CHADRON – How does the interpretation of past events change over time?
That’s a question Chadron State College Communication and Social Sciences associate professor Dr. Kurt Kinbacher tackles in an article he wrote for the Fall 2016 issue of “Great Plains Quarterly” about a violent encounter between the U.S. Army and a band of Cheyenne Indians that took place at a remote location in northwest Kansas in 1875.
Known to historians as the Sappa Creek Cheyenne Massacre, an account of the April 23, 1875, fight between a 40-member unit of the Army’s Sixth Cavalry, accompanied by several buffalo hunters, and a band of Cheyenne Indians that included many women and children forms part of “Cheyenne Autumn,” a 1953 book by Nebraska author Mari Sandoz. The only contemporary account of the fight, written by the Army officer in charge of the detachment, describes it as a pitched battle with two soldiers killed and Indian casualties of 19 warriors and eight women and children. But Sandoz, who was sympathetic to the Cheyenne, characterizes it as a massacre with many more Indians killed and multiple atrocities committed by the soldiers.
“Sandoz argued that (official report) was a cover-up,” Kinbacher said.
Kinbacher added Sandoz had researched the incident for years and was determined to get to the bottom of what really happened.
Although she used a variety of sources, including interviews with descendants of Cheyenne who survived the fight, to construct her account, Sandoz’ methods are criticized by academic historians, he said.
“She’s a good historian, but she’s not an orthodox historian, so the documentation is always a bit questioned,” he said. “She also told a good story, and the story took front place over the historical facts.”
Additional research on the Sappa Creek incident has been done since “Cheyenne Autumn” was published, said Kinbacher, but the facts of the event remain will likely remain murky because of the lack of firsthand accounts.
“It’s just too far (back),” he said. “History is rewritten every generation anyway, but it’s not as cut and dried as the official report.”
But controversies among historians about what happened at Sappa Creek are themselves a subject of interest, and part of the field called historiography, which deals with the methods and theories historians use in their work, according to Kinbacher.
“The story is not what happened at the event but what it means in contemporary time,” he said. “(Sandoz) deviated from the prevailing American notion that western settlement represented the expansion of civilization. Soon after ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ was published, she suggested that the American treatment of Indians was comparable to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.”
While a number of historical fights between U.S. soldiers and Indians are now commonly called massacres, the interpretation that Army actions against indigenous people may have been part of a campaign of genocide is difficult to accept, because it clashes with accepted American values, according to Kinbacher.
“It’s not an American ideal,” he said. “It’s at odds with what we think of ourselves. That makes it hard to deal with.
“History in the United States generally has been remembered as a series of heroic and altruistic events. But people and nations are not perfect. We don’t always live up to our ideals. We have to admit some past failures to live up to our promises.”
In the article, Kinbacher acknowledges the shortcomings of Sandoz’ account of the Sappa Creek encounter, but praises her for telling the story from a Cheyenne perspective, and proposes other evidence also suggests the incident could meet the United Nations’ definition of genocide.
“My conclusion is not one I like,” he said. “It’s kind of a harsh term, genocide, but indigenous people got a raw deal, and not just in Nebraska.”
Historical reexaminations of the Sappa Creek incident seem to crop up every 20 years or so, and each time brings a different interpretation of what happened there and why, according to Kinbacher.
“My suspicion is, eventually this will be recognized as genocide,” he said.
The article for “Great Plains Quarterly,” a peer-reviewed journal published by the Center for Great Plains Studies and the University of Nebraska Lincoln, grew out of a presentation Kinbacher made at the 2014 Mari Sandoz Society conference in Chadron.
“That was pretty well received,” he said. “Then they contacted me to submit it.”
Sensing that the initial paper wasn’t ready for publication, Kinbacher conducted more research, sent the revised paper out for review and made additional changes before the work was complete.
“It started in summer of 2014 and came out in December 2016, which is lightning fast for a peer-reviewed journal,” he said.
Kinbacher is also the author of “Urban Villages and Local Identities: Germans from Russia, Omaha Indians and Vietnamese in Lincoln, Nebraska,” published by Texas Tech University Press in 2015.
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