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History Colorado could shutter its controversial Sand Creek Massacre exhibit

History Colorado misfired with its 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.

But then, Sand Creek was also the most investigated incident of the Civil War. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War labeled the action "savagery"; a Senate committee determined the same. The Army did its own investigation, collecting testimony in Fort Lyon and Denver; Soule was murdered on the streets of Denver soon after he testified. In an 1865 treaty, the federal government admitted guilt, admitted fault, admitted to a crime, called Sand Creek a massacre — and promised reparations.

Almost 150 years later, the descendants have yet to see a dime. But they still have hopes that the true story will one day be told.

With the drumbeat of critical scrutiny getting louder, on April 10 Nichols sent another letter to the Northern Cheyenne:

History Colorado would like to invite delegates from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre to consult with History Colorado staff and advisors to review the exhibit devoted to the Sand Creek Massacre at the History Colorado Center.

To underscore our sincerity in wishing to engage in meaningful consultation, History Colorado will close the exhibit to the public during consultation and while any agreed-upon changes resulting from the consultation are made to the exhibit. Further, History Colorado will appoint a representative to work with the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in the future to ensure future collaboration is conducted with mutual respect, is characterized by the free exchange of ideas, and aspires to present interpretation that is accurate, meaningful and effective.

 We have asked the Executive Director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, Ernest House, Jr., to recommend a facilitator for the consultation, and he will send that name to you for your consideration....

It is our sincere wish that this consultation, and future consultations, will aid in re-establishing the productive relationship History Colorado has enjoyed with the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in the past and will result in an exhibit that reflects the profound importance of Sand Creek to all people. We look forward to hearing from you.

Three days later, History Colorado launched that audience survey promised five months earlier. I encountered one of the survey-takers after going through Collision for what I hoped would be the last time — in its current incarnation, at least, which tells a visitor almost nothing about the significance of the Sand Creek Massacre, instead shrouding the pain of the past in a meaningless miasma.

"The important thing is to talk about its meaning, to show the horror of Sand Creek and why it affected the tribes so much, and how it impacted the relationship between the tribes and the government," says David Halaas, the former state historian who helped lead the hunt for the actual location of the Sand Creek Massacre in the 1990s, and also identified the letter that Soule had written Wynkoop, a letter that resurfaced in 2000, just in time to be read before Congress — again — when lawmakers were establishing the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Halaas is a member of the DU committee looking into John Evans's role; he's also a consultant to the Northern Cheyenne. And he'll be talking with members of the tribe, including Gourneau, about Nichols's offer this week. Ernest House, the head of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, has already said he's ready to help facilitate as soon as he gets the tribe's request; his commission will have its own discussions of Sand Creek soon, as the 150th anniversary approaches.

"Next year is seminal," Halaas says. "If History Colorado wants to be the sentinel of Colorado history, they have to get it right."

There's no other way to right historic wrongs.