History Colorado could shutter its controversial Sand Creek Massacre exhibit

History Colorado could shutter its controversial Sand Creek Massacre exhibit
History Colorado misfired with its Sand Creek Massacre exhibit.

The space fills with the sounds of dogs barking, horses galloping, people running, gasping for breath. Red, white and blue lights illuminate quotes on white cloth shrouding the artifacts beyond: a poster calling for Indian fighters, a pair of moccasins, a howitzer. If this were one of the seven other "Colorado Stories," displays showing the state's inhabitants "at their best — and worst" that were unveiled when the $110 million History Colorado Center opened a year ago this week, you could move on to fly off a virtual ski jump or descend into a mine. And considering the dumbed-down Disneyfication of those exhibits, we might have dodged a bullet here: At least the planners who created Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre 1860s-Today do not have you pretend to fire a cannon at the peaceful members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes who were camped along Sand Creek on November 29, 1864.

But descendants of those killed by Colonel John Chivington and his troops that day — more than 150 members of the tribes, mostly women, children and elderly men — still feel that History Colorado has taken aim at their hearts, their history, their heritage.

The Sand Creek Massacre is a particularly black chapter in Colorado history, and finding the right way to tell the story has not been easy, as the National Park Service discovered when it began working with tribal representatives on the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, established by Congress in 2000 and finally dedicated in 2007. But difficult as that process was, the NPS found a way to have a meaningful discussion with the tribes. History Colorado did not.

In fact, most tribal representatives first learned of preliminary plans for Collision in November 2011, fewer than six months before the History Colorado Center was slated to open, and were so concerned by what they heard — starting with the very name — that they asked for a meeting. That December, History Colorado representatives, including state historian William Convery, traveled to Billings, Montana, by the Northern Cheyenne reservation, to hear their objections. Which were numerous. "We sincerely apologize that we have not consulted the tribes earlier," Convery wrote in a letter co-signed by History Colorado CEO Ed Nichols in early January 2012. "The work we have done together in the past, which continues to include our exhibit program today, has been productive and important. It is precisely because we value these relationships and honor the tribes that an exhibit about the Sand Creek Massacre becomes a critical piece of our opening exhibition plan. This story is one the people of Colorado need to know."

But not the way History Colorado planned to tell it. After another meeting in March, tribal members asked that the exhibit's opening be postponed. History Colorado refused, but did make some minor corrections of major errors — and also agreed to include the letter that Silas Soule, the lieutenant who'd refused to participate in the massacre, had written to General Edward Wynkoop describing the horrors of the action, as well as to install a video that had been made years before of tribal elders recounting the stories that their ancestors had told them. The concessions were not enough: In August, the Northern Cheyenne sent a letter to Nichols requesting that the now-open Collision be closed and that History Colorado schedule "meaningful consultation meetings" with tribal members. History Colorado again refused. In November, tribal leader Joe Fox made "one last attempt," requesting that History Colorado engage in consultations and, in the meantime, promise "that the exhibit will be closed to the public during the reinstallation.... As the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre approaches, we also see this as an opportunity to expose some alarming truths and make known our fears that some attitudes have not changed with the passage of time."

In his response, Nichols again declined to close the exhibit, but did offer for History Colorado to launch an "audience survey of museum visitors who view the Sand Creek exhibit," promising to share the results with the tribes.

The Northern Cheyenne did not respond to that letter. They had asked three times for the exhibit to be closed and had been refused three times. "Collision? It's a massacre," an outraged Norma Gourneau, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Descendants Committee who learned about Sand Creek from her great-grandmother, told me when I wrote "Collision Course," detailing the Northern Cheyenne's concerns with the exhibit, two months ago. "They're not even trying to meet us halfway.... We asked them to take it down because it's supposed to be entertaining for them...but it's a major tragedy done to us."

A major tragedy that is beginning to get national attention. Indian Country has been reporting on the dispute, and Smithsonian is sniffing around it. There are now three different investigations into Sand Creek under way. Both Northwestern University and the University of Denver have set up committees to look into the involvement of former Colorado territorial governor John Evans, who founded both schools, in the Sand Creek Massacre. Evans had appointed Methodist minister Chivington to lead the 3rd Colorado cavalry; the Methodist church has also appointed a commission to study Sand Creek.

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My Voice Nation Help

Wynkoop wasn't a General.  Almost 150 years now and white folks still can't get this story straight.

Elizabeth Lemont
Elizabeth Lemont

I agree. It's a bold love to feature it since it's a part of the state's history that most people choose to waltz around.

Michael Beckerman
Michael Beckerman

They shouldn't. It's one of the most powerful and compelling museum exhibits anywhere in the country today. If you really want to understand the savagery and brutality that humans are capable of doing to each other - right here in Colorado none the less - then you need to go see this exhibit. I was there on opening Day covering this new museum for the magazine I was shooting for at the time and every single person that saw this exhibit was just stunned by how moving it was. Every person that saw it left with tears in their eyes. People need to see and experience exhibits like this so that what happened there never happens again.


I gave the museum a heads up many months ago, but they did not heed it.  While filming my award-winning documentary film, "The Sand Creek Massacre", which was cataloged into the Smithsonian,  several other museums including the  Heard Museum, the Booth Museum, colleges and universities University of California at Berkley and 43 Tribal College libraries, Southern Cheyenne Chief (Whistling Eagle) Cometsevah told me, and it is in the film, that the Cheyenne people are simply looking for respect.  History Colorado ran roughshod over the Cheyenne just as so many others have ever since the massacre happend on November 29, 1864.  It is time to show respect, History Colorado, show respect!

Donald L. Vasicek
Olympus Films+, LLC