Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Sand Creek Massacre history to be preserved by gambling? It's happened before

Coloradans could vote on at least three new gambling proposals this November, including one that would allow Kiowa County to build a casino. The proposal's boosters are asking legislators to put a measure on the November ballot that would ask Colorado voters to authorize casino gambling in the county, 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 measure is being pushed as a way to help preserve historical sites.

For example, proponents say casino revenue would fund a planned Visitors Center and Research Library in Eads for the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

Last month, Kiowa County commissioners sent a letter to legislators explaining why they want gambling in this part of southeast Colorado: "We are void of industry other than dryland agriculture. We are south of the best region for oil and gas development. Lack of transmission lines precludes wind and solar energy development.... An economic boost is truly needed to help move Kiowa County forward."

The museum in Eads, sixteen miles from the actual massacre site, will go forward whether or not gambling is approved. It's a federal project, although the building that will house it, the Murdock Building, has been refurbished in part with State Historical Fund grants -- themselves made possible by revenue from the gambling already allowed in this state.

And in an odd way, casinos also helped make it possible for the location of the Sand Creek Massacre -- the swathe of land where at least 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribal members were killed on November 29, 1864 -- to become a national historic site.

The location of the massacre, which was lost to history for decades, was ultimately identified by historians, scientists and tribal memories; it was on the property of local rancher William Dawson. The federal government offered Dawson $300,000 for his 1,465-acre ranch, but he declined. Then in April 2002, Jim Druck, then-president of Southwest Casino & Hotel Corp., which ran two casinos for the Cheyenne-Arapahoe 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."

In 2000, at the urging of then-Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Congress had authorized the creation of the monument; another act was required to place the deeded land in trust so that the National Park Service could manage it in cooperation with the Indian tribes whose ancestors died there. Ari Kelman's excellent book, The Misplaced Massacre, which just won a prestigious Bancroft Prize, describes the history of both the hunt for the massacre site, the quest to make it a historic monument -- and the complicated land deals, which raised the possibilities of a casino in Kiowa County even then.

The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was finally dedicated eight years ago. Two weeks ago, Governor John Hickenlooper created the Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission in advance of the 150th anniversary of this dark chapter of Colorado history.

More from the Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "A century and a half later, the wounds of Sand Creek are still fresh."

Have a tip? Send it to [email protected]