Iron Man 3 Blasts Sand Creek

Dr. Leo Killsback

The majority of mainstream Americans know little to nothing of the violent and unjust history of the colonization of Native America. Anytime such truth is revealed to the public on the big screens, it should be done fairly since these are rare opportunities to reach the masses. The brutality of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 is one of the most horrific events in American history, but it is so shameful and remains out of sight, ignored, and therefore out of the minds of the majority of Americans. Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 includes the story of Sand Creek in the first real acknowledgement of the massacre in the modern mainstream film industry, but Black miserably fails to take advantage to shed some light on the dark and shameful history of the U.S.

In the movie the villain called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) justifies his violence in a series of propaganda videos. One video showed historic pictures of Cheyennes, even children at Carlisle boarding school, with his voice-over telling how the U.S. waited for warriors to depart on a hunt before soldiers attacked the peaceful camp. The Mandarin then asserts that this same tactic inspired his terrorist group to attack a church in Kuwait filled with the families of American soldiers. Initially, I was generally impressed that Sand Creek was actually mentioned in the blockbuster film. I was even fascinated that the fictionalized villain correlated the Sand Creek Massacre to conflicts in the Middle East. Unfortunately, by midway through the film, I was completely disappointed and deeply upset that the massacre was even mentioned.

The purpose for using Sand Creek wasn’t too clear, but results in too many wrong assumptions. Are Americans supposed to hold resentment towards their terrorists as Cheyenne survivors held resentment towards the U.S. after Sand Creek? Does the correlation promote sympathy for unjust acts of genocide committed by the U.S. in 1864, or condemn terrorists as unjust and irrational as the U.S. soldiers? Whatever the case, the use of Sand Creek further confuses the populace of crimes of the past.

If the movie had made a parallel between the U.S. atrocities committed at both Sand Creek and in modern Middle East conflicts, like the revisionist films of the 1970s, then it would actually promote sympathy for the insurgents, since they defend their families and homelands against the same imperial aggression. The Mandarin’s comparison had potential to be an intelligent reflection of the George Santayana’s celebrated quote: “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.” But this was not the case and such parallels are likely to never happen in Hollywood. Besides this isn’t my primary concern.

What upset me the most is that when the Mandarin was captured and exposed as a fraud, and as he lost all credibility, he took the true story of Sand Creek with him. By virtue of association, the true story of the massacre was falsified, devalued, and in all likelihood, branded in the minds of viewers as nothing short of propaganda from a fictional terrorist played by a drug-addicted actor, played by Ben Kingsley. I would rather have the events of Sand Creek completely ignored than be subjugated to so many levels of fictionalization.

Those who teach American Indian history already face major challenges because we are often doubted for teaching unpopular content. We are also not easily respected as experts, nor are we privileged with credibility when teaching of America’s history of deception and violence against Indians. We must learn an art of teaching that encourages students to intellectually engage and evaluate unpleasant and threatening truths, while ensuring that they are welcomed and respected, as they are encouraged to welcome and respect Indian perspectives. We also must substantiate and cite facts in access to avert the appearance of bias. This is not an easy art that one can learn over night, but must be done as we sincerely and honestly impart valuable knowledge and wisdom. Both the Mandarin and Iron Man represent a source of such challenges.

I understand that the Mandarin had to develop as a worthy villain and at the end of the day it was just a movie. But when actual events, especially well-documented heinous acts of genocide, are included in make-believe stories the truth in history can also become make-believe, especially to those with no prior knowledge. Viewers may come to pompously devalue or fiercely contest any future exposures to American Indian history, especially when learning of events where innocent Indian people fell victim to the violence perpetrated and condoned by the U.S.

Most who have never learned of American Indians typically rely on Hollywood for education, whether they know it or not. Hollywood has refined their art of deception.

Iron Man 3 represents that deception, enabling ignorance to thrive while disgracing the nearly 200 innocent Cheyenne men, women, and children who were murdered that cold day on November 29, 1864. Any massacre should never be fictionalized.

Dr. Leo Killsback is a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation of Montana and culturally and spiritual identifies as a Cheyenne person. He is an qssistant professor in American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.


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Anonymous's picture
I used to have as part of my telephone greeting, "Remember Sand Creek." I never had one caller in two plus years who knew to what I was referring. Not one. What an unspeakable atrocity the massacre was, and the obscenity today is that so few still know anything about it or the stealing of the west. Shame on us all. We owe a debt to our Indian brothers and sisters that we can never repay. Remember Sand Creek indeed. weh
Two Bears Growling's picture
This is always how it has been, son of the people. For so many hundreds of years since the Invaders landed on the shores of our Continent, we were deemed savages & devils. now who was were the savages & devils? The Invaders were, that's who! For so many years we were called uneducated. Uneducated by whom? The Invaders! Who were they to call anyone uneducated! So many of them couldn't have survived had it not been for our people on the East coast helping them out. We were all doing just fine until these washichu evil ones murdered our ancestors for the beautiful lands & all the mineral wealth beneath the surface. We were tricked, cheated, lied to about so many things. Especially in those treaties that weren't worth the paper they were written on. Somehow we have survived, though not untouched by the ravages of time, but still there has always been a group of our many people who did not forget our languages, our cultures & beliefs & all that makes us who we are. I am thankful for my ancestors, as I am sure many of us all are, for seeing what our future would be to where many of our people are thriving & beating the washichu at their own games! We are once more starting to open immersion schools for our children taught by our own people. We are seeing those early fruit of this labor of love take hold with pride in our communities. I am so grateful to the Creator to have lived long enough to see this take place finally. Dreams DO come true my friends if we believe they can & never give up that hope that creates the reality & carries it forth to fruition.
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
-"Any massacre should never be fictionalized."...How was it "fictionalized"? He told it like it was, and it wasn't exactly deception and the director made a political point and now millions of people are aware of the fact. I especially like how he pointed out how they waited until all the men were off hunting before they came in for their massacre. Agree with the content of "fictional" Iron Man 3 or not, but I don't see how we're supposed to be up in arms and all 'angry Indian' over it. No one is going to come out of there thinking, "That Mandarin guy just made up a fictional Sand Creek Massacre!" What I object is that you would liken Cheyenne's to let's say Taliban or Islamist extremists, (I also object that you gave out movie spoilers but I've seen it so oh well). We have people on our the N. Cheyenne Rez who have fought in the Afghan wars and have sacrificed, and Sand Creek doesn't need to be likened to Taliban fighters as far as an Iron Man 3 script goes to appease you.
Anonymous's picture
But you also have to remember, mainstream America is just that and Iron man III is all about that. One thing you do not mention is the "curiosity" factor, what was that all about? was this an actual event? etc... I remember in grade school, my history teacher mentioned Communism Communist's , I had no idea who? and what? it was. I asked him "what is communism?", He looked at me and said "If you want to know, that is up to you, research it out for yourself because I will never mention that word again."
Great job's picture
thank you for the insightful explanation of the problems with that movie, I have never seen it, but have felt the same way about how Hollywood and society downplay history.
Great job
Anonymous 's picture
I watched the movie twice and I believe that the movie doesn't put The Sand Creek on blast. Yes he mentions it but he doesn't call it down or bad mouth it. He does what any terrorist would do, he praises it. By him coming out as a fake, doesn't mean everything he said was fake. He uses it as an example to his plans. I have a degree in teaching and work for the Lame Deer Schools and as a Northern Cheyenne member myself, It angers me when my own people try and make something into what it's not. I understand you're mad because he doesn't clear up his words about The Sand Creek, but that's not what the movie is about. It's not based on The Sand Creek. Getting mad and making a big deal out of this is like the Black environment getting mad over a slave movie, or Mexicans getting mad over a movie that has Mexican stereotypes. It's pointless. By us getting all offensive like this, gives the white man reasons to not like us. By us acting hostile, makes them think we're all like that so that gives them the thoughts to not like us even more. I understand we are all fighters but we shouldn't be the ones starting the fights. But in the end, it's just a movie.
Anonymous's picture
I am not a Cheyenne, but what I read seems only to be a comparison of some sort. When I was little about 8 years my father made me watch a movie about Sand Creek. Hollywood or not the movie was accurate about the massacre. I get tired of Indigenous Native Americans making big issues out of some things little. People getting involved with the Redskins thing and they're not even from that area or whatever, just to get some recognition or as some say "just to be seen". I am glad we had ancestors who fought HARD enough to keep some of us alive. We as Native American people are all in this together. Why not say something about being called Indians, we are not INDIANS, they are from India. My older brother always told me not to introduce myself as an Indian.
Anonymous's picture
-"...and as a Northern Cheyenne member myself, It angers me when my own people try and make something into what it's not." Exactly. As a N. Cheyenne I felt this dude was complaining for the sake of it.
Anonymous's picture
You are so right on, we need more writers like you, to keep the playing field of empire movie corporate business, truthful, fair, just, an accountable of their white superiority systemic racist tendencies and their history as dominators, exploiters, and dehumanizer's of human beings and all living thing's! One, need to ask himself why, isn't the Native American Union Acting Guild voicing and doing something about transforming this unjust and uncreative order of domination.
Anonymous's picture
I was very excited they mentioned Sand Creek to, hoping in might shine some light on the American Holocaust but as the article states, you completely loose the whole point which is very hard to understand also.