Welcome to the web site of JJ Sheahan
September 2, 2014

REVIEW OF Massacre at Sand Creek: Narrative Voices by Bruce Cutler (1995)

I originally bought the book because I wanted to know about the Narrative Voices in the title. Here was a brutal subject but also the promise of something more than simple brutality. I am reminded of Wilfred Owen’s poetry from WWI, of his struggle as a man who trained for the clergy who wanted to be a great poet, who also fought like a demon in the maelstrom of the Western Front. How can the Horror be communicated through the language and construction of poetry? I wanted to see how Bruce Cutler approached the challenge.

The Massacre at Sand Creek is a tale of treachery, hypocrisy, savagery and prejudiced blood-lust let loose with official approval. We have our own episodes in Australia. While on a lesser scale than Sand Creek, the intent (genocide, revenge) was the same, and the methods, the rationale, the religious and economic fervor, the trophies also. The last one I know of was in 1928 in our Northern Territory. 

I am the richer for having read this book. I am glad that my curiosity about the sound of those Narrative Voices impelled me to buy the book. The letters of Si Soule convey the backstory clearly and simply in the prose poetry (?) of an ordinary, honest man with a keen self-awareness and understanding of others. He makes his choice, knows the cost that will be exacted, and stands by it.

In contrast, the voices of Chivington and his wife are sinuous and strident. The interview process, not the resultant article, is the vehicle for Chivington’s rationalizations and Sarah’s protestations in refuting the charges others lay against him. The voices are solid as sand and slippery, oily with conceit and deceit, familiar in the news I listen to.

The narration of the attack is clearest of all. The Preface has already outlined the events; the detail of the actual narration of the massacre is sharp, bloody and bright. Soule’s thoughts as he watched the horror, disobeying the order to attack, are intensely written – poetic.

I understand Smith less. The old trapper, reviled as an ‘Indian lover’, is still seared by his son’s death and his own survival which he might see as a betrayal. His vision of Hell is still out of my reach.

There is more that I do not ‘get’ but I have only read this twice, so I am comfortable with that. The telling of the Cheyenne’s last Massaum ceremony, as the Wolves of Heaven, reminds me of the stories of our own first people: that what I hear is only the mere surface, a child’s story for the uninitiated, of something deep, complex and of great significance, and way beyond my ken because I am Outsider and Observer. The Massaum seems to be concerned with the renewal of creation, perhaps the sacredness of all life, and the interconnectedness of everything and everyone. These things are hinted at in the words because words are not able to cross this particular bridge from another way of experiencing the world. It would be like trying to describe colour to a world that only knows black and white shades.

Cutler has arranged his words on the pages in a way that reminds me of poetry. If any way of wording can better cross that gulf, it is poetry. If I am to understand this voice, the voice of the sacred, continued reading is called for. At present, my understanding is limited and I am conscious that this is a voice filtered through time and culture.

I agree with the laudatory comments on the back cover: it is a powerful telling. The use of the page and of white space is a unifying, structural feature beneath the diversity of the voices and their perspectives. I like the slow-reveal of meaning that comes from these different voices, even more evident in the second reading. For instance, I am struck now, as I write this, that the contrast in the voices reflects the differences in the perspectives, from the vain superficial to the indescribable which was trodden crushed towards silence.