Monthly Archives: May 2013

Not quite blocked.

I had that thing happen this morning where I woke up having thought of the paragraph I need to finish the essay that’s been torturing me for more than a month now. I guess this is what passes for inspiration during the longest writing rut of my so-called career. Regardless, I’ll take it!

You know what helped me during this time of trauma (for I have suffered as nobody has ever suffered before)? This essay by John McPhee, who writes about the importance of drafts. It’s a good piece overall, better than McPhee has written in some time, but the best part, for me at least, is this:

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft.

McPhee goes on to make the point that without a first draft there can be no improvement:

Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft of or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

This is why I always tell my students to get something, usually a bare narrative of the event they’re writing about, down on paper first. That way, they have something, the bones of a story upon which they can layer analysis and argument, to improve. If only I would learn to follow my own advice.

It’s time. It’s literary. It’s supplemental.

I just got word that I received a very generous review in The TLS. Since the text may or may not be behind a paywall, here it is:

Screams in the wind

Ari Kelman A MISPLACED MASSACRE Struggling over the memory of Sand Creek 364pp. Harvard University Press. £25.95 (US $35). 978 0 674 04585 9

On the banks of Sand Creek, southeastern Colorado Territory, soon after dawn on November 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington, a one-time Methodist minister, ordered soldiers from two Colorado regiments of the Union Army to attack a sizeable encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho people. The native chiefs, notably Black Kettle and Left Hand, had already entered into negotiation with Territorial authorities and had been assured of their safety. Over 150 Native Americans, predominantly women, children and the elderly, were slaughtered.

Chivington’s men did not chase those Indians who managed to flee the scene, but took no prisoners and destroyed any remaining lodges and possessions of the dead and departed. They mutilated the bodies of the fallen. Later, looters took away disinterred skulls. Three details not in Ari Kelman’s exhaustive study: some of the soldiers decorated their hats with the genitalia of their victims, both male and female, for their victorious return to Denver; Chivington himself later liked to appear on stage at the Denver Opera House with his personal collection of numerous scalps taken at Sand Creek; and a member of his command kept the scrotum of a murdered Indian as a “candy container”, for decades showing it off to fellow elected members of the Colorado legislature.

Captain Silas Soule, a company commander at Sand Creek, convinced that the Indians were in no way hostile, ordered his men to refrain from fighting and, after the event, accused his superior officer of orchestrating a “massacre”. Chivington was vociferous and articulate in his own defence, claiming that the “battle” of Sand Creek constituted a glorious victory over a dangerous foe, and he garnered influential support. Official inquiries were held at the time, and thereafter public opinion among whites, within Colorado and nationally, was divided, both about whether the Indians had actually constituted a threat and about the nature of the engagement. George Bent, the son of William Bent, a prominent white trader, and his wife Owl Woman, a Cheyenne woman, was in Black Kettle’s village at Sand Creek and, before escaping, suffered a gunshot wound. In the decades after the event, with the help of various white anthropologists, most importantly George Hyde, Bent produced blistering accounts of the episode, unequivocally labelling it a massacre and relating it to other aspects of Indian-white relations. In countering Chivington’s claim that Sand Creek prevented wholesale war with the Plains tribes, Bent argued that in fact the engagement gave them “a common cause around which they ultimately … united” and led directly to the fierce Indian wars of the post-Civil War years and the Sioux-Cheyenne victory over George Custer at the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

A Misplaced Massacre, buttressed by seventy-six pages of meticulous notes, recounts and analyses the ways in which generations of Americans, both white and Native American, have struggled – and as the book’s subtitle intimates, still struggle – to come to terms with the meaning of the attack. It is an important book, and its most brilliant chapter, which follows the order of events at the opening ceremonies, in April 2007, of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, shows that positions taken by the various speakers on that day still echoed the differing views expressed a hundred years earlier by Chivington, Soule and Bent. As William Faulkner quipped, “The past is never dead. It is not even past”. For the descendants of the victims in particular, whether Southern Cheyenne and now resident in Oklahoma, Northern Cheyenne and living at Lame Deer in Montana, or Arapaho and now on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Sand Creek, as evidenced by their oral testimonies, was “not an historical event, but an emotionally and psychologically present event”. When they walked the site, some of them heard screams and babies crying in the wind.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, administered by the US National Park Service (NPS), opened after a protracted and highly contentious purchase and planning process.

The project had the powerful backing in the US Congress of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Cheyenne), but reactions from the State of Colorado were mixed, especially in economically depressed Kiowa County, where the massacre took place. There were disagreements, both archaeological and political, about precisely where Black Kettle’s village had been located and the exact positions on the creek banks at which the Indian warriors had managed to dig makeshift “survival pits” from which to defend themselves. Kelman very effectively communicates, with helpful maps, the mix of archaeological graft and intuitive detection that led to the neardefinitive identification of these “misplaced” sites.

The ranchers who owned different parts of what became the Historic Site vied with one another, partly to inflate the value of their own land in that flatter part of Colorado that abuts Kansas. There were inter-tribal differences, both of memory and in the political struggle to consecrate a national memorial site. At one point the planned memorial was even entangled in proposals for an Indian-owned casino. Other intractable issues, such as reparations to descendants of the victims, distracted attention from the memorial effort. The various specialists – historians, archivists, archaeologists, and others – didn’t always agree. And, above all, as the project inched along, there were often signs of a fundamental schism between what Kelman terms “a people of history, the NPS, and a people of memory, the descendants”.

Relying on much face-to-face contact and recorded interviews with participants, Kelman provides a nuanced and virtually complete account of each of the chronological phases and of the eddying currents of opinion in the movement towards the opening of the Historic Site. He does so partly by personalising the procedures and issues, characterizing the figures involved: this one is “squat” and “easily offended”, that one “willowy” and “commanding”, another “looked a bit like the Marlboro Man”. Some readers may enjoy what the blurb claims are novelistic touches. Others will be irritated. Nevertheless, the book functions as an instructive lesson in public history, and Kelman shows how the massacre positively intersects with its legacy.

The Civil War to decide the nation’s destiny provided more than the backdrop for Sand Creek. Ironically, Chivington was as ardent an abolitionist as Soule. The Colorado cavalry regiments were part of the US Army. Most sources recount that Black Kettle flew a Union flag over his lodge. In making the case that Sand Creek was (and is) a national scar, Kelman reaches back to Helen Hunt Jackson’s campaign for Native American rights, especially her book Century of Dishonor (1881), and forward to the years after Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), which of course caught so much attention partly because it came to resonate with increasing public revulsion at the perceived excesses of the Vietnam War, especially the massacre perpetrated by Lieutenant Calley and his men at My Lai. Kelman shows that western American newspapers of the 1860s frequently called for the extermination of Indians. We know that General Philip Sheridan said something that was famously abbreviated as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Other massacres were perpetrated. One of the worst took place in 1890 at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, when the Seventh Cavalry slaughtered some 250 Sioux people, again mostly women, children and the infirm. This time, the dead were not mutilated, but, as the anthropologist James Mooney reported at the time, “many of the bodies were stripped by the whites, who went out in order to get the ‘ghost shirts'” worn by some of the slain. Kelman rightly questions the status of Sand Creek as “an idiosyncratic rather than a structural calamity”, arguing that it was “a predictable outcome of public policy”. Implicitly, his book asks whether the US conducted a policy of Indian genocide.

Explicitly, and fully, Ari Kelman traces recent reverberations from the massacre. The most telling is that the Smithsonian Institution was able to secure Federal government support to acquire the holdings of the Heye Collection as the basis for the National Museum of the American Indian, subsequently situated at a prestigious point on the Mall in Washington, DC, only on condition that it agree to repatriate the skeletal remains of victims of Sand Creek held in its vaults. In accord with traditional Cheyenne beliefs, these bones, in small coffins, eventually received a ceremonial burial at a fenced-off cemetery situated within a bend of the creek at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

Piecing together incomplete and biased sources to try to find a meaningful…narrative.”

A bunch of people have written a bunch of very kind and very smart things about my book so far — and some not so kind and maybe not so smart things as well — but this, for my own idiosyncratic reasons, may be my favorite of the lot. Learning about the way people use my work, especially in contexts that are totally surprising to me, is both remarkable and humbling (sorry, I don’t have another word). Anyway, thanks, Thorn.

Sand Creek and Iron Man: I’ll get to it.

Yes, I’m definitely planning to write something about the fact that the villain in Iron Man III refers to Sand Creek in the first ten minutes of the film. But what I have to say hinges on a ton of spoilers, so I’m going to wait a week or two before putting up a post. In the meantime, here’s me saying something completely banal about the issue. Embrace the banality!

Telling stories with data.

Jonah Keri writes about baseball for a living. For many of you, that alone is a disqualifying sin. And so, despite the fact that Keri is very good at his job, you’re not going to read any more of this post. That’s fair enough. But for those of you who care about the relationship between numbers and narrative, it’s worth taking some time — time not to read what I have to say, but to read what Keri writes (that link above is as good a place as any to start).

I say that because Keri seems to understands two things: first, that so-called advanced stats, data produced by an ascendant generation of sports analysts — many of whom toil in the long shadow of the great Bill James — who use numbers to paint a much clearer and more complete picture of athletic success and failure, and who, in the process, are changing the landscape of sports, can tell very powerful stories; and second, that traditional narrative remains incredibly compelling and can be enhanced by the inclusion of advanced stats.

In other words, Keri is using data, complex data generated by very smart people, as a complement to his storytelling chops, as a kind of plot point in his well-told tales, rather than as the protagonist in the yarns he spins. One can contrast what he’s doing to, say, Bill Barnwell, who, though also very talented, sometimes seems to use his articles like a bucket into which he pours as much data as he possibly can, until finally the advanced stats spill all over the floor. I think that style maybe works for truly dedicated stat heads, but it’s pretty difficult to read for people who are used to (and fond of) more traditional storytelling.

Anyway, the upshot is that Keri’s style may be an applicable model for historians who conceptualize themselves as social scientists, convinced of the power of data-driven analysis, but also as more traditional humanists, eager to tell a story that people will want to read.

The Jamestown colonists were not locavores.

According to archeologists at The Smithsonian, the Jamestown colonists were cannibals.

The harsh winter of 1609 in Virginia’s Jamestown Colony forced residents to do the unthinkable. A recent excavation at the historic site discovered the carcasses of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the “Starving Time.” But a few other newly discovered bones in particular, though, tell a far more gruesome story: the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old English girl.

This isn’t a huge surprise. But more shocking is the fact that they imported their meat!

Owsley speculates that this particular Jamestown body belonged to a child who likely arrived in the colony during 1609 on one of the resupply ships. She was either a maidservant or the child of a gentleman, and due to the high-protein diet indicated by his team’s isotope analysis of her bones, he suspects the latter. The identity of whoever consumed her is entirely unknown, and Owsley guesses there might have been multiple cannibals involved, because the cut marks on her shin indicate a more skilled butcher than whoever dismembered her head.

Nobody tell Michael Pollan.