A century and a half later, the wounds of Sand Creek are still fresh
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Beyond the Barrel Man costumes, beyond the zombies that end the Denver A to Z show (what, no Zebulon Pike?), a sign warns that Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre, 1860s-Today may not be suitable for children, despite the fact that the spanking-new History Colorado building where it is located was clearly designed to appeal to kids.
But this exhibit is dedicated to one of the cruelest chapters of Colorado's history. On November 29, 1864, "in an unprovoked attack, U.S. soldiers killed more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers who were living peacefully on their own reservation. Most of the slain were women, children and elderly men, and many of the two tribes' most influential leaders lay dead," the entrance sign notes. "A congressional commission concluded the massacre was 'foul, dastardly and cruel.'
"But something larger was lost after Sand Creek: the chance for peace. The massacre intensified anger and mistrust among American Indian residents and those settlers who wanted to take their lands, hardening the divisions between competing nations. A generation of warfare ensued throughout the West, claiming many more victims."
And the battle is not over yet.
The Sand Creek Massacre took place almost 150 years ago. But for the tribes that lost their ancestors there, the wounds are still very fresh. And this exhibit has poured salt on them, stirring more anger and mistrust. The concerns start with the exhibit's very title: Collision. That implies the Native Americans slaughtered that day were on the move, were confronting the troops. But they were in a peaceful camp, a camp that they thought was protected by the United States flag raised by Black Kettle, the chief who had met with military and territorial leaders just two months earlier to discuss peace. He survived the massacre. "My shame is as big as the earth," he later said.
Black Kettle is featured in Collision. So is Captain Silas Soule, who was at Fort Lyon at the end of November 1864 when Colonel John Chivington rode up with the 700 men who'd volunteered to serve with the 3rd Colorado Cavalry for 100 days, "for immediate service against hostile Indians.... The company will also be entitled to all horses and plunder taken."
Days after the massacre, Soule wrote General Edward Wynkoop, the officer who'd escorted Black Kettle to the September 1864 peace talks, then was transferred from Fort Lyon: "The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain. One squaw with her two children were on their knees, begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing — when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children and then killed herself.... They were all horribly mutilated. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did."
Soule's refusal to fight that day was widely reported: He was branded a coward, testified against Chivington when Congress took up the case in early 1865, and was murdered on the streets of Denver that April. His letter to Wynkoop detailing the massacre, and another one written by Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, were lost for more than a century, turning up in a trunk in Evergreen in 2000, just before then-Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was to argue for the establishment of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Congress. He read the letters from the podium, and the proposal passed.
But the battle is not over yet.
In 1999, as the National Park Service was working on the Sand Creek proposal, Lee Lonebear, a descendant of White Antelope and other victims, envisioned a ceremony that would transcend the massacre; since then, members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe have gathered at Sand Creek every November for a run that stretches the 180 miles to Denver. It was during the 2011 run that members of the Northern Cheyenne realized that History Colorado, the successor to the Colorado Historical Society, was far along with plans for a multimedia display on Sand Creek that would be part of the new building going up on Broadway. So Joe Fox, vice president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, sent this reminder to Colorado state historian Bill Convery on December 5, 2011: "History Colorado, along with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Northern Arapaho Tribe, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, and the Park Service are by federal legislation recognized as partners in the development and management of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.
"Any exhibit on the tragic events of November 29, 1864, which is produced by History Colorado, we fear, will appear to carry the endorsement of all the partners, including the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Unfortunately, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe was not consulted until late November, just months before the exhibit is scheduled to open."
And when the tribe was consulted, they did not like what they found. A quote from George Bent, a survivor of the massacre, had been edited beyond all meaning. Dates were wrong; spellings were incorrect. A letter written by Soule was to be featured, but it was one he'd written his mother: "I was never much of a Christian and am naturally wild. Our Col. is a Methodist Preacher and whenever he sees me drinking, gambling, stealing or murdering, he says he will write to Mother."
Chivington himself seemed to be getting off easy — especially since in 1865, the congressional committee considering his actions had said it could "hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct.... He deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savages."
Convery traveled to Billings, Montana, to meet with Northern Cheyenne and Sand Creek massacre descendants that December. And in a letter dated January 5, 2012, he and Edward Nichols, president and CEO of History Colorado, told Fox: "We sincerely apologize that we have not consulted the tribes earlier.... 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."
They promised they would consider feedback from the meeting and give all the tribes a chance to review exhibit content.
Convery's doctoral dissertation is titled "Colorado Stories: Interpreting Colorado History for Public Audiences at the History Colorado Center." In it, he recalls that Billings meeting as "bruising," as "consultants from all three tribes expressed their deep sense of personal pain, insult, and outrage at History Colorado's interpretation, and requested a formal apology from the lead developer and the institution's CEO."
Instead, they got another meeting in March 2012, when the Northern Cheyenne asked that the exhibit's opening — slated for April 28, the day the new History Colorado building would make its debut — be postponed. History Colorado declined, but did make some changes. The edited and out-of-context quotes were fixed, the Soule and Cramer letters added (one copy of each), and an oral history station — featuring descendants of the massacre speaking in 1996 — put at the very end of Collision, right around the corner from the zombies. But the tribe was not satisfied with what opened to the public. Collision was still filled with "errors and omissions," Fox wrote Nichols on August 12. "Others reveal shabby research and a shocking lack of curatorial understanding of the massacre, the events surrounding it, and its meaning to history." On behalf of the tribe, he "respectfully" requested that Collision be closed and that History Colorado "schedule meaningful consultation meetings with the tribes so that we may work together to produce an exhibit that properly interprets Sand Creek and its profound meaning to our tribes, the nation and the world."
But Nichols again declined to close the exhibit. On November 5, more than six months after Collision had opened, Fox wrote, "We have determined that if you are sincere in your request for collaboration, we will agree to make one last attempt." But that attempt was dependent on several conditions, including History Colorado's admitting that "past consultation meetings — which came only at our request — failed and agree that any future collaboration be conducted with mutual respect and a willingness to better interpret the massacre and its profound meaning to the tribes, the nation and the world." Most important, Fox said, the tribe wanted a 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."
On November 21, Nichols replied: "I apologize if my letter...offended you or the Northern Cheyenne people, as that was not my intent. My goal is for us to understand each other and move forward in regard to the exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre. My hope is that this letter serves this purpose and we can reopen the door for dialogue.
"We believe there are two positive steps we can take in order to move forward. First, we propose to launch an audience survey of museum visitors who view the Sand Creek exhibit by an independent firm. This will enable us to better understand how our visitors are receiving and interpreting the information in the exhibits.
"The Sand Creek Massacre is a story that is not widely known by the citizens of our state, and we believe it is a vital story to share. We designed the new museum, and many of our exhibits, to allow our visitors to understand the multiple and complex viewpoints at various points in history. For the Sand Creek Massacre, our presentation was designed as a way to help our audiences become aware of how such a tragedy could have possibly occurred, as well as to generate ideas about how we can apply the lessons learned from the past to today. This exhibit is receiving a positive response by museum visitors, who after viewing it have expressed feeling both more informed and moved by the story of Sand Creek. Audience testing will help us define the specific areas that are resonating the most, as well as those areas that need to be revised. We will share the results of this audience survey with the tribes.
"Secondly, we request to meet with you for an exhibit consultation conducted by an independent facilitator to be recommended by the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. We believe this is an important step to take so that we may find the common ground necessary to move forward....
"As we work together, we do believe it is important to keep the Sand Creek exhibit open to the one-thousand-plus visitors we receive on a weekly basis, even while there are enhancements to be considered. I look forward to working together to reach common goals as we continue to share the important story that is the tragedy of Sand Creek to a broad museum-going audience."
More than two months later, Nichols says he is still waiting for a response from the Northern Cheyenne. But tribal members say they do not plan to reply to Nichols's "non-response response" — not after their third request that the exhibit be closed was denied.
Nichols insists that the Northern Cheyenne were consulted. "We have had consultations, and we're looking to continue those," he says. "I think the interactions were regarded, on our side, as a continuation.... On a number of points they suggested, we have made significant changes to the exhibit." But postponing the exhibit was not an option: Donors expected it. From the start, History Colorado had determined that Sand Creek would be one of the first stories featured. It "is an important story in Colorado's history, but it also is one that was highlighted through our audience research," Nichols explains. "We did a lot of research."
The Northern Cheyenne didn't need to do research. They knew the story. They lived the story. "Collision? It's a massacre," says Norma Gorneau, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Sand Creek Massacre Descendants Committee who learned about the massacre from her great-grandmother. "They're not even trying to meet us halfway. We had asked them specifically to at least make some corrections. We asked them to take it down because it's supposed to be entertaining for them, but for us it's a major incident that was done to us...a major tragedy done to us...and they want to minimize it. When they said that they weren't going to take it down, it brought up a bunch of angry feelings."
Steve Brady, a Northern Cheyenne who played a key role in the National Park Service discussion over the massacre site, says History Colorado did not make the same effort. "They more or less took off on their own," he says. "They've never really met with the tribes. History Colorado has got to be proactively involved with the tribes. That's the bottom line."
Without that involvement, as long as the exhibit remains open, they will not negotiate. Nor will the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, who met with Ernest House, head of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, a few weeks ago. The Sand Creek Massacre is a "very important and sensitive subject," House allows. "We'll be meeting with History Colorado and trying to find the best way to move forward."
While the Northern Cheyenne and History Colorado appear at an impasse, other investigations of Sand Creek have begun. At Northwestern University, students are pushing to find out the role of territorial governor John Evans, who founded their school and, later, the University of Denver. Evans was also a charter member of the Colorado Historical Society.
And next week, Ari Kelman, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis, will be talking about his new book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, at History Colorado. A "study of the collision of history and memory, of past and present, at Sand Creek," it follows the decade-plus campaign to create the national site, which was finally dedicated in 2007. Many of the people now embroiled in the battle with History Colorado appear in the book, including Brady and his brother, Otto Braided Hair, as well as David Halaas, the former state historian who uncovered Soule's letter and is now working with the Northern Cheyenne.
"The process of coming together to decide what the monument should be began thirteen years ago and continues today," says Alexa Roberts, who worked with the tribes on the project and today is the superintendent of Bent's Old Fort/Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. "It is an ongoing process and always will be. Bringing parties together to decide on what the monument should be is an integral part of the stewardship of the site. Sometimes that has been a difficult process, but it is one that is grounded in mutual trust and respect, so all the parties get through difficulties and go forward together."
Forward into the past.
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