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Weekly Alibi Historical Amnesia

Simon J. Ortiz's 'From Sand Creek'

By Steven Robert Allen

MARCH 28, 2000: 

From Sand Creek by Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona), paper, $10.95

This America
has been a burden
of steel and mad
but, look now,
there are flowers
and new grass
and a spring wind
rising from Sand Creek.
-- Simon J. Ortiz

In 1863, Black Kettle, one of the principal chiefs of the Cheyenne, traveled from his home in the Colorado Territory to Washington, D.C. There, he met with President Lincoln and expressed his loyalty to the U.S. government. As a token of that loyalty, the chief received a U.S. flag from Lincoln and was told that this flag would serve as protection for his people.

The following year, Black Kettle traveled to Denver to speak with Governor John Evans and Colonel John W. Chivington, head of the Colorado Volunteers. "I want you to give all these chiefs of the soldiers here to understand that we are for peace," Black Kettle said, "and that we have made peace, that we may not be mistaken for enemies."

Black Kettle believed his actions would protect his people, but his efforts were in vain. Two months later, while the chief's warriors were out on a hunt, Chivington and his Volunteers marched on a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped at a bend of Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. Black Kettle raised his flag, the symbol of his friendship with the United States, and then watched in horror as 105 of his women and children and 28 of his old men were brutally cut down beneath that flag and slaughtered.

Children learning history in the American educational system are rarely taught the grisly details of Manifest Destiny, the relentless sweep of the United States west toward California. Though the Massacre at Sand Creek may be one of the most heinous examples of the U.S. betrayal of Indians, in no way was it an isolated event.

Simon J. Ortiz is one of New Mexico's most distinguished poets. A native of Acoma Pueblo, his books include, Men on the Moon, Woven Stone, After and Before the Lightning, and Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. Over the course of his career, he has told the story of his people, his land and his culture at different times, in different ways. It is a story that often gets buried beneath the trash heap of mainstream American culture.

From Sand Creek is Ortiz's personal attempt to come to terms with the forgotten crimes committed against Indian people. In the 1970s, newly discharged from the army, Ortiz found himself in a VA hospital located close to Sand Creek. While recuperating, he reflected on the place of Indians in American history and modern life. As he indicates in his preface, Indians are often made to feel as if they are just some charming ornament on the pages of American history, as if the pilgrims came to this country, ate a big meal of turkey and cranberry sauce with them, and then Indians conveniently vanished from the American landscape forever.

"At this point in history," says Ortiz, "Indians are still not accepted as full participants in and members of ... society." The poems in this reprint examine American culture from this alternate perspective. Ortiz's language is extraordinarily simple -- a bit too simple for my tastes -- yet the book manages to mix a broad cast of characters with evocative expressions of rage and sadness. Ortiz talks about everything from being accused of shoplifting in a Salvation Army store to his love of Walt Whitman to his undiminished anger at European imperialism. Much of the book is overtly political, an attempt to alert Indian readers to their own history, while at the same time cautioning White readers as to the injustices of the dominant culture in the United States.

Despite the grim tone of many of the poems, From Sand Creek expresses a genuine hopefulness regarding the future of Native Americans and this country. As Ortiz writes in one of his final poems, "I have always loved America; it is something precious in the memory in blood and cells which insists on story, poetry, song, life, life."

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