Colorado History

Sand Creek Massacre Memorial Gains Ground at Colorado Capitol

"So far, we have had to give ground, give ground, give ground,” Herbert Welch told the Capitol Building Advisory Committee meeting in the basement of the Colorado Capitol, which stands on top of some of the ground that the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes used to call their own.

Welch, who was speaking last Friday on behalf of the Northern Arapaho Council of Elders, had come down from Wyoming — where his ancestors had fled after the Sand Creek Massacre more than 150 years ago — to testify in favor of a proposal to place a Sand Creek Massacre monument on grounds of the Colorado Capitol. The monument would “remind you we exist as a people...not because we were allowed to exist, but because we refused to die,” he said. “What happened there was an evil and an atrocity.”

White Antelope was a chief killed at Sand Creek, and “my grandmother was his granddaughter,” Welch continued. “His body parts were paraded through the streets of Denver by volunteer troops authorized by the governor, John Evans. Today, the governor says he supports us.”

The tribes have given up so much ground. Now, finally, Colorado is giving back.

Before the tribal representatives had taken their seats in the crowded hearing room, they’d been invited to Governor John Hickenlooper’s office for a formal portrait, as well as a chance to take some selfies.

“Meeting with the representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes was truly a privilege,” Hickenlooper says. “Their collaboration and support of the Sand Creek Memorial proposal was crucial to its success.”

This state has learned its lesson.

Four years ago, descendants of the members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes who’d survived the Sand Creek Massacre were pleading with officials at History Colorado to close Collision, one of the “Colorado Stories” exhibits that had opened along with the pricey but pretty History Colorado Center in April 2012; they complained that they’d never been consulted about the content of the Disneyfied display dedicated the Sand Creek Massacre — the horrific slaughter on November 29, 1864, of 200 tribal members, most of them women, children and elderly men, by volunteers led by Colonel John Chivington. The descendants had never been consulted, and the resulting exhibit added insult to grievous injury. For more than a year, though, History Colorado ignored their requests, until finally the controversy went public, the exhibit was sealed behind closed doors, and the state agreed to conduct the consultation with tribal members that is their right guaranteed by Congress.

That was just the start of the lesson plan. Two years ago, in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the massacre, Hickenlooper appointed the Sand Creek Massacre Commemoration Commission, a group comprising tribal members, historians, religious leaders and, yes, one journalist who’d been writing about the History Colorado controversy for more than a year, to help coordinate activities around that grim anniversary. The commemoration included lectures, exhibits and the annual healing run, from the massacre site outside of Eads in southeastern Colorado to the State Capitol 180 miles away. That’s where, on December 3, 2014, Hickenlooper earned an A: He apologized.

“We should not be afraid to criticize and condemn that which is inexcusable,” Hickenlooper told the crowd gathered on the steps of the Capitol. “On behalf of the State of Colorado, I want to apologize. We will not run from this history.”

Instead, Colorado has worked to right the wrong. A group began looking into creating a Sand Creek memorial that would be placed on the grounds of the Capitol. The Broomfield-based One Earth Future, a collaborative think tank founded by Marcel Arsenault, stepped up to raise the funds that such a memorial would require. Harvey Pratt, an artist who’s been a Southern Cheyenne chief since 1996, set out to design the piece, drawing from his own ancestry — his grandmother survived the massacre — and 49 years in law enforcement, investigating homicides.

Families of victims “are looking for something,” Pratt told the committee. “They want to be healed. That’s what we’re trying to do here.” His design, which has gone through several modifications, now calls for the figure of a woman, an empty cradleboard at her side, reaching out; beside her are teepee poles, a foundation that says “We’re still here,” he explained.

Ernest House, head of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, has worked on the issue of Sand Creek for nine years. “The governor’s apology really set this in motion, showing how state tribal relations could and should work,” he says. Last year, the state transferred 640 acres of land to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Hickenlooper tried to visit the site in May but didn't make it past Eads, thanks to a storm complete with two tornado touchdowns. And the stormy start with History Colorado has calmed, with real progress made on the consultation with the tribes. “We’ve been able to have these difficult discussions,” House told the committee.

One of those included the memorial’s location at the Colorado Capitol, which has also morphed. The original proposal called for putting it near the circa 1907 Civil War Memorial, which lists Sand Creek as a “battle.”  But before Friday’s meeting, tribal members showed that they were willing to give more ground, accepting a compromise location down the hill in Lincoln Park, where the Veterans Memorial already stands.

Even as the memorial plans were changing, so was History Colorado, which faced big budget problems as well as a big challenge righting wrongs with the tribes. Legislation passed in spring 2015 revamped the board’s composition; last August, a major shakeup dictated buyouts, layoffs and other cuts at what had started as the state historical society in 1879 and is now a state agency under the Department of Higher Education. The four officials at the top of History Colorado were soon history. Steve Turner, who’d been with History Colorado since 2008, leading the State Historical Fund and the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, was named interim leader; in June, after a nationwide search, he was given the job of executive director. He kept his spot on the Capitol Building Advisory Committee.

During “200 tours of our museum, I frequently take people to where our poorly conceived exhibit was,” Turner told his fellow committee members last Friday, “and the vast majority have not heard of Sand Creek.” That’s why, he said, it’s appropriate to put a memorial to the massacre in the Civic Center Complex, a National Historic Landmark that includes the Capitol. “It’s the type of place to memorialize events in our state’s history,” Turner continued, noting that people come there to cheer a Broncos Super Bowl win, they gather there to mourn the victims of the Columbine shootings.

“It’s an aspect of healing for all of us.... If this committee can play a small part in this healing process, I implore you all,” Turner said.

And the committee complied, unanimously approved the motion for the memorial; from here, the proposal moves on to a six-member legislative committee. But the ground game doesn’t end there.

For two days before the committee meeting, tribal leaders who'd traveled in from Montana, Oklahoma and Wyoming had joined state officials in a productive, two-day consultation that put the possibility of a Sand Creek exhibit at History Colorado back in play. “Steve and History Colorado have really done an astounding job,” House says. And while the group met, they had a chance to view artifacts in the History Colorado collection that had been taken from the massacre site — a shoe, a belt with a bullet hole in it, all items that had once belonged to members of the tribes camped on the banks of Sand Creek. “They still have that essence, that power,” Welch told the committee.

And those three dozen or so artifacts could soon be back where they belong: with the tribes. “We are expecting a request from the tribes to return the artifacts,” Turner says. Such a request has to go through formal deaccessioning channels, he notes, but beyond the bureaucracy, the goal is simple: “Doing the right thing.”

Colorado has learned its lesson.