on Sand Creek and Storytelling Selves

May 8, 2013

One thing I’ve wanted to do for a while is write here about books that aren’t about fostering or adoption but I think nonetheless give insights into the fostering/adopting experience. (Actually, in the past I probably wrote here or at least on GoodReads about the importance of really reading and thinking about the stories of enslaved families for an understanding of racial conditions impacting the current child welfare system.) Anyway, today I want to go ahead and start, and I’m going to start with books friends of mine have written.

Ari Kelman and I got to know each other in non-adoption nerdy internet contexts. He’s a history professor who has a new book out, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek and I really enjoyed reading it and don’t think I’d have found it without knowing him already, which is one reason I want to talk about it.

Not long before reading Ari’s book, I’d reread Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare by Dorothy Roberts, and while I absolutely agree with her driving argument that black children are over-represented in foster care and adoption from foster care for reasons stemming from racism on a lot of fronts, the anecdotes she used to buttress her arguments kept leaving me saying, “Yeah, but!” I mean, every time Mara’s mom introduces us to one of her friends or relatives, that person will tell me about being Mara’s regular babysitter. Now, maybe Mara’s mom just went through a lot of babysitters, but you’d think that if there were that many other people keeping an eye on Mara, some of them would have noticed the problems that brought her into care, no? And so I don’t entirely discount the truth of what these people tell me (and certainly not in the case of the person who gladly volunteered she’d routinely given Baby Mara soda and Cheetos and then napped while the babies watched tv, but also not in the case of the elderly relative who sheltered Mara and her mom when they didn’t have anywhere else to go) but I also think that what they’re trying to tell me is that they cared and care about Mara, that they wanted to see her do well when she was in their care and want to see her doing well now. In some cases, especially with the family, they’re giving me the story they’ve told themselves about why and how they did what they could for her that absolves them of some of the guilt or grief they might feel about losing her to foster care and adoption. This is totally normal behavior and makes a lot of sense to me, but can be understandably frustrating for the foster-adoptive parents who are hearing these stories about how great everything was until foster care came along.

So while Ari doesn’t talk about foster care and Dorothy Roberts does nothing but talk about foster care, it struck me that his book was better at covering the dynamics of how and why people tell themselves the stories they want and need to hear, which is a topic that’s long fascinated me anyway. (And to be fair to Roberts, she’s very clear on the racist cultural narratives going on and how they were shaped and who benefits from them, which I do find both useful and true, but she didn’t go as deeply into the individual side of the things as I would have preferred. I still like and highly recommend her book!)

I’d describe the Sand Creek Massacre as the violent destruction of a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment in Colorado in 1862 by soldiers from the fort supposed to protect them, possibly under the belief that they were actually harboring anti-white criminals. From the start, you get soldiers who understood their grisly attack and the destruction and mutilation that followed it as justified and justifiable, the leader of the attack who hoped to use it to further his political goals, surviving tribe members whose leaders and families had been destroyed and who could no longer keep faith in the peace system, and military men who’d refused to participate in or support the massacre. So far, so simple, right? But then you add well over a century of propaganda and selective memories, in which the massacre is commemorated as a Civil War battle on a monument at the Colorado state house while the Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants of the survivors have ended up on reservations where the massacre is seen as a deep source of collective pain and the trauma that followed. (It also somehow ends up getting mentioned as part of the backstory in the latest Iron Man movie, but despite Mara’s brief interest in running around in Iron Man’s iconic Black Power Salute-esque pose, I’m not likely to see that any time soon and can’t really say more about it.)

So by the time there starts to be interest in an official historical designation for Sand Creek, not only are the descendants deeply invested in a story they’ve carried for generations and feel is being disregarded, so are various landowners who believe (but can’t always prove) that the massacre took place on their properties and what to be well-compensated for it, the national and state officials who need to try to tease out truth from exaggeration to find and mark exactly where the massacre occurred and how to acknowledge its ambiguities, not to mention amateur historians and historical reenactors and the overwhelmingly white townspeople who aren’t sure how to feel about a potential influx of visitors. And all that’s even before the September 11 attacks in the midst of the process of preparing the historical site make it controversial to even talk about a monument to American troops who acted dishonorably, who are going to be portrayed as bad guys rather than heroes in a political context where words like “evil” are getting thrown around freely.

My favorite quote Ari got was probably near the end of the book: “I think I know what I know. But what I know is still pretty limited.” Basically any of the participants in the process to create the National Historic Site could have said it, but not all of them would have had the self-awareness to do so and Ari is fantastic at teasing out what people do think they know, but also why and how. He’s (mostly implicitly) making a larger argument that this is how all history works, piecing together incomplete and biased sources to try to find a meaningful workable narrative, and that was part of where I think it overlaps with the weird world of foster parenting. There are plenty of people involved in a case who think they know what’s going on but can’t share that with everyone or who enter something in the computer under the wrong kid’s name so a child is suddenly tagged with a sibling’s diagnosis or who get the child’s name wrong in the first place (which has happened to all three girls who’ve been in our care and is what I was originally planning to write about today) or who jump to conclusions because they think they’ve seen this story before or because it resonates with something in their own histories. None of us foster/adoptive parents, birth parents, caseworkers are ever going to know what happened to our beloved children in the gaps in their stories, and all children remember their lives with selective biases just like the rest of us do.

What I know about my girls and their families and my parenting is indeed pretty limited, but what I can control about that is my willingness to be open to multiple readings of that limited knowledge. Sometimes there’s someone like the one National Parks worker late in the process of haggling over how to reconcile various survivors’ and later visitors’ memories of the location who was able to find a plausible reading that validated all the major viewpoints and created a response that respected everyone’s truth. Sometimes, much as I hate talk about “agreeing to disagree,” I just have to be at peace with knowing that different invested parties are going to see things in mutually exclusive ways, especially in something as personal as a child’s life, safety, or custody. As Ari delineates so clearly, not only do people carry intergenerational pain through the personal stories they believe and use to define themselves, but people also create emotional connections to symbols and stories that then guide their identities and behavior. I look at this as sort of the definition of being human and accept that I’m more obsessed with the idea than your normal person, but I find a lot of meaning in looking at what people find meaningful.

In fairness to people who don’t have that inclination, when I tried to explain what I found exciting about the book to Lee by starting with a “plot” summary, she said, “That sounds boring as hell!” and, well, I guess that’s her story. She wouldn’t necessarily agree that understanding Mara’s and Nia’s families is helped by reading about slavery and debt peonage and the Great Migration and the Black Panthers, but to me it helps I can’t connect them to their ancestors directly, though we’ve got some access to those stories, and yet I can be aware of the larger narratives that lie behind theirs. I appreciate having Ari’s book to add to that mental backdrop not because it speaks to their history specifically but because it speaks to a history that includes incompleteness, uncertainty, and a somewhat satisfying ending that still doesn’t and can’t tie everything up because the world is still going and people are changing and we all only think we know what we know.

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  1. Reading entries like this make me wish you were writing books of your own. Really interesting stuff!

  2. […] about my book so far — and some not so kind and maybe not so smart things as well — but this, for my own idiosyncratic reasons, may be my favorite of the lot. Learning about the way people use […]

  3. Is everything okay? You haven’t written in over two months (!!!) which is very unlike you. This devoted reader is missing your smart, insightful posts!

    • Thanks, friend. I guess it has been two months, and parts of those were really tough. The girls are doing well and a lot of things in my life are getting better. I’ll be back soon.

  4. Okay, good. :) I’m thinking of you and your family!

  5. I miss reading about what’s going on in your life!

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