Colorado History

New Sand Creek Massacre Exhibit at History Colorado Gets NEH Boost

Then-Governor John Hickenlooper apologizes to the descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre on the 150th anniversary.
Then-Governor John Hickenlooper apologizes to the descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre on the 150th anniversary. Brandon Marshall
Nine years after the History Colorado Center opened in April 2012, to universal raves for its architecture and damning pans of Collision, its Disneyfied display dedicated to the Sand Creek Massacre, the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded $400,000 to support a new, long-term exhibit that recounts the story of that atrocity on November 29, 1864.

The money is important, but so are other steps that History Colorado has taken so that the history of Collision does not repeat itself: It has been consulting with descendants of the victims of the massacre — the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Northern Arapaho Tribe, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma — for eight years on a replacement for the exhibit, which was finally closed after their concerns over both the process and the content went public in Westword.

Alexa Roberts, the first superintendent of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, located outside of Eads, about 150 miles southeast of Denver, is among those who've been involved in the planning; the national site was designated by Congress in 2000. Back in 1865, a congressional investigation had officially labeled what happened at Sand Creek — the slaughter of over 200 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes by volunteers led by Colonel John Chivington — a "massacre." After the killings, the volunteers had marched back to Denver, where they displayed trophies taken from the scene.

From the start, descendants complained that Collision did not depict the event accurately. The proposed replacement, which will be on the top floor of the History Colorado Center at 1200 Broadway, will not only look into the past, but also explore the ongoing generational impacts of the Sand Creek Massacre on the tribes.

“We have to acknowledge our history — including the darkest chapters — in order to heal and move forward," said U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper in an announcement of the NEH grant. When he was governor, Hickenlooper formally apologized on behalf of the State of Colorado, on the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. “This exhibit will ensure we never forget the horrific atrocity at Sand Creek, and by so doing help prevent us from repeating it.”
click to enlarge Otto Braided Hair at the Colorado Capitol on the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. - BRANDON MARSHALL
Otto Braided Hair at the Colorado Capitol on the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Brandon Marshall
Otto Braided Hair, a representative of the Northern Cheyenne who's been active in the consultations, was standing near Hickenlooper when he offered that apology, at the end of the 2014 Sand Creek Massacre Healing Run, the commemorative event that Braided Hair helped found more than two decades ago. "We've had difficult times in the past with History Colorado,” he said of the announcement. “This grant shows commitment and dedication from History Colorado."

“The Sand Creek Massacre exhibition will demonstrate that all people in the United States, tribal and non-tribal, can work humbly together to remember and begin to heal from the Sand Creek Massacre,” said Shannon Voirol, director of exhibit planning at History Colorado, in that release. “It will also offer universal, timely lessons that fear, racism and stereotyping can and do lead to catastrophic consequences.

Voirol had only been with History Colorado a year or so before the new museum opened, and says she has been "watching it reinvent itself, through all the trials and tribulations." Since 2014, that activity has included the required consultations with tribal reps, as well as work on the Healing Run and a feast that follows it.

In January 2020, the pace picked up, as the targeted 2022 opening of a new Sand Creek exhibit approached. "The core team has been working pretty intensely, especially since the pandemic hit," Voirol says. The group has been "re-visioning for a larger space" — everyone agreed it would be better to move out of the closed Collision location in favor of a larger, quieter spot  — and "seeing what's resonating with the tribal members."

While they have a lot in common, including "shared bonds, shared trauma, shared history," Voirol notes that "they are also very different from each other."

Everyone working on the project has been "thinking a little more about the memorial work this exhibit might have to do," she adds, "and how to strike the right tone...not just memorializing the people who died that day — and the moments around that — but also recognize all the folks who've worked so hard to push this work into the consciousness."

The grant will help with all that, paying for the tribal reps to travel to in-person consultations once the pandemic allows. And while the goal is still to open in the fall of 2022, History Colorado Executive Director Steve Turner — who moved into that position in the midst of the Collision controversy, and plans to move on this summer — has been consistent, promising that the exhibit will only open "when it's ready," Voirol says. "The goal is to have something everyone is proud of, that everyone feels ownership of. Fingers crossed."

This isn't the only long-running project involving the Sand Creek Massacre. Shortly after the 150th-anniversary ceremony, the Capitol Building Advisory Committee began considering a proposal to put a Sand Creek Massacre memorial on the grounds of the Capitol. That effort stalled over debates on location; some members worried about what the memorial might do to the “symmetry” of the Capitol grounds, which already boasts a bizarre collection of memorials ranging from a Ten Commandments tablet to a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell.

But in the past few months, after the toppling of the Civil War Monument that listed Sand Creek as a "battle" (the figure of a Union soldier is currently on display at the History Colorado Center), that project has regained steam, with plans to put the memorial on the site of the Civil War Monument and new designs being discussed by members of the three tribes.

The state is also considering proposals to rename Mount Evans, named after territorial governor John Evans, who gave Chivington his commission and was later forced to resign his post. "John Evans's pattern of neglect of his treaty-negotiating duties, his leadership failures, and his reckless decision-making in 1864 combine to clearly demonstrate a significant level of culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre," an investigation by the University of Denver found in 2014. Evans had founded the forerunner of DU just months before the massacre.

This story has been updated to include quotes from an interview with Shannon Voirol.
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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