Only the Earth and the Mountains interrogates the narrative of settler colonialism in the American West by white pioneers and its implications to society today by examining the repercussions of the Sand Creek Massacre, in which more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were murdered by U.S. Cavalry troops on November 29, 1864. In speaking to the survivors’ descendants, it becomes clear that this event is a living, perpetual loss—one that should not be forgotten.
Filmmaker Elleni Sclavenitis’s documentary work considers the world through the lens of history and explores repressed historical events in order to expose the power structures underlying conceptions of historical truth. Through all of her projects, Sclavenitis aims to show how the past reverberates throughout the present in significant and often unacknowledged ways. She has exhibited at venues including Kasseler Dokfest in Kassel, Germany; Schikaneder Kinosaal in Vienna, Austria; REDCAT and The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles; Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, CA; and The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, among others. She has worked as a ﬁlm editor in Los Angeles and taught in the art department at Otis College of Design. She received her MFA from California Institute of the Arts.
Only the Earth and the Mountains: Trailer from elleni sclavenitis on Vimeo.
As a white woman growing up in Colorado, I didn’t learn about the Sand Creek Massacre in school. Nor did I learn about the Cheyenne or Arapaho people, who had inhabited the borderless plains of North America for thousands of years before the formation of the United States. Instead, I learned that the West had been an unoccupied wild frontier until it was discovered, tamed, and settled by European pioneers.
In my documentary, Only the Earth and the Mountains, I interrogate this narrative of the “settlement” of the West by white pioneers and its ongoing implications to society today by examining the repercussions of the Sand Creek Massacre. On November 29, 1864, the U.S. Cavalry led by Colonel John Chivington launched a brutal attack on a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in the southeastern corner of the Colorado Territory, killing more than 200 native men, women and children. Chivington and his men killed the Cheyenne and Arapaho with extreme brutality; according to an eyewitness, Captain Silas Soule, “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there.”
As I learned about the Massacre, I began to see the impact of white colonization all around me: in the names of Denver’s streets, in the imprint of the city’s grid on the grassy plain, in the railroad tracks slashing through the landscape to the East, and in the ridge line of the Rocky Mountains. It has taken the State of Colorado many years to acknowledge that the Massacre was a criminal act; Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper issued an official apology to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the Massacre.
It is only because of the perseverance of the Cheyenne and Arapaho descendants of the Massacre, and their allies, that the Massacre is remembered today.
During the process of interviewing the descendants of the survivors of the Massacre, it became clear to me that this event was a living, perpetual loss—one that cannot be relegated to history and forgotten. Through the use of long takes, minimal editing, and ﬁxed-frame photography, I call attention to the importance of their stories and the way in which this history continues to reverberate in the lives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho today. Their conception of time is circular: the unhealed wound of the Massacre continues to bleed today.
My ﬁlm is a call for memorialization to be a living process, one that invites ongoing reﬂection, dialogue and analysis. The aim of this work is not only to educate, but to propose understanding as a form of resistance against the forces that brought the Massacre about—arrogance, greed and racism—and to never let this happen again.