Reinterpreting the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site

Article excerpt

At daybreak on 27 November 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer ordered approximately 800 troopers of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry to attack the camp of Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle, situated on the southern bank of the winding Washita River in present-day western Oklahoma. (1) Unknown to Custer, Black Kettle's band was the smallest and westernmost camp of thousands of nearby Native Americans in the Washita Valley. Of the approximately 250 residents of the camp, possibly 103 Cheyenne and their allies, including women and children, died in the frigid cold and snow-covered landscape. The U.S. Army also took 53 women and children prisoners, destroyed about 50 Indian lodges, and shot 800 horses and mules (Brill 1938; Hoig 1976; Greene 2004; Hardorff 2006). (2)

The natural landscape at the Washita battle site has slowly evolved since 1868, and interpretation of the events that transpired there, particularly by descendants of the Cheyenne warriors, non-natives, and local residents, has changed several times. Until recently, commemoration at the battle site has inaccurately or inadequately depicted past events. Because the National Park Service (NPS) is currently revising the interpretation presented at the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, an opportunity exists to balance perspectives on the events of 1868. Federal officials are supplementing traditional non-native narratives with Cheyenne viewpoints. Previous research focused on the military and political consequences of the Washita battle, and scholars have ignored the significance of changing interpretations (see, for example, Hoig 1976; Greene 2004).

In this article I examine the changing interpretation of the battle site and evaluate the conflicting impact of these viewpoints. I used information gathered from repeated visits to the site, details available from the historical record, new oral histories that highlight Cheyenne viewpoints, and informal discussions with Cheyenne and non-native people about Cheyenne sacred sites. My analysis questions the commonly accepted representations of past events at the Washita, gives voice to Cheyenne collective memory, and aids in the creation of an inclusive depiction of the historical and contemporary significance of the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site.

INTERPRETING SACRED AND HISTORIC PLACES

Geographers have long attempted to interpret sacred landscapes, for they are frequently unifying places that are representative of the perspectives of individuals, communities, and cultures (Jackson and Henrie 1983). Often they are the most valued and revered spaces of a culture, because their widely shared significance outweighs competing values and potential uses of the site (Lamme 1989; Black 2004). To many observers, however, sacred landscapes are intrinsically personal spaces that hold a variety of meanings to different people, meanings rooted in personal memories and family stories that reinforce the sacred nature of the place. Sacred places are locations that transmit both visual and sensory messages to observers, triggering strong emotions regarding personal identity, collective memory, and sense of place (O'Keeffe 2007). Authors of memorialization efforts reshape sacred sites by evaluating historical events based on their own personal understanding (see, for example, Linenthal 1991; Chidester and Linenthal 1995; Alderman 2000; Foote 2003; Blake 2004). In particular, observers sanctify and designate places of violence and tragedy for special commemoration, although often memorialization does not accurately reflect past events (Lowenthal 1976; Foote 2003). Interest groups frequently preserve tragic sacred locations such as massacre sites in order to delineate past inhumane actions, commemorate the dead, and evoke collective feelings that past mistakes will neither be repeated nor forgotten (Mayo 1988).

Historic sites are often profane tourist spaces that promote the consumption of national images and identities. …

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