Hi Gregory Michno: I really appreciate this interview, as I know you don’t do many interviews. Also, I believe you are an invaluable historian because you are obviously not afraid of presenting politically incorrect facts and conclusions about American history.
This is particularly true in A Fate Worse Than Death: Indian Captivities in the West, 1830-1885 and Battle at Sand Creek: A Military Perspective.
In Fate Worse Than Death, you and your wife Susan, who co-wrote the book, are clear that being captured by Indians meant, if you were a woman, rape and/or gang rape, slavery and often torture and death.
In Battle at Sand Creek you present Sand Creek as a battle and not a massacre (which is the modern perspective), and present the whites’ point of view (which meant the Cheyenne living in the Sand Creek Village, or nearby, were raiding and killing settlers). Also, during the raid, the warriors at Sand Creek fought back, killing some soldiers.
(Readers, Sand Creek occurred in 1864 when a 600 to 700-man force of Third Colorado (U.S. Volunteer) Cavalry attacked and destroyed a Cheyenne and Arapaho village in southeastern Colorado Territory, killing between 70–163 Indians, many of whom were women and children. At the time, the Cheyenne were discussing peace with the whites).
Historians and tribal peoples usually believe the attack was an unprovoked massacre.
Q. Your book on Sand Creek is startling. Nobody else has written anything like it. Why were you interested in this subject?
A. When you first present an inquiry to a publisher one of the first things asked is, “What is your target audience?” Without trying to sound flippant, my answer is always, “Me.” I only write for myself, to simply learn more about a subject that I find interesting. There are no hidden agendas.
There are a number of books written about Sand Creek, usually from two extremes. Of late, a decidedly pro-Indian, anti-soldier tone is in evidence.
So, I tried to learn for myself what happened, and, in a fit of unwarranted optimism, I believed I would be able to clear the waters with Battle at Sand Creek: The Military Perspective (Upton & Sons) in 2004.
I had the belief that presenting the evidence—the facts—would actually allow people to objectively evaluate the situation, make an educated assessment, and perhaps see the affair in a different light.
Since the incident has been almost universally portrayed as a massacre I tried to swing the historical pendulum more to the middle by illuminating the points that would lend credence to the minority view that an actual battle had occurred, albeit one that was accompanied by horrible atrocities.
Big mistake. I actually thought that facts would persuade. They don’t.
Q. You point out the Cheyenne, at the time Sand Creek took place, were holding white captives, had been raiding and usually made peace in the winter and made war in the summer. Are these facts correctives for the usual picture of soldiers destroying innocents?
A. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were raiding and killing all summer and into the fall of 1864. Now, as to who was to blame for “starting” it all is endlessly debatable, independent of the facts, and resolvable only through the preconceptions of the individual.
These Indians held seven white captives, which they admitted they had in their letter asking for peace. Soldiers tried to procure all of them, but were only given four, possibly a hedging by the Indians who figured it was not a good idea to give up all their bargaining chips.
Whether the peace request was a sincere desire, or a stalling action for the upcoming winter, we don’t know.
It seems accurate to assume, however, that the Cheyenne and Arapaho, after the Camp Weld Conference in September 1864, and with the assurances they were given by Major Edward Wynkoop, believed that they were reasonably safe.
Perception, however, is individually and group oriented. The village attacked on Sand Creek contained warriors who had been killing and raiding. Some will argue that they now had immunity, others will disagree.
Again it depends on individual biases and no amount of “facts” or reasoning will make any difference.
The village also contained women and children who had been doing nothing warlike except supporting their men. Were they legitimate targets? Were white homesteaders legitimate targets for Indian warriors?
If I had my choice, I’d say leave the women and children out of it, but war has a way of ignoring personal preference.
One point that few people realize is that there were 76 white casualties at Sand Creek. It doesn’t sound like much, but it represents the sixth largest white casualty count in all the 1,450 fights between 1850 and 1890.
Some people will undercount the white casualties, just as others will overcount the Indian casualties.
A major factor involved is our “gut” reaction to the atrocities. Seventy-six soldier casualties is just a statistic. One pregnant Indian woman scalped and mutilated is the story we remember. That is human nature doing the talking.
Q. Did the soldiers deliberately murder women and children?
A. Certainly there were soldiers who deliberately killed women and children. There were also soldiers who saved women and children.
The eyewitness testimony has enough examples to prove that there were scalpings and mutilations. The record also has examples of soldiers who were appalled by the action and expressed their revulsion of it.
Some soldiers thought nothing of taking multiple scalps or mutilating bodies, but this was done by a comparatively small percentage of men, the likes of which one will find in any organization or sample population.
But depicting the entire Third Regiment as an army of ghoulish mutilators is nonsense.
Q. What do you think of commander John Chivington? Did he really say “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”
A. I don’t care for the historical John Chivington one bit, but by trying to assume a non-judgmental position you cannot describe the man in terms of pure evil.
When I wrote Lakota Noon (Mountain Press) in 1997 I got some criticism as being too pro-Indian. Critics of my Sand Creek book said I was too pro-white.
Perhaps when you anger both sides you are doing something right.
Ari Kelman, the author of A Misplaced Massacre (Harvard University Press, 2013), represented me as a modern defender of Colonel Chivington, and apparently he saw everyone who defended some of the white settler and soldier actions as “culture warriors.” It is rather humorous.
Chivington’s “Damn any man” statement comes to us from Lt. Joseph Cramer. His “nits” statement comes from District Attorney Samuel E. Browne, who claimed the colonel said it at a rally in Denver in September 1864. Both were Chivington’s enemies.
Regardless, we have to accept the statements the same as we would the statements from Chivington’s friends. All of them have to be examined in light of other pertinent evidence, and then we can accept or reject it—but we should realize that the acceptance or rejection will stem from our own prejudices.
By the way, the “nits” phrase was common during the nineteenth century.
Denmark Vesey, a black freedman accused of plotting a rebellion in South Carolina in 1822, was also said to have uttered, “What’s the sense of killing the louse and leaving the nit?” when discussing killing all the white children.
Q. Were you vilified for writing a politically incorrect version of Sand Creek?
A. Although I have used the terms “politically correct” and “politically incorrect” myself, I increasingly find them devoid of meaning. The correctness or incorrectness of a statement also lies in the eyes of the beholder.
It is really an attempt at historical accuracy that supports, or undermines, another person’s expectations. One’s truth is another’s lie. That said, yes, I got flak for appearing to defend the white settlers and soldiers.
Q. Were you and your wife Susan attacked for writing about Indian rape against women captives?
A. No, at least not that I am aware of. I recall one review of A Fate worse Than Death that took exception to showing that members of some Plains tribes did rape female captives. The reviewer did not argue that it was untrue, only that he didn’t want to read about it. It offended his mindset.
Although it would take additional examination, I would venture to say that the percentage of Indians who raped white women was small, and that their actions were not looked upon favorably by the majority of the tribe, just as in the case of the soldiers who mutilated Indians. Deviant behavior is not limited to any group.
Q. What do tribal peoples think about your work on Sand Creek and women captives?
A. I don’t know. I don’t imagine a great many have read the books. Heck, not a great many of anyone has read them! But any people will take out of history what they put into it. They will read and see what they already are. Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing.
Q. Your books seem to be based on original documents. Are those difficult to find?
A. I try to use original documents when I can, but there are many secondary sources that are very helpful for the insights they provide. With the internet and with so many institutions putting their documents online now, original sources are getting much easier to find and access.
Historians love to attest to the reliability of eyewitness testimony and first-hand narratives. They may be better than stories written from faulty memories years later, but they are subject to the same faults and foibles.
We deceive ourselves into believing that the eyewitness participant will give us historical accuracy. That is part of the cautionary tale told in a postmodern world.
Q. Up until the 1970’s, books and movies depicted the frontier army as heroic. Since, the frontier army has been depicted as the bad guys. Why?
A. There have been numerous books that have studied this phenomenon. My wife and I talked a little bit about it in Circle the Wagons (McFarland, 2009). Part of it simply stems from the temper of the times, the Zeitgeist.
Our postmodernism world implies that universal truth is impossible, master historical narratives are out, and relativism is our fate. History is not progressive and knowledge cannot liberate. An objective view is untenable and borders on myth. History is little more than literature because all meaning is socially encoded and constructed, just as fiction is.
In the postmodern world, all disparate discourses have to fight for power against autonomous, holistic, master narratives. Postmodernism contributes to the growth of diverse cultural histories while at the same time working to dissolve the sense of history in culture.
This is a frightening picture for many. Positivism is long gone. Historical narrative cannot mirror past reality. Conservatives in particular denigrate postmodernism and link it to political correctness and multiculturalism almost as a new Communist enemy.
If you muddy the past, the nation’s collective memory short circuits. What would the American celebratory memory be if suddenly Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and John Wayne changed from wholesome, iconic heroes to fascist pigs? It is too scary a scenario for most traditionalists, but it has been happening and the process is ongoing.
Postmodernism rejects the pattern, order, and security of a God-driven universe and leaves people believing that the alternative will lead to nihilism, atheism, or chaos.
Yet, this is the world we are living in. The old frontier heroes are now the bad guys. Does it mean we are regressing, or growing up?
Q. Can you tell me something about your background?
A. It’s thoroughly non-descript. I am a Michigan native and lived there for most of my life. Attended Michigan State University and the University of Northern Colorado. I spent nearly thirty years working for the State of Michigan in the Human Services Department. I decided to take up writing history, more or less as a hobby, back in 1990. Why? Just as I said earlier: simply to learn moreabout things I was interested in. My wife and I currently live in Colorado.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I have actually just completed two manuscripts, and am in the hunt for publishers. One is completely out of my “normal” area of interest: From Witchcraft to Christcraft: The Devilish Beginnings of Evangelical Christianity and the New Witches. It is more or less a history of American persecution, first of white “witches”—through escalating violence many times fueled by religious fervor—to black “witches,” red ones, Communists, and Muslims.
I have also just finished The Three Battles of Sand Creek: In Blood, In Court, and As the End of History.
In effect, it is a history book about the impossibility of writing accurate history.
This one has a strong postmodernist flavor, which has elements of some of the points I have covered in the above questions: the realization that there are no facts, we invent them in our memories, our memories are often false, we make poor eyewitnesses, we fall for suggestions, we do just what the rest of the herd does, we are slaves to our prejudices, cognitive dissonance rules our actions, confirmation bias blinds us, we filter the world through our individual lenses, and assuredly we never let truth get in the way of what we already think.
Evidence will never change our minds.
Maybe the only thing a historian can do is provide a historiographical survey of the various sources and let the reader choose which one fits his own biases most comfortably.
We might say that nothing has ever happened. There are no facts. There are only our interpretations of them, all filtered through individual lenses, bounced like a pinball through the synapses in different areas of our brains, and true only for the one doing the filtering.
After the “facts” have been either consciously or unconsciously deformed by the participants and the historians, the reader gets to apply the same mechanisms to her own peculiar system.