The Sand Creek Massacre
I went next to the Secretary of War, who was not inclined to see me
at all until he learned I was connected with the Government. … I told him
… that I could not approve of his method of fighting the Indians on the
Plains. I said he fought too
scattering. He ought to get the
Indians more together --- get them together in some convenient place, where he
could have provisions enough for both parties, and then have a general
massacre. If he could not approve
of the massacre, I said the next surest thing for an Indian was soap and
education. Soap and education are
not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run; because
a half massacred Indian may recover, but if you educate and wash him, it is
bound to finish him some time or other. It
undermines his constitution; it strikes at the foundations of his being.
“Sir,” I said, “the time has come when blood-curdling cruelty has
become necessary. Inflict soap
and a spelling-book on every Indian that ravages the Plains, and let him die.
--- Mark Twain (1835-1910), The Facts Concerning the Recent Resignation (1867), reprinted in Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays (1992), edited by Louis J. Budd.
Joanna says to Huckleberry Finn (Huck’s been telling a string of flagrant lies):
“Honest injun, now hain’t you been telling me a lot of lies?”
“Honest injun,” says I.
“None of it all?”
“None of it at all. Not a lie in it.”
“Lay your hand on this book and say it.”
I see it warn’t nothing but a dictionary, so I laid my hand on it and said it.
--- Mark Twain (1835-1910), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
“We passed in the late forenoon a large and densely wooded island, which would have been an addition to a nobleman’s estate. … It was here, according to tradition, that the sachem Wonolancet resided; and when at war with the Mohawks, his tribe are said to have concealed their provisions in the cavities of the rocks in the upper part of these Falls.
“The future reader of history will associate this generation with the red man in this thoughts, and give it credit for some sympathy with his race. Our history will have some copper tints and reflections at least, and be read through an Indian summer haze. But such are not our associations. The Indian has vanished as completely as if trodden into the earth, absolutely forgotten but by a few persevering poets. The white man has commenced a new era. Instead of Philip and Logan there are Webster and Crockett on the plains; instead of the Council House is the Legislature. What do our anniversaries commemorate but white men’s exploits? For Indian deeds there must be an Indian memory; the white man will remember only his own. The foeman is dead or dying. We have forgotten their hostility as well as friendship. This oldest race, a venerable and hospitable nation, gave us liberty to settle and plow these fields. …
“They seem like a race who have exhausted the secrets of Nature; tanned with age, while this younger and still fair Saxon race, on whom the sun has not long shone, is but commencing its career. Their memory is in harmony with the russet fall of the year. And yet they did not always retreat before the ravages of time, --- more than before the arrows of their foes. These relics in the fields, which have preserved their rugged forms so long, are evidence of the vital energy of the people who made them. Wherever I go, I am still on the track of the Indian. The light sandy soil which the first settlers cultivated were the Indian corn-fields, and with every fresh plowing the surface is strewn with their relics.
“Arrow heads --- spear heads --- tomahawks, axes --- chisels, gouges ---pestles --- hoes --- pipes of sandstone, ornaments for the neck & breast, and other curious implements of war and of the chase, attract the transient attention of the farmer. I have collected some hundreds myself. … These are relics of an era older than modern civilization --- compared with which Greece and Rome and Egypt --- are modern. And still the savage retreats and the white man advances. … The bodies of warriors of other centuries are dug up in our gardens --- with their soapstone pipes still unbroken --- the arrow and spear head released from their shafts again lying loose in the dust by his side --- the deer horns which were his trophy and his amulet --- are the record in stone of the scalps he had taken.”
--- Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862); from the first draft, begun in 1845, of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849; from Thoreau’s Complex Weave The Writing of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, with the Text of the First Draft (1986) by Linck C. Johnson.
John M. Chivington was born in Ohio in 1921. He took up a ministry in 1844 and preached in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska before he arrived in Denver on May 19, 1860, as presiding elder of the First Methodist Episcopal Church (Stan Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre, 1861.) Another report says he first became a carpenter, and entered the ministry in 1850 (J.P. Dunn, Jr., Massacres of the Mountains,1886.) Chivington preached in Denver and nearby mining towns until he was offered a commission as chaplain to the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers, on the side of the Union in the U.S. Civil War. He refused this and took a “fighting” commission instead of a “praying” commission. He was transformed from Reverend Chivington to Colonel Chivington.
According to J.P Dunn, Chivington was, like other Kansas free-soilers, an uncompromising Union man, and had no use for a rebel, white or red. “His dislike to anything savoring of treason,” says Dunn, “got him into trouble time and again, but he never held back on that account.” Dunn gives evidence that Chivington’s antipathy toward the Indians in Colorado was a result of his belief that the hostility of the Indians was stirred up by emissaries on the side of the Rebels, Southerners, during the Civil War. Chivington enjoyed considerable prestige as a soldier during the first part of the Civil War. As the commander of a group of First Colorado Volunteers, his unit won a victory over an army of Texas Confederates at La Glorieta Pass in New Mexico Territory, east of Santa Fe. Hoig says 85 wagons of supplies and fice or six hundred horses and mules of the Texans were destroyed. Dunn puts it at 64 wagons and two hundred mules. Another report says 80 wagons and between five and six hundred mules (Reginald S. Craig, The Fighting Parson: The Biography of Colonel John M. Chivington, 1859).
It was Colonel Chivington who
was in command at what has become known as the Sand Creek Massacre, an
engagement which took place between units of the Third Colorado Volunteers,
and a group of Southern Cheyenne
and Arapaho people campled in southeastern Colorado on November 20, 1864.
As is usual in incidents of this kind, estimates of the number of
Indians killed vary from report to report.
M. Annette Jaimes, in the introduction to The State of Native
America, Colonization and Resistance, 1992 (edited by her), says 105
Indian women and children and 28 Indian men were killed, out of a total of
about 600. Dunn says that the
Indians lost 300 killed, about half of whom were warriors and the remainder
women and children, and he reports that the whites lost 7 killed and 47
wounded, of whom 7 afterwards died. Dunn
observes, however, that the numbers of Indians killed was “the point most in
controversy in the investigations
of the matter, ranging from about seventy, in Major Wyncoop’s estimate, to
six hundred, in Colonel Chivington’s original report.
The Indians conceded a loss of one hundred and forty, of whom sixty
were warriors, and the testimony of all who counted bodies, after the battle,
indicates the number stated above.”
Reports of what occurred at Sand
Creek on November 20, 1864 by those who were present at the engagement or
visited the site shortly afterwards differ widely (Stan Hoig,The Sand Creek
Massacre, 1961, appendix containing excerpts from “The Chivington
Massacre”, Reports of the Committees, 19th Congress, 2nd
Session, 1867). Robert Bent, a
guide for Colonel Chivington, estimated:
“I think there were six hundred Indians in all.
I think there were thirty-five braves and some old men, about sixty in
all. All fought well.
At the time the rest of the men were away from camp, hunting.”
Bent also testified: “Some
thirty or forty squaws, collected in a hole for protection … sent out a
little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick.
She was shot and killed. … I saw the body of White Antelope with the
privates cut off, and I heard a soldier say he was going to make a tobacco
pouch out of them. I saw one
squaw whose privates had been cut out. … I saw a little firl who had been
hid in the sand. Two soldiers
drew their pistols and shot her, and then pulled her out of the sand by the
arm. I saw quite a number of
infants in arms killed by their mothers.”
(Ralph K. Andrist, The Long Death:
The Last Days of the Plains Indians, 1964).
During the battle, says Andrist, “White Antelope, an old chief of
seventy, refused to retreat, saying that it was the fault of himself and other
chiefs that this was happening. He
folded his arms and sang his death song.
‘Nothing lives long except the earth and the mountains.’
Then a bullet took his life.”
Colonel Chivington, on the other hand, testified that “There were an unusual number of males among them [the Indians] for the reason that the war chiefs of both nations were assembled there evidently for some special purpose.” Chivington said he “passed over some portions of the field after the fight, and I saw but one woman who had been killed, and one who had hanged herself. I saw no dead children. From all I could learn, I arrived at the conclusion that but few women or children had been slain.” But Major E. W. Wyncoop of the First Colorado Cavalry testified before congress: “I have been informed by Captain Booth, district inspector, that he visited the field and counted but sixty-nine bodies, and by others who were present, but that few, if any, over that number were killed, and that two-thirds of them were women and children.” Samuel G. Colley, an Indian agent, reported that officers told him “they saw little papooses killed by the soldiers.” D. D. Colley, a trader, says the inspector of the district, who had visited the battlefield, told him that “about three-fourths of [69 bodies] were women and children.” John S. Smith, an interpreter who was present at the engagement said “the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.” He testified that the women were “worse mutilated than any I ever saw before, the women cut all to pieces … [They were cut] with knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.” Lt. James D. Cannon said “in going over the battle-ground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner --- men, women, and children’s privates cut out, &c.; I heard one man say he had cut out a woman’s private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick.” Cannon estimated the number of Indians killed at about two hundred, and says “they were scalped and mutilated in varioous ways.” (All these from Hoig, loc. cit.)
In a public speech in late
August, 1864, Chivington announced his policy was to “kill and scalp all,
little and big; that nits make lice.” (Quoted
from the Congressional report “The Chivington Massacre” by David Svaldi in
Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermination, 1989.) Morse Coffin, who took part in the Sand Creek engagement
wrote about it as an old man in the 1890s, though his book The Battle of
Sand Creek wasn’t published until 1965.
Svaldi quotes Coffin: “
… neither Col. Chivington or Col. Shoup (not to mention others) have been
honest in this matter, but have pretended that the killing of women and
children in the battle was entirely unavoidable; could not be helped, as all
were in the rifle pits together, etc., etc. … Now I know a
part of this is true, and that many were unavoidably killed; that it
was not easy to distinguish the sexes during the fight, and that it would have
been impossible to help killing many women and children; and I also know
perfectly well (and nearly every other man who was in the Sand Creek fight
must be satisfied of it) that it was the purpose during the battle to kill old
and young of both sexes. This is
the fact of the case, and it is useless to shirk it, or pretend it was all
accident.” On behalf of the
soldiers, Coffin says: “I now
desire to mention a few things in order to make plain the general opinion
among the people at that time regarding Indian killing, and thus account in
some degree for the scalping indulged in at Sand Creek. …
At the time the 3rd Colorado regiment was raised, the idea
was very general that a war of extermination should be waged; that neither sex
nor age should be spared; and women held these views in common with men …
and one often heard the expression that ‘nits make lice, make a clean thing
of it.’ Of course there were
some exceptions. … I propose to show that both officers and soldiers but
carried out the general sentiment. … [I] did not see a solitary warrior not
scalped. … I know this is not to the credit of myself and others who did it;
but it is the truth, and I am disposed to shoulder my share of it. At this time it was deemed all right and proper.”
Eugene F. Ware (1841-1911) was a
citizen of Kansas, though he was born in Connecticut and moved first to Iowa
while he was still a schoolboy. He
served for several years in the military during the Civil War years, rising to
the rank of captain. In
particular, he spent time in Indian country from 1863 to 1865. Many years later, he wrote his recollections of this part of
his life, based on a journal he had kept and letters he’d written to his
mother, in The Indian War of 1864: Being
a Fragment of the Early History of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming
(1911). It was reissued in 1969,
with an introduction and notes by Clyde C. Walton.
In discussing conditions on the frontier at the end of 1864, Ware has
occasion to refer to the engagement at Sand Creek. He says: “In
the first place, the Indians between Cottonwood and Fort Kearney had committed
depredations, the value of which was very great They had harassed the frontiers in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska,
and Colorado. As stated, there
was a squaw camp at Fort Laramie, where a lot of them were being fed.
In the forts in southeastern Colorado, other Indians were being fed.
The Arapahoes and Cheyennes, after committing all kinds of
depredations, had pretended to surrender, and to come in and want peace.
At Fort Lyon, down on the Arkansas river, the persons surrendered
consisted of women and children and old men, who brought in a lot of worn-out
horses used up in the raids of
the frontiers; and they brought in some old guns that had become
unserviceable. The young bucks,
however, were on the war-path, and from these vary Indian refugees at Fort
Lyons occasional parties would go out, and rob a train and steal a lot of
stock. There was no confidence to
be placed in any of these Indians. They
were a bad lot. They all needed
killing, and the more they were fed and taken care of the worse they became.
The condition was such in Colorado that a hundred-days regiment was
raised, called the Third Colorado. The
First Colorado, a brave and historic regiment, had a Colonel by the name of
Chivington, and he had been drawn from the war to protect his own State
against the ravages of these combined Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians.”
“I have stated,” Ware says,
“that some of these Indians went to Denver, and wanted to make a treaty of
some kind. The Indian idea was to
have the Government feed the old people, women and children, while the bucks
would ravage the country. As I
have stated, the embassy to Denver was a failure, because the Denver people
understood the Indian quite fully. After
the Denver embassy the murdering and plundering along the frontier and line
became so gfreat that Colonel Chivington made up his mind to take the field,
and hunt up the Indian villages and punish them.
While he was getting ready, the refugee Indians who were being fed at
Fort Lyons went out and plundered some trains and killed some women and
children, and carried their scalps to the Cheyenne villages up on Sand Creek.”
Ware goes on: “There came a great fall of snow in the latter part of
November, about two feet deep, and Colonel Chivington, taking advantage of
that fact, and knowing that the Indians could not travel in deep snow as the
whites could, started out, and after a three-days march, day and night, he
came onto one of the Cheyenne villages, and is reported to have killed about
five hundred of them, captured a lot of horses, and scattered the band;
although he lost nine killed and forty wounded, because the Indians put up a
pretty good fight. The fight
occurred on November 29th, 1864.
Among the humanitarians of Boston it was called the “Chivington
Massacre,” but there was never anything more deserved than that massacre.
The only difficulty was that there were about 1500 Indian warriors that
didn’t get killed. But they
were scattered over the country, and started supposedly east on the Republican
and Solomon rivers. There were in
this scattered condition when the end of the year arrived.
Nobody exactly knew where they were, but it was said that there were
scalp-dances in all of the Cheyenne bands, and that scalps were carried up
into the Sioux villages and into the northern Cheyenne villages for the
purpose of making medicine, and getting up a war spirit, north of the Platte.”
Jacob Dunn published his book in 1886, and Eugene Ware in 1911. Stan Hoig published his in 1961, David Svaldi his in 1989, and M. Annette Jaimes hers in 1992. As recently as 1985, Lt. Col. William R. Dunn, published a book called “I Stand By Sand Creek”: A Defense of Colonel John M. Chivington and the Third Colorado Cavalry. Hoig and Jaimes consider the engagement at Sand Creek to have been a massacre of Native Americans by White Americans. Lt. Col. William Dunn, like his namesake Jacob Dunn, believes it was a battle between the Native Americans and White Americans which the Whites won. Lt. Col. Dunn makes no mention of a familial relationship with Jacob Dunn, the author of the earlier defense of Chivington made by Jacob Dunn in Massacres of the Mountains, 1886, which I quoted earlier. Lt. Col. Dunn does, however, reprint in his book Jacob Dunn’s account of the Sand Creek affair, and says it’s by “the renowned historian, Jacob Piatt Dunn, Jr., whose monumental history of the Indian wars of the Far West, covering the period from 1815 to 1883, is unsurpassed yet today.” ).” (My copy of J. P. Dunn’s book says in its subtitle that the period covered is 1815-1875.) In this, Lt. Col. Dunn has seconded Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote in his Winning of the West, 1889: “To get a fair idea of the Indians of the present day, and of our dealings with them, we have fortunately one or two excellent books, notably Hunting Grounds of the Great West and Our Wild Indians by Col. Richard I. Dodge (Hartford, 1882), and Massacres of the Mountains by J. P. Dunn (New York, 1886). Lt. Col. Dunn is said in his book to be a veteran of 38 years of military service, and to have served in the Second World War, the Chinese Civil War, and the Vietnam War. He was wounded in action four times, and was awarded 19 combat decorations, 24 service medals and 7 battle stars. As a youth, he spent many years on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota with his grandfather, who was the Indian agent there. He and his wife adopted John and Marianne Bringing Good, Arapaho and Cheyenne children, whose great-great-grandfather was the Northern Cheyenne chief Spotted Wolf, son of Chief Whistling Elk who, Dunn notes, “captured, tortured, killed, scalped and mutilated his white enemies.”
Lt. Col. Dunn says: “All sorts of ghastly stories have been told about the brutality of the Colorado soldiers at Sand Creek --- the most of which are untrue, unfounded, and unproven. Nearly every piece of testimony contained in the Congressional reports concerning scalping and mutilation of the Indian dead is hearsay --- ‘someone told me’ or ‘I heard,’ but only one or two statements that say ‘I saw’ or ‘I did.’ It is true that the fingers were cut off some Indian dead to obtain a ring --- but where did those rings come from in the first place? Yes, off a dead white man’s or woman’s finger.” In Dunn’s view, “It is reasonable, at this point, for the reader to realistically recognize the Indians of those bygone days as a white contemporary of that time in history would have viewed them. Today we know the western Indians to be civilized (by present-day standards) and good American citizens. In just over a hundred years they have progressed, through the white man’s culture, from the Stone Age to the modern civilization of the Space Age. Today red men and women fit into every wlk of the American lifestyle --- proud Indian blood flows through the hears and veins of many of our finest statesmen, military commanders, educators, authors, industrialists, businessmen, scientists, doctors, public officials, and other outstanding citizens.”
However, Dunn continues:
“But what of the ancestors of these modern Indians a century and more
past? How did our white ancestors
at the same time period look upon them? They
were considered as uncivilized barbarians by the average white settler on and
beyond the western frontiers of the United States --- and in some instances as
absolute savages. The ‘noble
redmen’ were really not so noble in those days as some recent authors would
like us to believe.” Dunn says:
“They were typical nomads, living from hand to mouth by the chase,
and constantly moving their squalid villages from place to place
in their continuous search for better hunting grounds.
Their tepee homes were filthy and infested with lice, as well as their
bodies. In most cases the tepee
dirt floors and outside surrounding areas were strewn with the bleaching,
cracked bones and pieces of rotting flesh and skins of the game they devoured.
They lived very close to Mother Earth; not much higher, in fact, than
the animals they hunted. Their sense of values and morals and reasoning were not
developed above the barbaric stage of mankind.
They painted and tattooed their bodies with hideous and grotesque
designs before entering battles and for certain pagan religious ceremonies.
They lied whenever they believed it would gain some advantage for them,
they stole because it was considered an honorable act, and they (especially
the squaws) horribly mutilated the bodies of their enemies because they
believed that the spirits of the dead would carry those same terrible wounds
into the ‘happy hunting grounds.’ By
today’s comparison, they would closely resemble the Tasaday Stone Age people
recently discovered in the remote jungles of the Philippines, the aborigines
of northern Australia and New Guinea, or the primitive and savage Indian
tribes still living in Brazil’s forested Mato Grosso and Amazon regions.”
Lt. Col. Dunn thus speaks of Indians as a homogeneous group, rather than as made up of many different groups or tribes with different ways of doing things and different alliances. He speaks in his book published in 1985 of the ancestors of modern Indians “a century or more past.” It appears, however, that by the middle of the 19th century, many Indians had been exposed to two or three centuries of massive migration from their homelands to other parts of the continent where they were often, for example, unable to find food in the way they were accustomed to, not least because people descended from European immigrants to the New World (as they often called it) had reduced their opportunities to do do in numerous ways. Millions of Indians had died of diseased introduced by immigrants to the Americas, to which the Indians had developed no immunity over time. Many Indians had succumbed to alcoholism. There had been a multitude of battles, wars and massacres involving Native Americans, Spanish Americans, British Americans, French Americans, French and British Canadian Americans (after 1759), American British Americans (after 1776), many other kinds of Europeans and European Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, mixtures of some of these, and so on, in complicated ways. By 1864, the time of the Sand Creek engagement, and still even in the 1920s, the time when Lt. Col. Dunn was growing up on the Indian reservation in North Dakota, many Indians were, it appears, in a quite different situation than they had been before Columbus landed in 1492. On the other hand, like Europeans and human beings in general, members of some groups of Indians were accustomed to killing members of other groups of Indians before the time of Columbus. The Europeans didn’t introduce Native Americans to policies of killing people, although by way of metal knives and swords, and gunpowder and firearms, they introduced more productive methods for such practices.
Lt. Co,. Dunn, a veteran of the Vietnam-USA War, draws no parallels between actions of American soldiers at such engagements as Sand Creek and actions of American soldiers in Vietnam, e.g. at My Lai. However, David Svaldi, iin his Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermination, 1989, argues that “America’s proclivity to violence when dealing with its Native peoples has formed and influenced its behavior toward peoples of other cultures. … Whites no longer expect to encounter treachery and violence at the hands of Native Americans; that enemy was vanquished long ago. … American perceptions of ‘colored enemies’ are as likely to be as distorted as nineteenth-century perceptions of Native Americans. The USA experience in Vietnam generally and the conduct of Charlie Company at My Lai 4 further illustrate such a view.” At My Lai 4, on March 16, 1968, between 175 and 400 Vietnamese civilian men, women and children were killed by members of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, U.S. 20th Infantry under the command of Captain James Medina. Information about the incident was withheld from the general public for more than a year. In the fall of 1969, the New York Times and Life magazine revealed the story of the U.S. Army’s internal investigation. Evidence of a cover-up began to be accumulated by Seymour Hersh and others in January, 1970. Among other factors, it has been maintained that a strong element of the 48th Viet Cong Battalion was located at My Lai 4.
In The Fatal Environment (1985), Richard Slotkin quotes Frances Fitzgerald, from her book Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, 1973. Slotkin says that according to Fitzgerald “the language of the Frontier Myth put the Vietnam War into a definite historical and mythological perspective.” “The Americans,” says Fitzgerald, “were once again embarked upon a heroic and (for themselves) almost painless conquest of an inferior race. To the American settlers the death of the Indians had seemed not just nationalist victory, but an achievement made in the name of humanity --- the triumph of light over darkness, of good over evil, and of civilization over brutish nature. Quite unconsciously the American officers and officials used a similar language to describe their war against the NLF [National Liberation Front].” Slotkin remarks on U.S. Marines who referred to the territory outside their perimeter as “Indian country.” In another book, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, 1962, Slotkin describes the color photographs taken by Ronald Haeberle and published in the December 5, 1969, issue. Slotkin observes that they had a considerable influence on public opinion in the USA. The accompanying narrative by Hal Wingo and others quotes participants and observers of the engagement. For example, Charles West, a soldier, tells us that Medina’s nickname is “Mad Dog.” This was meant as a mark of respect. West says Medina made his men “the best company to ever serve in Vietnam. … We were like brothers.” As to the attack on My Lai, West says “Captain Medina told us we might get a chance to revenge the deaths of our fellow Gis.” Slotkin says: “Through Haeberle’s camera/eye we witness a scene that marks the crossing of the line between the ‘normal’ excesses of the war and full-blown atrocity. As Haeberle crouches to shoot a picture of the wounded child, a GI kneels beside him. Then [according to Haeberle]: ‘The GI fired three shots into the child. The first shot knocked him back, the second shot lifted him into the air. The third shot put him down and the body fluids came out. The GI just simply got up and walked away. It was a stroboscopic effect. We were so close to him it was blurred.’ “ Slotkin discusses several other such scenes, including one of an attempted rape by a pair of GIs of a thirteen year old girl which ends with the killing of the girl and her mother, who had tried to defend her daughter.
In his Regeneration Through Violence:
The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1800, 1973, Richard
Slotkin analyzes what he calls “The Archetype of the Captivity Narratives,”
narratives of white men, women and children captured by Indians from whom they
escaped or were rescued. These
began in New England among the Puritans, early in the 17th century. According to Slotkin: “The
first captivity narratives were genuine, first-person accounts of actual
ordeals, and for that reason it is possible to view the genre as a natural,
spontaneous product of the New World experience.
However, Puritan ministers and men of letters were quick to realize the
polemical and theological potential in the tales and began to exercise direct
control over the composition of the narratives, shaping them for their own
ends. Under their hands, the
genre became very flexible, serving (often simultaneously) as literary
entertainment, material for revival sermons, and ‘experimental’ evidence
in philosophical and theological works. The
great and continuing popularity of these narratives, the uses to which they
were put, and the nature of the symbolism employed in them are evidence that
the captivity narratives constitute the first coherent myth-literature
developed in America for American audiences.”
The captivity narratives evolved over the years.
Slotkin says: “Captivity
or the undertaking of a mission [by missionaries] had been for Puritans the
only acceptable terms on which white and Indian could live together in the
wilderness. Just as the idea of
greater intimacy with the natural environment emerged in the exploration
narratives [which developed into another genre of myth-literature], the idea
of accepting greater intimacy with the Indians gained ground in the captivity
narratives written between 1750 and 1800, the Indians gained ground in the
captivity narratives written between 1750 and 1800.
Indeed, the very nature of the captivity narrative began to alter,
until the line separating captive from Indian blurred and the captive
provisionally accepted adoption into the Indian tribe.”
Applying these ideas to My Lai, Slotkin says:
“Mylai [different spelling] turned on its head one of the primary
symbolic rationales by which the administration had justified the war and its
manner of prosecuting it. In his
April 1995 address at Johns Hopkins, President [of the USA] Johnson had
justified escalation by identifying the enemy as perpetrators of a savage war
‘of unparalleled brutality’ in which ‘simple farmers are the targets of
assassination and kidnapping. Women
and children are strangled in the night … And helpless villages are ravaged
by sneak attacks.” After Mylai,
the logic of the captivity/rescue myth required us to identify ourselves
as the Indians, and by that logic our mission now became one of rescuing
Vietnam from ‘us’, or (better) of rescuing us from ourselves, by finding a
‘cure’ for the ‘American madness’ or by withdrawing from the war, and
so putting temptation away.”
In The Vanishing White Man, 1976, Stan Steiner says: “When the soldiers of the U. S. Army were sent among the
tribes of Vietnam, a newspaper in Pueblo, Colorado, heard eerie echoes of the
massacre of Sand reek, which was not far away, in the government policy of “Vietnamization.’
In the defoliation of the ‘enemy rice paddies’ it saw the slaughter
of the buffalo. In the Green
Berets’ outposts in the Mekong Delta (one was supposedly named Fort Dodge)
it saw the frontier forts of the West. In
the herding of the Vietnamese peasants into ‘protective villages’ it saw a
similarity to the Indian reservations. And
in the napalm bombing of the innocents it heard the shrieks of the dying at
David Svaldi says in Sand Creek and the Rhetoric of Extermination, 1989, of the My Lai massacre: “For the men of Charlie Company, what culminated at My Lai started with personal fears which were followed by small acts of brutality, followed by more brutal acts. As Ron Grzesik of Charlie Company admitted, “It was like going from one step to another worse one … First you’d stop the people, question them and let them go. Second, you’d stop the people, beat up an old man, and let them go. Third, you’ stop the people, beat up an old man, and then shoot him. Fourth, you go in and wipe out a village.” Svaldi indicates that like the soldiers at Sand Creek, some members of Charlie Company, under stress, assumed that the Vietnamese families at My Lai 4 were deserving of execution because they were “dinks,” “gooks” and “slopes.”