Gregory F. Michno, a special contributor to Wild West, first wrote for this magazine in June 1996, and the article, “Lakota Noon at the Greasy Grass,” won a Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. That piece and his subsequent book Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat (1997) deal with one of Michno’s favorite topics, the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. But the entire Indian wars saga interests the author, who has forged a new research trail and offered controversial perspectives on Sand Creek, Wounded Knee and other conflicts.
‘Since the incident has been almost universally portrayed as a massacre, I tried to present a viewpoint that would lend credence to the minority view an actual battle had occurred, albeit one accompanied by horrible atrocities. Big mistake. I actually thought facts would persuade. They don’t’
Why write about Sand Creek?
When you present an inquiry to a publisher, one of the first things asked is, “What is your target audience?” Without trying to sound glib, my answer is always, “Me.” I only write for myself, to simply learn more about a subject I find intriguing. There were no pressing reasons except to possibly learn for myself why there seemed such great controversy in depicting the event as a battle or massacre.
How did you research it?
Indian accounts of the Little Bighorn fight were often seen as so contradictory and out of sync in time and space that they were considered useless, but with proper study and arranging I believe they made very good sense. You have to realize that everyone’s perspective is different. Likewise, in writing about Sand Creek, you would swear the eyewitnesses were talking about different events. I tried to show there was a significant amount of evidence that portrayed the event as a battle, and when I did, I was accused of being too pro-white. Of course, when I showed the Lakota and Cheyenne point of view in Lakota Noon, I was considered too pro-Indian. Maybe if both sides find something to complain about, you are on to something.
Your take on Sand Creek?
There are a number of books about Sand Creek, written usually from one of two extremes. For the last several decades a decidedly pro-Indian, anti-soldier tone has been in evidence. I wanted to learn why, and in a fit of unwarranted optimism I believed I would be able to clear the waters. I had the belief that presenting the evidence, the facts, would actually allow people to objectively evaluate the situation and perhaps see the affair in a different light. Since the incident has been almost universally portrayed as a massacre, I tried to present a viewpoint that would lend credence to the minority view an actual battle had occurred, albeit one accompanied by horrible atrocities. Big mistake. I actually thought facts would persuade. They don’t.
How has the book been received?
There have been mixed feelings, mixed reviews. Of course those who saw the incident as a battle thought it was great, and those who were just as positive it was a massacre saw it as inaccurate. But people will take out of history what they put into it. They will read and see what they already are. Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing.
Battle or massacre?
It seems it is impossible to extricate ourselves from the battle vs. massacre quagmire, but framing the question in that manner is a logical fallacy. It demands a choice between two answers, which are not exclusive and not exhaustive. Sand Creek could be a battle, and it could be a massacre, and it could be something in between. Just ask anyone who was there. Well, maybe not, because they certainly don’t agree. Reading the contradictory eyewitness reports, one would swear they were talking about two completely different incidents. Historians are stuck with eyewitnesses and/or participants who wouldn’t or couldn’t for the life of them pass on an accurate rendering of what they experienced. And don’t ask the historians; they are trying their best to prove their own case and have all the prejudices of the eyewitnesses.
What are the challenges in presenting such controversial subject matter?
A historian is obligated to present all sides of a question and let the reader decide, but he is also subject to the same psychological constrictions and foibles of the reader. I sometimes think that about the only way a historian can serve the craft is to present a historiographical survey of the topic and let the reader choose, but even in this format his confirmation bias will simply throw out everything that doesn’t already fit in with his preconceptions.
Did you discover any surprising research materials?
In my first Sand Creek book I pretty much used standard primary and secondary sources. The military inquiry and congressional hearings were the best sources for eyewitness quote-mining. There were also some good contemporary letters written by participants. I suppose they are not unique, but they were surprising, mainly in realizing just how bad eyewitness testimony is, with its false memories altered by leading questions and subsequent input and experience, self-interest and cognitive dissonance with its attendant rationalizations that justify beliefs to ease one’s mind.
What attracted you to write about the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota?
I guess I’m being redundant, but it was simply because I was interested in it. I visited the area a few times and was intrigued. The books I had read about it didn’t give me the details I wanted, especially in locating where many of the settler households were. The terrain does something to me. Being on the ground and matching the cabin locations with the participant accounts can be emotional—at least for an eccentric historian.
How does your perspective compare/contrast with other books on the subject?
In Dakota Dawn I tried to use Indian and white participant accounts, but as in most studies of this type the documentation is heavily weighted toward the white settlers, since they did most of the recording. The Dakotas certainly got the worst of the bargain for many years, and they finally erupted, but there were innocent settlers who caught the brunt of the frustration. Again, it is a matter of perspective. What I believe I accomplished in Dakota Dawn is something like I did in Lakota Noon: I tried to pinpoint locations in time and space to provide more micro-scale detail. I need to do this for myself to better understand events. If I can make it understandable to me, I assume the reader will also benefit.
You focus on a narrow time span. Why not present a broader view of the uprising?
At first I believed I could carry through with Dakota Dawn past the initial events in August 1862 and follow the white military response through the remainder of the year. It just became a matter of too many pages. I was already at the upper limits of standard word length and only one week into the uprising. I had to cut it there, but I was satisfied, because the Dakotas’ main thrust was already about spent by then. They had reached their high-water mark after seven days, so that was a good place to stop. Of course, that does leave a nice opening for a second volume to finish the story.
How did life on the Texas frontier compare to settlers’ lives farther north?
In The Settlers’ War, which was about Texas in the 1860s, I note factors that may have made a difference in the Indian response. Settlers moved into that area earlier than they did on the northern plains. Mexico encouraged settlement in the 1820s, far sooner than in the north. The Comanche and Kiowa were perhaps more aggressive than some of the northern tribes—or had an earlier reason to be. Even by the 1850s the settlement line in the north generally followed a north-south line from western Minnesota and Iowa through eastern Nebraska and Kansas, but it bulged out to the west in Texas. A salient of white homesteads in this area may have been an obvious irritant and target. Also the Texas Revolution and Mexican War had adversely affected the Southwestern Indians more than those farther north. Texas was a hot spot of turmoil earlier and more often than elsewhere. What I did find was that Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army were not nearly as effective in protecting against Indian incursions as is usually portrayed. Overall, the Texas settlers fought the Indians for more years and suffered more losses than settlers on the central Plains. Then again, one giant paroxysm, such the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, matched as much or more of the Texas suffering in only one week’s time.
How do you vet eyewitness accounts to ensure their reliability?
Sometimes I’ll find many contradictory accounts. So, which, if any, are true? Many people have heard the story of Custer being killed in June 1876 while trying to cross the Little Bighorn River. That account comes from White Cow Bull, as passed down by author David H. Miller. White Cow Bull said he shot a buckskin-clad soldier off his horse into the water, and he named other Indians who were there shooting with him. The tale is almost universal today—Custer died at the river. But the other Indians who were there did not say anything of the sort. In fact, more than a dozen other eyewitnesses said the fight with the soldiers occurred on the other side of the river, and no one was shot into the water at the ford. How the story gained such play is mind boggling. Still, you have to present White Cow Bull’s tale, but the dozen contradictory witnesses show that his story is nonsense.
The eyewitness testimony at Sand Creek is replete with similar contradictions. Take, for example, the question as to whether or not there was an American flag flying above Black Kettle’s village. I found testimony from six men who said they saw one and another six who insisted there was no flag. With testimony split 50-50, it is reasonable to conclude there was a flag. If some didn’t see one, we could simply conclude they missed seeing it. Of course, these pro and con affirmations easily could be a function of self-interest just as well. We will never be able to vet testimony thoroughly enough to ensure reliability. Again, we simply get from history whatever our preconceptions allow in.
Some say your books are brutally honest, or perhaps honestly brutal. How do you respond?
The book that drew several comments in that vein was A Fate Worse Than Death. One reviewer took exception to showing that members of some Plains tribes did rape female captives. The reviewer did not argue that it was untrue, only that he didn’t want to read about it. It offended his mindset. Another said that exposing the many capture and rape incidents was gratuitous. However, it was done with purpose, a main one being to show the differences between being captured by Eastern vs. Western Indian tribes. There was more rape involved in the West, and very few captive women chose to remain with their captors when given a chance to leave. Cynthia Ann Parker, captured in Texas, is the one case almost universally cited to show that white women preferred to remain with the Indians. One case does not prove a point. Although it would take additional examination, I would venture to say that the percentage of Indians who raped white women was very low, and that their actions were not looked upon favorably by the majority of the tribe, just as in the case of the soldiers who raped or mutilated Indians. Deviant behavior is not limited to any group, but it is not approved either.
How do you go about choosing a topic to research?
I write about whatever catches my interest, mainly because I want to learn more about it. If I provide a different interpretation, perhaps it will engender further discussion and open up new avenues of exploration, which should be beneficial for all. My first two books were about the Little Bighorn fight. Some Custer aficionados hoped I would do more, but there are so many other fascinating topics to study. My next two books were about World War II in the Pacific, then to Sand Creek, Indian captivity, the Snake War in the Northwest, the Texas frontier, the 1862 Sioux Uprising and even one (Circle the Wagons, 2008) about Indian attacks on wagon trains in reality vs their depiction in Hollywood. I guess that’s why my junior high teachers told me I was a daydreamer and couldn’t keep my mind focused on one subject.
What are you working on now?
Plenty of good stuff cooking. One is completely out of my normal area of interest: From Witchcraft to Christcraft: The Three-Century Evolution of the American Witch. It is more or less a history of American fear and persecution, first of white witches—through escalating violence many times fueled by religious fervor—to black witches, red ones, Communists and Muslims.
I am halfway through Smoke Over the Sangre de Cristo: Indian Depredation Claims and the Ute-Jicarilla Wars, 1848–1855. Here I am finding that white allegations of Indian depredations had been exaggerated and even completely fabricated, which, with other complications peculiar to the New Mexico frontier, did lead to Indian warfare that could have been avoided. Here the military are the good guys and the civilians the bad guys.
And you’ve written again about Sand Creek?
I’ve finished The Three Battles of Sand Creek: In Blood, in Court and as the End of History, to be published this year by Savas Beatie. In effect it is a history book about the impossibility of writing accurate history. This one has a strong postmodernist flavor, exploring the concept that there are no facts, we invent them in our memories, our memories are often false, we make poor eyewitnesses, we fall for suggestions, we do just what the rest of the herd does, we are slaves to our prejudices, cognitive dissonance rules our actions, confirmation bias blinds us, and assuredly we never let truth get in the way of what we already think. Evidence will never change our minds.
We might say that nothing has ever happened. There are no facts. There are only our interpretations of them, all filtered through individual lenses, bounced like a pinball through the synapses of our brains and true only for the one doing the filtering. After the “facts” have been either consciously or unconsciously deformed by the participants and the historians, the reader gets to apply the same mechanisms to her own peculiar system. Then you get the book review. WW
Candy Moulton’s biography Valentine T. McGillycuddy: Army Surgeon, Agent to the Sioux (2015) is available in paperback from the University of Oklahoma Press. Books by Michno include The Mystery of E Troop (1994), Lakota Noon (1997), Encyclopedia of Indian Wars (2003), Battle at Sand Creek (2004), A Fate Worse Than Death (co-written with Susan Michno, 2007), The Deadliest Indian War in the West (2007), Forgotten Fights (co-written with Susan Michno, 2008), Dakota Dawn (2011) and The Settlers’ War (2011).
Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Wild West.