Historian Ari Kelman was watching Iron Man 3 this past weekend with his son when he was startled by a familiar reference, one that seemed very out of context in a Hollywood blockbuster. Mandarin, the apparent arch-villain played by Ben Kingsley, was comparing his own act of terrorism in attacking a church filled with the families of American military personnel to the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. That sad chapter of Colorado history isn't well-known outside of this state, certainly not as well-known as it should be. But all that could change next year.
Why? The year 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the tragedy, when Kelman hopes the country will finally come to grips with the legacy of the Sand Creek Massacre. In his opinion, Iron Man 3 is just the start.
The author of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, Kelman knows how Americans have struggled to understand the massacre and its meaning; he's devoted an entire book to the very long process that led to the opening of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in 2007.
"For almost a century and a half, different groups of people have used memories of Sand Creek to advance their political agendas," he notes. "The makers of Iron Man 3 tapped into this rich historical vein, repurposing the massacre yet again, this time as an emblem of the hazards of American imperialism. A terrorist in the film seizes on the slaughter at Sand Creek as justification for his crimes, which he views as fair recompense for the murder of more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho people on November 29, 1864. It's a chilling scene and a grim reminder that the struggle over the meaning of the Sand Creek Massacre still haunts this nation."
Kelman, today an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis, became very familiar with the Sand Creek Massacre while he was at the University of Denver. And today the University of Denver, too, is still grappling with the legacy of Sand Creek: The school was founded in 1864 by territorial governor John Evans and Major John Chivington, a Methodist minister who was appointed by the federal government to command the troops that he led on the raid at Sand Creek -- a raid that the federal government investigated, then labeled a massacre in 1865, shortly before Evans was asked to resign from his post as territorial governor. DU has now established a commission to investigate Evans's role in connection with Sand Creek.
And that's not the only reconsideration of Sand Creek now under way. When the History Colorado Center opened a year ago, its core exhibits included Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre 1860s-Today -- an exhibit that the Northern Cheyenne and other descendants of those killed at Sand Creek had asked History Colorado not to open until major changes were made, and then, when the exhibit opened anyway, asked History Colorado to close.
Finally, on April 10, almost a year after the History Colorado Center was dedicated, History Colorado CEO Ed Nichols sent a letter to the Northern Cheyenne, inviting them to consult with History Colorado staff and advisers on the exhibit; "to underscore our sincerity in wishing to engage in meaningful consultation," he added, "History Colorado will close the exhibit to the public during consultation and while any agreed-upon changes resulting from the consultation are made to the exhibit."
While he awaited the tribe's response, Nichols sent a note to History Colorado employees and volunteers, acknowledging that "members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe have voiced continued concerns regarding the process we took and some of the content that appears in the exhibit.... We are optimistic about the outcome of consultation with the tribes and looking forward to working with them on this process so that this important story in Colorado history continues to be shared with our visitors. We will keep you apprised."
But there have been no updates since that internal message was sent two weeks ago. The Northern Cheyenne finally met last week and composed a response to History Colorado, reportedly agreeing to participate in such a consultation provided that the exhibit is closed in the interim and the consultation is indeed "meaningful." That letter is in the mail --but has yet to arrive at History Colorado or the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, which will work with History Colorado and the Descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre.
But then, technology is spotty on the reservation in Montana where the Northern Cheyenne now live, after being exiled from Colorado -- and they want to be sure there is no confusion over their position, that the state gets the message loud and clear, and that their wishes are at last acted upon.
After 150 years, it's not easy -- or quick -- to right such a grievous wrong. But it shouldn't take an Iron Man, either.
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