Readers, Gregory Michno has now written two books about Sand Creek, but does not believe his books have changed perceptions, “or that anything will. What I hope is that those who read the book will possibly come away with some understanding as to why they will not change their minds, no matter what the facts are.”
Mr. Michno is one of the foremost historians of the American West, having researched and written more than a dozen books about the West. But Michno is not one of the foremost historians because he wrote the books, but because he does not compromise: He tells the truth whether readers like that truth or not.
Mr. Michno’s last book, Battle At Sand Creek: A Military Perspective, does not feed us the usual dose of outrage at what happened at Sand Creek (Nov. 29, 1864), but a more balanced perspective.
Now, he has expanded the first Sand Creek book and published The Three Battles of Sand Creek: The Cheyenne Massacre in Blood, in Court, and as the End of History.
The book will be released in April, and readers can order it now through Amazon.
Robb: How does The Three Battles of Sand Creek: The Cheyenne Massacre in Blood, in Court, and as the End of History differ from The Battle of Sand Creek: A Military Perspective?
Michno: Battle at Sand Creek: The Military Perspective (Upton & Sons, 2004) was a detailed narrative history of the events preceding the Sand Creek affair and an extensive treatment of the two-day fight/massacre. I tried to present the military perspective to balance the prevailing pro-Indian viewpoint in vogue for the past half-century or more.
The evidence actually shows that the affair did have some aspects of a battle, although one accompanied by dreadful atrocities.
What I found out was that few people wanted to entertain the non-standard perspective.
Instead, I decided to try to find out what made the Sand Creek story so divisive and why facts do not seem to matter.
The Three Battles of Sand Creek (SavasBeatie, 2016) begins with a factual treatment of the two-day incident, but the focus, I believe, is in the third section, with an analysis of eyewitness testimony and memory. We find that eyewitnesses, as police have known for years, can be extremely unreliable at “remembering” what they allegedly saw. Memories are invented, tentative, and malleable; they can be created and destroyed like Frankenstein’s monster.
Since we filter the world through individual lenses, facts are personal perceptions, true only for the person doing the filtering. It is a postmodernist view, without a universal narrative, and truth is illusory. It may sound trite, but Sand Creek is in the eye of the beholder, and no amount of facts will change one’s mind. We can only see what we already believe.
Robb: According to your first book on this subject, history has overlooked that the Colorado troops at Sand Creek sustained 76 casualties, the sixth highest in the 1,450 battles fought between whites and Indians between 1850-1890, that the Cheyenne had been fighting and raiding all summer and into the fall, that warriors who had been raiding were living in the village when it was hit by soldiers, and other pertinent details.
But you indicated that few people believed these facts made a difference, or even agreed they were facts at all. Has anything changed since publication?
Michno: The number of soldier casualties always seems to be undercounted, which contributes to the perception of a one-sided fight. A thorough search of existing records, including remembrances and newspapers, show 25 soldiers were killed and 51 wounded, which is very high for western Indian war fights.
People have argued that the high number of soldier casualties was because they were self-inflicted by “friendly fire.”
Actually, we have descriptions of 29 of the wounds: 16 were from arrows and 13 were from bullets. The soldiers did not pick up bows and arrows and shoot themselves. Also, friendly fire is a two-way street: both sides are just as apt to mistakenly hit their own.
Many of these Indians had been raiding all summer and were in the village. But many of them were innocent. Did the women and children aid and abet the warriors? Very likely. If so, were they legitimate targets?
Consider, however, that white women and children on the frontier were killed by Indians in the same manner. They were either all legitimate targets, or none of them were.
Do any of these facts make a difference? Probably not. Remember, we are social animals and we connect to personal narratives; we love storytelling; we love anecdotes more than statistics. It doesn’t matter if there were 76 soldier casualties—that’s just a statistic. The mutilated, pregnant Indian woman is the headline. There’s our anecdote. That is our human nature; that is our gut talking.
Carl Sagan was once asked what his “gut feeling” was. He answered that he didn’t think with his gut, he used his head. Many of us don’t.
I don’t believe that anything has changed in the perception of Sand Creek, or that anything will. What I hope is that those who read the book will possibly come away with some understanding as to why they will not change their minds, no matter what the facts are.
Robb: You’ve indicated that our prejudices decide what we believe to be true. Why is that?
A. We are all controlled by subconscious psychological processes in our brains, some which may be from nature, but most from nurture; learned from our parents, teachers, churches, friends, workplace, and countless interactions. Free will may be less of a factor than determinism.
Our preconceptions, our prejudices are ingrained. We may think and act as we do not from uninhibited choice, but from an over-active amygdala. This brain area, associated with “fight or flight” and “gut” reaction, probably has more subconscious control over our thoughts and actions than we would like to admit. It’s just another reason why facts don’t make a difference.
Robb: What did you find out investigating the contradictory testimony, and what was said in court?
Michno: The Denver Military Commission, the Congressional Inquiry in Washington, and Senator James Doolittle’s Commission, all sought “to inquire into and report all the facts connected with the late attack” at Sand Creek. They also wanted someone to blame.
The Denver Commission exemplified the proceedings. John Chivington, who was the defendant even though he was not supposedly on trial, objected to questions and proceedings and was sustained 37% of the time; Sam Tappan, who hated Chivington and was head of the tribunal, sustained 93% of his own motions. In addition, there were nearly 700 soldiers in the Sand Creek campaign, but only 59 were questioned, and only 28 were eyewitnesses of the actual events.
One might think that the majority of witnesses chosen would have been people who had actually been there.
Extremely poor question framing had a great impact. In Ben Wade’s committee, for instance, D. W. Gooch asked John Evans if there was “any justification for the attack made by Colonel Chivington on these friendly Indians…?” William Windom asked him if there was “any palliation or excuse for that massacre,” and James Doolittle asked Sam Colley, “Was it the First Colorado Regiment that joined in this massacre, or was it the one-hundred-day men that were raised?”
Whether or not the Indians were friendly or if they were massacred were the very things the inquiries were supposedly designed to find out, but the answers were implicit in the questions.
As for the testimony, it was so completely contradictory, that one might believe the witnesses were describing different events. Not only did different witnesses give disparate stories, but sometimes the same witnesses told different stories.
For instance, one of the key witnesses was Capt. Silas Soule. He said, “I refused to fire,” but he also said Major Anthony ordered him to fire and “some firing was done.” When Soule was asked if he saw any soldiers scalping or mutilating Indians, he once testified, “I did,” and another time he testified, “I think not.”
Senator Doolittle’s report is often cited as the final explanation as to what happened: lawless white men always caused all the trouble and Sand Creek was a massacre of peaceful Indians who were under army protection. Another commissioner, Oregon Senator James W. Nesmith, wrote a sub-report with a totally different view. He called the Indians the instigators of all the trouble because of “their constitutional and ingrained tendency to rob and murder.”
Nesmith’s view was just as biased as Doolittle’s—the former’s villains were Indians, and the latter’s were whites. Doolittle of Wisconsin, and Nesmith of Oregon—Easterners and Westerners—saw the facts through different lenses. Was one right and one wrong, or were they both right, or both wrong?
It could be that the evidence was completely irrelevant because they were predisposed to come to the conclusions they did regardless of the facts. Confirmation bias forced them to reinforce one set of “truths” and discount the other. One man’s fact is another man’s falsehood.
Robb: Why is this the “End of History?”
Michno: There has been much written about history’s demise. In The Republic, Plato talked about the “dialectic,” which was a type of logical process of reasoned argumentation in which opposing viewpoints are eventually solved, ending the controversy. The idea was refined by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. The famous Hegelian Dialectic (logical argument) posits that every attempt to formulate conceptions about the world (thesis) is contradicted by another formulation (antithesis), and the conflict between the two is eventually resolved (synthesis). The dialectic is ended—for a time—for internal inconsistencies will eventually serve as a thesis for a new dialectic.
Will the dialectic ever lead us to nirvana? Its course seems to be progressive and linearly ascendant, because each new thesis represents an advance over the previous thesis until an endpoint is reached. In the final culmination there will be a complete objectification of thought and mind into a basic independent entity, devoid of all personality. The absolute mind becomes the real universe, marching toward full self-realization. It must be like Star Trek’s Dr. Spock trying to do a mind-meld with the universe.
What would happen if the grand finale of universal enlightenment closed the curtain? For Hegel, without the active opposition of an antithesis working through the dialectic, existence would be hollow. Man would have no reason to live without a search for Reason. The entire scheme collapses. Hegel, followed by Nietzsche, are blamed for setting us on the road to postmodernism.
Nevertheless, Hegel’s Dialectic seems viable. It proceeds forward a step at a time, each new synthesis an advancement over the preceding, until the final goal of absolute Reason is realized—the end of history—which is nothing more than cognitive dissonance and its reduction.
In our postmodernist world there will also be an end of history, but only because there will be no universal truth to discover; the continuous dissonance and its constant reduction is on a personal, individual, never ending treadmill.
Discovering the final truth would end history as much as spinning in a perpetual circle, trapped in a maze with no outlet, which is the actual case when we continuously battle our psychological demons, searching for that ever elusive stasis.
Dialectic and dissonance use the same ladder. History will not end because we have reached universal Reason, it will end because we will never even agree on the rules with which to begin the search. We are in a constant dissonance-reducing battle with history either to forget it or sugar-coat it. Ours is a history filled with prejudice, intolerance, hatred, and war. We do not want to remember it as it truly was.
The act of repainting our own history is what we find on a macro scale, since that is exactly what we do with our memories on a micro scale. In the Sand Creek example, there is a constant argument and no synthesis ever occurs because the thesis-antithesis is never discussed in terms of fact, but molded while under the control of preconception, prejudice, false memory, confirmation bias, internal belief systems and more; thus there can be no valid synthesis, no reduction of dissonance, and in effect, it represents the end of all practical history.
History ends in a well of frustration among biased, eternally bickering minds.
And if you believe that, I want to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.
Robb: Do your books sell? They are usually so different in fact and opinion than other books on the subject.
Michno: Certainly they sell, but “how many” is the question. None of them have been printed and promoted by the big New York publishers, which is where the publicity, sales, and money are to be found. So I rationalize: I would rather write about a few esoteric topics that interest me than do the same old stuff that has been done hundreds of times. Although I am guilty of writing about some of these topics, does anyone really need another book about Custer or the Little Big Horn?
I have discussed the public’s reading preferences with several agents and authors. The consensus seems to be that there are about one dozen western history topics/subjects that New York will print. They include Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, the Little Big Horn, the Alamo, and the like.
If the subject does not fall into one of those frameworks, it will not be a money-making proposition. New York knows that the American public has very limited interests and imagination. We like our traditional heroes and villains, who all belong to the mythic ideal of American exceptionalism, and we will seldom venture out into uncharted, uncomfortable territory.
The old myths have failed and faded, but New York still prints them—and will until a new mythology comes along.
Robb: It seems there is an ever enlarging strain of biased information against 19th century white settlers and the Army. Why is this?
Michno: We started seeing this change more than a half century ago, when cherished myths of American exceptionalism were being seriously questioned.
The rumblings were in the civil rights and women’s rights movements, and the Viet Nam War protests. The military-industrial complex was seen as avaricious and evil. It was all a part of postmodernism, where universal, happy historical narratives were seen as unrealistic and only a tool of authority. Those who owned the discourse held the power.
When individual, minority, ethnic, and gender narratives proliferated, the Davy Crockett-John Wayne image was shattered. The “Spaghetti Westerns” were a product of the times—the good cowboy image was forever tarnished. Movies like Little Big Man or Soldier Blue, or books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee were part of the Zeitgeist. The white settlers and the army no longer wore the white hats.
It is all a part of the ongoing process of historical revision. History changes with the times. People re-write their history to serve their own purposes. It has been going on forever. Perhaps we were due for the change. Those white settlers and cavalrymen were heroes only to a specific segment of the population. Now, those once left out are having their turn. Perhaps it is a good thing.
The idea of American exceptionalism, of spreading Christianity and democracy all over the world may be best relegated to a distant past, because it is no longer relevant, or helpful. And it may make more enemies than friends.
Robb: Are you working on any new projects?
Michno: Yes. I recently finished Smoke over the Sangre de Cristo: Indian Depredation Claims and the Ute-Jicarilla War, 1849-1855. Oklahoma is currently reviewing it. Here, I found that a major reason for our Western Indian wars were the depredation claim sections in the various Trade and Intercourse Acts.
The fact that we allowed people to file claims against Indians with little proof required, and no penalties for false accusations, led to widespread fraud. Whites filed false claims, impelled the militia or army to investigate and chastise the marauders, innocent people were attacked, the inevitable retaliation ensued, and it snowballed into a progressive succession of conflicts.
Studying the claims and the investigations, I found scores of instances where the military searched for alleged culprits, only to find the reports extremely exaggerated or completely bogus. I found more than fifty officers’ reports that literally said that the claimants were liars.
False accusations actually led to war with the Jicarilla and Ute in New Mexico and Colorado during the period in question.
Understanding this underlying conflict between a skeptical military trying to keep the peace and avaricious frontiersmen wanting to make a dollar by fair means or foul, led to the start of another manuscript (title undecided) in which the army’s main adversary during the westward movement was not the Indian, but the frontier settler.
You see, we are constantly in a process of revision. Maybe Voltaire was right when he said: “History is a pack of lies we play on the dead.”