Could a casino help commemorate the Sand Creek Massacre? It has before.
The original marker for the Sand Creek Massacre site.
Ka-ching. Coloradans could vote on at least three new gambling proposals this November, including one that would allow Kiowa County to host a single casino. That proposal's boosters want legislators to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters statewide to authorize casino gambling in the parched — both economically and environmentally — county in southeastern Colorado, just as they did in 1990, when they approved limited-stakes gaming for Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek. And like that constitutional amendment, this proposal is being pushed as a way to preserve historical sites.
A Kiowa County casino might not only benefit other ravaged counties in the region, but help complete a project in downtown Eads, population 600 or so, which is turning the old Murdock Building into a visitors center and research library dedicated to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site; it will also serve as headquarters for the National Park Service crew that runs the site. "We've been working on that for six or seven years, and we're still just working on the outside," says Kiowa County commissioner Richard Scott. He suggests that gambling money could also help create a monument — perhaps state, perhaps national — to the site of the Towner School Bus Tragedy, where five students froze to death in 1931, when their bus got stuck during a blizzard outside of Towner, just east of Eads. The bus driver, father of the youngest child to die, perished while going for help.
When Scott envisions Kiowa County's casino — which would definitely be located outside of Eads, and far from the sites of the two tragedies — he compares it to a casino and convention complex in Dodge City, not the scene that has sprung up in Black Hawk, which today has more than thirty casinos. "We're asking for a single casino rather than a battery of them," he says. "We don't think it will have any competitive effect on existing gaming. We think it will open up a new market, with all this traffic on 287, the Port to Plains freight route that sees 2,400 to 3,500 vehicles a day."
Senator Larry Crowder, a Republican from Alamosa, will present the proposal to the Colorado Senate in the next few days, asking legislators to refer it to the ballot rather than have supporters take the petition route. But whether or not the measure makes it to the ballot, whether or not Colorado voters decide to extend gambling in this state, the Sand Creek research center/museum is going forward. It's a federal project, although the building that will house it has been refurbished in part with State Historical Funds — themselves made possible from gambling already allowed in this state, since a percentage of those tax revenues go to historic preservation.
And in an odd way, casinos even helped to secure the location of the Sand Creek Massacre — the area by the banks of Sand Creek where more than 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members, mostly the elderly, women and children, were killed on November 29, 1864, by Colorado volunteers led by Colonel John Chivington.
The site of the massacre, which was lost to history for decades, was ultimately identified by historians, scientists and tribal members; it was sixteen miles northeast of Eads and north of the long-gone town of Chivington, on the property of local rancher William Dawson. In 2000, at the urging of then-senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Congress authorized the creation of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. The federal government, which was limited to paying fair market price, offered Dawson $300,000 for his 1,465-acre ranch, but he declined. Then Jim Druck, president of Southwest Casino & Hotel Corp., which ran two casinos for the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma, bought the ranch from Dawson for $1.5 million in April 2002. He deeded it to the tribes, explaining to tribal elders that he was Jewish and "my people were nearly wiped out in Germany and Poland before and during World War II.... I told them I understood their pain and what it means to fight for your heritage."
There was still some resistance to the creation of the national historic site, because some residents of the area worried that the Indians would turn it into a casino. But that was far from anything the tribes contemplated; they consider the land sacred ground. Even so, another two years passed before the tribes accepted the land and deeded it over to the National Park Service — and then another act of Congress was required to officially set up the site so that the NPS could manage it in cooperation with the Indian tribes whose ancestors had died there.
Ari Kelman's excellent book The Misplaced Massacre, which just won the prestigious Bancroft Prize, describes the hunt for the massacre site, the quest to make it a historic monument, and all of the complicated land deals, which not only raised the original specter of a casino in Kiowa County, but at one point even inspired a consultant to propose the Homecoming Project, which would have turned 500 acres near Denver International Airport into a casino/resort/Plains Indian Cultural Center. Ka-ching!
But plans for the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site continued moving ahead, and it was finally dedicated on April 28, 2007. Seven years later, the state is still coming to grips with that dark chapter of Colorado history.
On April 28, 2014, the Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission, created by Governor John Hickenlooper, will hold its first meeting, to discuss how to mark the 150th anniversary of the event. The NPS is working on a film and new signage for the actual site, a quiet, contemplative place that's about as far from a casino as you can get. (Jim Druck now has his own place in Cripple Creek.) And construction continues, albeit slowly, on the future Sand Creek Massacre visitor center and museum in Eads.
"Sand Creek could be a major tourism place," says Scott.
All bets are off.
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