Digging a hole

Digging up the past helps us understand who we are as a nation.

I fear patriotism is presented as a false choice. It seems that for many, to be patriotic is to remember and celebrate only our nation’s triumphs. To choose otherwise, to choose to remember our failings, is thus somehow anti-American. — Ken Burns

Ken Burns, in the introductory quote, was referring to the only National Historic Site in the United States with the word “massacre” in its title. That’s the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado just a few miles west of the Kansas border. It was one of the many horrors of the Civil War, which, like it or not, wouldn’t have happened were it not for slavery, a blight on this country for almost a quarter of a century. Slavery has been woven into the tapestry of our history since before the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower.

It seems that determining what is right or wrong with the United States along political lines is self-serving for political extremists on both sides. We all want it to be the “more perfect union” as imagined by our Founding Fathers, but, as in any nation’s history, it can get complicated, even ugly, at times. The truth is that when it comes to the United States, we are compelled to accept that it is what it is and go from there. That means striving to achieve what Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature.”

The Sand Creek Massacre, when mentioned at all, has been negligently characterized as a battle. Battles require two armed forces, not necessarily evenly matched, fighting on a field of battle. The hostilities at Sand Creek that occurred 157 years ago on Monday of this week took the lives of at least 140 Native Americans— Cheyenne and Arapahos, two-thirds of whose murdered and maimed were women and children— living without threat to anyone in a peaceful village.

What this had to do with the Union versus the Confederacy is only one of the questions that arise from this horrible use of military force. It was sort of like the Ahmaud Arbery case on a wider scale. You’re chasing after somebody previously minding his business with a shotgun. And when you point it at his chest, he tries to wrest the gun away, opening the door for you to cry self-defense. We relieved Native Americans of their tribal heritage proclaiming self-defense at any sign of resistance.

It would only get worse for Native American tribes in the two decades after the Civil War. What followed were Little Bighorn where a Civil War hero, General George Custer, met his demise in a preliminary to storming another Native American settlement. Unlike Sand Creek, they were more than ready. Then there was Wounded Knee, now regarded as a massacre, and the decimation of the Plains Indians was gathering momentum. Their way of life was virtually erased by the early 1900’s.

As Burns goes on to say upon considering the uncomfortable truths of what happened at Sand Creek at dawn on November 29, 1864, “a truly great nation is one that can acknowledge its failures.” Obscuring our failures to the point of keeping them out of the lessons of the past may result in some dark chapters, but ignorance due to lack of transparency will do us more harm in the end.

We need to realize that piety itself does not exempt us from doing wrong. The leader of that massacre, Col. John Chivington, was an ordained Methodist minister, but that did not prevent him from committing a heinous war crime, contrary to everything he must have proclaimed from his pulpit. He sent several hundred cavalrymen swooping down on the village even as the Cheyenne Chief raised the colors of the American flag.

Sometimes it takes time for history’s lessons to be learned, and lack of transparency increases the probability of that. The Native Americans who died there were not officially recognized as innocent victims until 2007 when the site of the slaughter joined almost 2,600 of these designated landmarks.

The proclamation that “the truth shall set you free” is itself biblical (John 8:32), and what’s good enough for the Bible should be good enough for our history books. We also need to realize that blind obedience to anything has the potential of skewing the truth. It can transform a patriot into a rebel who believes only the falsehoods of those to whom he has surrendered his loyalty.

I remember how I felt upon returning from Vietnam in the summer of 1968. It was both hurtful and angering to encounter so much protest upon in the states: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

And yet as time passed— even as my final year with the Defense Intelligence Agency unfolded— I was starting to learn that our motives weren’t as pure as I once believed. That does not stop me from proudly displaying the American flag in front of my home or believing in the principles of our form of Democracy as it has evolved over the years. It sometimes seems that partisan politics and a myriad of untruths and historical distortions are running us off the rails and away from that more perfect union. Perfection may never be achieved, of course, but it is something toward which we should always strive. Paying attention to the lessons of history— the good and the bad— are critical for staying the course.

Native Americans were mistakenly portrayed from the beginning, thanks to a confused Christopher Columbus who, upon reaching the New World, thought he had arrived in Asia and that the natives he encountered were Indians. It was a label that continued to be foisted on the original Americans until November 2021 when a baseball team in Cleveland was still known as the Indians (renamed Guardians after the recent World Series).

Sometimes the lessons of American are exceedingly slow to act upon, especially for a generation like mine who grew up playing Cowboys and Indians.

Early to Arrive, Deprived and Despised

Then there were among the earliest of Americans who arrived here in 1619 to ignite one of the greatest spans of economic prosperity in this country’s history over the next 247 years. They were unwilling immigrants from Africa who, in the words of journalist/historian Nikole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times Magazine, fueled “an institution so influential and corrosive that it both helped create the nation and nearly led to its demise.” That institution was slavery which allowed the nation to thrive economically for so long and almost ended our experiment in Democracy in a civil war in which more Americans died than in both world wars combined.

We have tried to put both the Civil War and slavery behind us, even, in some cases, refusing to present its painful lessons to generations of students in our public schools. The effort to bring the 1619 Project into our classrooms is already under attack— mostly by conservative Republicans who still believe ignorance is bliss when it comes to our failings as far back as 500 years. There is a consolidated effort, initiated last year by U. S. Senator Tom Cotton in what he designated as the “Saving American History Act,” which would deny federal funding to schools who teach any elements of the 1619 Project. This has precipitated more than a dozen similar bills in various legislatures.

“Children shouldn’t be taught that they will be treated differently or will be racist because of their skin color,” explained Congressman Ken Buck who reintroduced that companion legislation to the Cotton bill in the House this summer. In doing so, Buck called it “dangerous and anti-American” as Critical Race Theory.

If you really want to save American history, you might want to start with teaching American history. You can’t save something by pretending it doesn’t exist.

Granted this is not something that children in primary grades are ready or needing to learn— any more than revealing the truth about Santa Claus— but do we really feel that teaching our children and adolescents about slavery will destroy their love of country?