Most people in the United States understand history as the “true” story of what happened in the past. In most cases the “true” story is defined by a singular narrative supported by evidence. American’s in general expect and prefer history to be a neat and clean story that does not bring into question the people and ideas that they revere as being great. When history questions or indicts actions of the past it becomes less palatable and therefore a nuisance to many.
Coping with the idea of multiple truths can be challenging. Even the young historian is likely to battle with the concept that there is no purely objective truth. There is something idealistic and romantic about being able to tell the “real” story. As we see in Misplaced Massacre there are many perspectives or “truths” that surround the Sand Creek Massacre as with most historical events. The author, Ari Kelman, explains that accepting many truths was difficult for the parties involved in memorializing the event. Their greatest success came in their willingness to accept “the existence of multiple, sometimes even competing, recollections rather than a single, unified collective memory.” (Kelman, 43)
A unified collective memory does not exist for the incident at Sand Creek. According to Kelman, “so much uncertainty shrouds Sand Creek that seeking an unchallenged story of the massacre may not be merely futile, but also counterproductive.” There are many varied recollections of the event and three in particular that Kellman focuses on, the perpetrator, the victim, and the onlooker. (Kelman, 8) It is easy to see how three very diverse perspectives could be manifest from the same situation.
Recollections of the past can even vary on the most basic things such as the location that an event occurred. This is critical because when memorializing something we tend to build the memorial in a geographic location of importance. What happens when the accepted location that an event occurred is called into question? In the case of William Dawson, you defend your property as the “true” location. Dawson went to great lengths to defend the historical significance of his property in hope that historical value might translate to monetary value. According to Kelman, Dawson had “factored historical significance into his asking price” of 1.5 million dollars. This was between four and eight times the fair asking price for land in Kiowa County. (Kelman, 182-184, 195-196)
Kelman details the many ups and downs of the process to get the Sand Creek Massacre site memorialized properly. He shows how many players are active in the process, and how much resistance can be met. These are important lessons for public historians. When the masses will be exposed to an interpretation it is critical that the interpretation be representative of those whose story it tells. Nonetheless, it must also appeal in a way that compels the local community to allow the public display of a history not their own.
Humans are reluctant to allow the other to tell their history. This is most true in the world of public history because far more people will be exposed to the interpretation than would be in a book targeted at a small group of scholars. Native Americans are defensive of their right to tell their own history because the other has already misrepresented them. In Custer Died for your Sins, Vine Deloria, concisely explains the root of the distrust. She postulates that “behind each successful man stands a woman and behind each policy and program with which Indians are plagued, if traced completely back to its origin, stands the anthropologist.” (Deloria, 81) A distrust in social scientists from the outset forces the public historian to be hypersensitive to the perspective of Native Americans. The public historian needs to work closely with the tribes and include them in telling their history, in every way possible.
The video “9 Question Native Americans Have for White People” shows how massive cultural insensitivity as it pertains to Native Americans is prevalent in the United States. This particular video is targeting the American population in general, however it is an excellent reminder for public historians. Do not assume that you understand anything from another culture, we all know the saying about assuming things. We need to remember that even other cultures objects, in this case headdresses, need to be represented in a way that works with the culture those objects belong to.
Historians need to embrace that there are many “truths” because it is job security. If there are always new perspectives to illuminate, than there will be no shortage of stories to tell.