Frontier History Revisited and Revised

Carol Berry
2/15/11

A bloody episode in U.S. frontier history may be depicted officially as a massacre rather than as a battle if the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma follow through on one proposed change in the designation of a historic site.

The National Park Service (NPS) administered Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in western Oklahoma may become the Cheyenne Massacre Memorial Site or the Chief Black Kettle Band Memorial Site, or it could be given another name of tribal members’ choosing, according to Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes planning officials coordinating the change.

The campground near the Washita River would become the second site nationwide to carry the massacre designation if that is the title chosen by the tribes, according to the NPS.

To date, only the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site—formerly the Sand Creek Battlefield NHS--in southeastern Colorado has been renamed to more accurately reflect the killing of Native noncombatants by the U.S. military.

Southern Cheyenne Peace Chief Black Kettle survived the attack by the 3rd Colorado Cavalry on the encampment at Sand Creek in 1864 only to be killed four years later at another winter camp on the Washita River--the contemporary NPS site--in an onslaught by the 7th U.S. Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.

As many as 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women and children, are believed to have died at Sand Creek. Although fewer were killed at the Washita, many of those who died in the surprise attack were noncombatants, according to the NPS.

The possibility of the name change was mentioned two years ago in an annual meeting of Cheyenne Chiefs, Headmen and tribal members, according to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune.

“Then in 2010, the Office of Planning & Development and the newly established Tribal Historic Preservation Office, along with the collaborative efforts of Culture and Heritage program, provided technical assistance in the planning and coordinating of public meetings,” the paper said.

The tribal planning office said on Feb. 14 a survey is currently being conducted about a name for the site, but no one has been asked at this time to introduce legislation in Congress for a re-designation. Of the names listed as "under consideration" to date, none include the terms “battle” or “battlefield.”

Designations of NPS sites as battlefields or massacres are legislated, not determined by the NPS, according to federal officials.

“The tribes are going through their internal process,” Lisa Conard-Frost, Washita site NPS superintendent, said. “We’ll be glad to be involved in whatever they decide.”

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