TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma – An institution in Oklahoma's Indian Country hosted a Zoom conversation March 31 with a University of Texas at El Paso professor, who detailed the history and public memory of the Washita Massacre as an example of how Indigenous stories are silenced.
Although the incident has historically been known as a battle, what happened Nov. 27, 1868, near Cheyenne, Oklahoma, is arguably a slaughter. Dr. Jeffery Shepherd told listeners at Northeastern State University that members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes consider it a massacre of their family, and that it’s important to respect Indigenous perspectives. The conversation revolved around the massacre, but also the ensuing struggle to commemorate and claim representation over the event.
“The massacre was a pivotal event in what the [National] Parks Service and some traditional historians will call the Indian Wars, ” said Dr. Jeffery Shepherd. “We can obviously problematize that as more of an issue of conquest and removal and dispossession.”
Lt. Col. George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle that day. Years before, in 1864, U.S. troops attacked and destroyed Chief Kettle’s village, and around 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children were killed. This came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
Shepherd said the number of Natives killed by the U.S. military during the Washita Massacre ranges from 20 to 103, and politics have played a role in the numbers.
“The massacre itself sparked years of Cheyenne and Arapaho resistance, struggle with the U.S military and the settler colonial population moving across the West, and then eventual removal and being forced onto the large Cheyenne, Arapaho reservation,” said Shepherd.
Immediately afterward, Custer and his men offered a narrative, said Shepherd, that they were simply following orders from military leadership – and that the deaths of 19 soldiers were part of their sacrifice to bring civilization to Native people.
“So they were martyred,” Shepherd said. “The deaths stem from ‘an inevitable clash of cultures that involved violence on both sides.’ This is the rhetoric that starts to emerge immediately in December 1868."
Shepherd said part of settler colonial societies included “myth-making,” to support tropes of American innocence. He said this builds off of older ideas of Manifest Destiny, the widely held cultural belief that American setters were destined to expand across North America. The Cheyenne and Arapaho saw it differently.
“Although there were interviews in some periodicals, they never made it out into the public very much during the early 20th Century, in part because of the larger systemic racism and also because those memories confounded in the larger project of settler colonial myth-making,” Shepherd said. “So the Cheyenne and Arapaho perspectives see this as a massacre of family members – that they’re unable to properly bury their kin."
Land runs and allotments began in the 1880s and 1890s, eventually leading to Oklahoma statehood. This would cast a shadow, retroactively, over the Washita Massacre. Many mass killings serve as historical pivot points or watershed moments for Indigenous communities, but Shepherd said the land runs eclipsed the massacre as the major traumatic event for Cheyenne and Arapaho people.
“With statehood and the creation of public schools, we see textbooks emerging throughout the 20th Century,” he said. “Those textbooks continued to repeat these older tropes – based on Custer’s reports, the military reports, and these self-serving reports – that the violence was inevitable.”
Throughout much of the mid-20th Century, there was a shift to commemorate historical events and places. This happened in the U.S. West via the Indian Wars, wherein organizations and the state built roadside attractions and a picnic area overlooking the massacre site. Then in 1968, a reenactment for the centennial of the massacre was held. Shepherd said Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants of survivors of the Washita Massacre participated in the reenactment, but didn’t realize a continent of the great-grandsons of some of the 7th Cavalry were planning to depict an invasion and attack of the camp, which was created in 1968.
“They were surprised by these cavalry men dressed up in 19th Century military garb, shooting blanks,” said Shepherd. “The fake soldiers went off script and really scared a lot of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and this was a turning point for many of them, particularly Peace Chief Lawrence Hart of the Cheyenne, who realized 100 years after the massacre, this wound was still causing pain and the Anglo community was not paying attention to that.”
From the 1960s to the 1990s, efforts emerged to reimagine American history to become more inclusive, more critical, and multivocal. In the 1990s, the Cheyenne and Arapaho became involved in rethinking the historic site of the massacre. Chief Hart had testified in front of Congress once before in an effort to preserve the grounds as a historic site. Shepherd said Congress wasn’t interested in appropriating any money, but after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Hart returned to testify again.
“He compared Washita to the Murrah Federal Building bombing,” said Shepherd. “He said it in a very eloquent and diplomatic way, but he basically said the way you feel, or the way white people feel now, is the way Washita felt."
Today, the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site’s cultural center, created in 1996, is still tied to the “trope of inevitable culture clash in their attempts to represent both sides equally.” Shepherd said some people will say it’s fine to attempt to represent both sides equally, but it could hinder the full explanation of what actually happened.
“There’s also a choice there to name these sites a national battlefield,” he said. “There’s power in naming, and it’s somewhat difficult to accept that they’re representing both sides, when the name privileges one specific viewpoint.”
Shepherd added that narratives of innocence running through U.S. history in ideas of American exceptionalism facilitate marginalization and land theft, and silence ongoing pain.
“This site is really a source of ongoing trauma that Native people have been blocked from reconciliation, seeking truth, hearing their full story conveyed, and the full airing of the pain that continues with that silencing,” he said.