffs, I reflected on how necessary this dedication was …. The history of this great nation is not complete without an understanding and respect for the tragedies that affect our national consciousness. We hope that when people visit this important national park site, they will learn about and remember the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho victims of Sand Creek."1
Off a dirt road 10 miles from the paved state highway 96, the park is not easy to reach. Former superintendent Alexa Roberts and new superintendent Alden Miller have provided access to minimal facilities at the end of the road. Visiting the park is a solemn experience, with the landscape dominating the visit. There will be minimal development on the site.
Sand Creek and Washita exemplify a major shift in the way the preservation community has viewed the importance of sites. In an early study of potential National Historic Sites and landmarks, published in 1971 as Soldier and Brave, Sand Creek was not considered significant enough for landmark status.2 The study reflects what Ronald Foresta calls the dilemma of the park service's history program, the conflict between the patriot and the scholar. Foresta sees management practices of the 1970s and before as being reflective of an emphasis on patriotic celebrations, rather than well-thought-out scholarly debate and decision.3 This has meant that the interpretation at Indian Wars sites were distinctively one-sided, focusing on battles that led to Westward expansion, and ignoring the Native American perspective.
Of course, the 1970s were a major turning point in the respect for Native American history. The publication and impact of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; the activism of the American Indian Movement, such as their protest at the centennial event at Little Bighorn and the placement of a plaque to Native Americans on the Custer Monument; and many other such events brought starkly to the public as well as to the federal agencies protecting historic sites, the need, indeed the demand for, a reinterpretation of this aspect of the American past.
The National Park Service historic site where the shift in interpretation can be seen most clearly is the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, formerly known as Custer Battlefield National Monument. The name change of the site alone caused acrimony. The building of a memorial to the Native Americans who died at Little Bighorn has been the culmination of 30 years of Native American demands for that story to be told. The work of Edward Linenthal and Jerry Greene have detailed well the conflicts over the question, "whose story is this anyway," and how to respect both sides and the casualties, broadly interpreted, of July 25, 1876.4 Sand Creek and Washita have taken the discussion a step further to present as sacred places the sites of the worst tragedies in the history of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other Plains tribes.
But the debate on what and how to preserve sites important in Native American history continues. There is some concern about focusing too much on tragedies instead of triumphs. Recently, the National Park Service undertook a study of the Navajo Long Walk as a potential part of the National Historic Trails system. Working closely with the Navajo, the study documented stories and routes, and prepared a draft proposal. When it came time to submit to Congress, the Navajo determined that though the story of the Long Walk was significant, maybe it was better to have another site selected or another story told about the Navajo people. Discussions continue for more appropriate alternatives and can be followed a the trails office web site, http://parkplanning.nps.gov.
—Robert L. Spude is a historian in the Cultural Resources Division of the National Park Service's Intermountain Region at Santa Fe, New Mexico.
2. Robert G. Ferris, ed., Soldier and Brave, Historic Places Associated with Indian Affairs and Indian Wars in the Trans-Mississippi West (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1971), 115–116.
4. Edward Tabor Linenthal, Sacred Ground, Americans and Their Battlefields (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 127–171; Jerry Greene, "Administrative History of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument," draft manuscript, National Park Service, Denver, 2006.