Downstream from Big Sandy Creek

I’m on my way to visit my sister in Des Moines, Iowa.  I left Houston before sunrise yesterday and drove all the way to Kansas City, Missouri. Twelve hours on the road. 

Photo by Tom Fisk on

The book I’m listening to is There, There by Tommy Orange. My friend Resa recommended it. It’s about several modern-day Native Americans who converge on a powwow in Oakland, California. “There, there” refers to Gertrude Stein’s quote about the city where she grew up.  

One of the characters in There, There makes a passing reference to the Sand Creek Massacre

The Sand Creek Massacre is where 675 volunteer cavalrymen attacked a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians living under the protection of the American flag. Two hundred Natives Americans were killed.  

I had never heard of the Sand Creek Massacre until I read about it in Lauret Savoy’s Trace: Memory, History, and the American Landscape. Savoy is an earth scientist who is Black and Native American. Her work involves studying the landscape to find clues about the geological and sociological order of things. 

In Trace, Savoy writes about a day spent exploring the shores of Big Sandy Creek, near the massacre site.  Big Sandy Creek is a tributary of the Arkansas River, which flows from the foothills of the Rockies in eastern Colorado, through Kansas and Oklahoma, and finally into the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Savoy explains how earthen material gets washed downriver–not just dirt, but entire tribes of people and their stories and languages too–continually buried and unburied with geologic force. 

I thought about all this as I drove through eastern Oklahoma, through land that the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed as a protected reservation for the Muscogee Creek Nation. 

Just north of Muskogee, Oklahoma, I crossed over the Arkansas River. It was about this time that the narrator of my audiobook said the words “Sand Creek Massacre.” I had to pause at the synchronicity of it all. And to wonder again at how much history I wasn’t taught, and how frustrating it must be to the people who are still living that history.  

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