Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

America 250-Colorado 150 Commission Has a Tough Job Ahead

History Colorado is preparing for the state's 150th birthday.
History Colorado is preparing for the state's 150th birthday. Patricia Calhoun
Jason Hanson was working at the History Colorado Center when Governor Jared Polis delivered his State of the State address just two blocks away at the Colorado Capitol on the morning of January 17. Hanson, the chief creative officer at History Colorado, didn't realize that the governor's speech would focus on one of his own missions: to help organize the commemoration of Colorado's 150th birthday in 2026, which coincides with the United States turning 250.

But after some nerdtastic name-checking of Nikola Jokic, and Gandalf the Grey, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and Casa Bonita, of course, which "you're gonna love"), Polis got down to business: "Three years from now, in 2026, we will celebrate our Centennial State's 150th birthday, and the United States of America will celebrate 250. The words we need to learn are 'sesquicentennial' for Colorado and 'semiquincentennial' for America. Thank you to Senator [Rachel] Zenzinger and Representative [Marc] Catlin, who shepherded the legislation to create the America 250-Colorado 150 Commission, ensuring we make the celebration one for the ages.

"But really, it is all of us who will decide what we are celebrating, because we are the living heritage of this state, and together we are the architects of its future."

If focusing on an event three years ahead seems an odd way to start a speech that the governor delivers annually, think of how much the world, and this country, and Colorado have changed over the past three years. In January 2020, there was no global pandemic; this state wouldn't get its first case of the mysterious coronavirus until March 5 of that year. Joe Biden had not yet been elected, and the insurrection of January 6, 2021, was almost a year away. Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land. There had been no mass shootings at the King Soopers in Boulder, at Club Q in Colorado Springs.

"In Colorado, we lead by example, enshrining these values in all that we say and do," Polis continued. "By the time America is 250, we hope for a country that also respects freedom and the personal health decisions of women, transgender Americans, and all Americans. We want secure, accessible elections for every voter....

"So when Colorado is 150 years old, what do we want to be?"

That's a question Hanson has been working on since last fall, when Polis made his appointments to the America 250-Colorado 150 Commission created by Senate Bill 22-011, an eleven-member lineup of historians, tourism officials and community representatives (the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes have yet to pick their members). In fact, while Polis was delivering the State of the State speech, Hanson was interviewing candidates to head the commission the governor had just name-checked. That program director "will help keep this big enterprise coordinated and organized," Hanson notes, working with an advisory panel and local organizations around the state.

"I think right now, the challenge is working to make sure that the people of Colorado, from all around the state, feel like this is their moment to commemorate," says Hanson. "This is the best opportunity we are going to have for the foreseeable future of what an inclusive history of Colorado and the country looks like. ... This is our opportunity to tackle that challenge."

And it is a challenge. The commission will coordinate with the federal efforts of America250, which is just getting off the ground. In 1976, the U.S.'s 200th birthday celebration was all about tall ships and patriotism, and Colorado's centennial largely followed suit. But fifty years later, the divisions in this country are not as easy to paint over with red, white and blue. As SB22-011 notes: "The commission is directed to develop and promote plans for activities between July 1, 2025, and December 31, 2026, including historical activities, publication of historical documents, public ceremonies, educational activities for Colorado youth, and other commemorative events, to be supported by comprehensive marketing and tourism campaigns. The commission is required to identify, celebrate, and build knowledge around the history of Black communities, Indigenous communities, communities of color, women, and people with disabilities. In addition, the commission is required to ensure that the activities planned by the commission represent the geographic and demographic diversity of the state, are accessible to people with disabilities, and are accessible to communities throughout the state on an equitable basis."
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An artist's view of the deadly raid on the camps at Sand Creek.
History Colorado
History Colorado has already been working, and working hard, to display this state's diversity. That effort started in earnest a decade ago, after the History Colorado Center opened in April 2012 with the disastrous Collision, an exhibit focusing on the Sand Creek Massacre that added insult to the catastrophic injury suffered by the tribes that lost more than 200 members on November 29, 1864. After a major shakeup at History Colorado, it worked for ten years with tribal representatives to create an exhibit that truly tells their stories: The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal That Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever opened in November. But it's also focused on creating exhibits and programs devoted to other groups, other communities that have been ignored in this state's official history for far too long. The Hispanic population that was already here before the Rush to the Rockies in 1858. (Pages if the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo will be displayed in the museum next month.) Escaped slaves who found new opportunities in the West. Women, who got the vote early in Colorado but also got the shaft in so many ways. The LGTBQ community that found a hidden home in the Queen City of the Plains, then fought to make it safe to come out.

"We are so grateful to Governor Polis for recognizing that effort, and that he sees so much value in it," notes Hanson. "We want to help him lead that."

In short, he says, the commission wants to create "the commemoration that Colorado deserves."

But when Colorado turns 150, what do we really want to be? And what do we deserve?

How do you think Colorado should observe its 150th anniversary? Post a comment or send your thoughts at [email protected]
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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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