The Sand Creek Massacre Could Be Remembered With a Permanent Memorial at the Colorado Capitol

The past is coming full circle.

On Sunday, November 29, on day four of the seventeenth annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run, participants will gather by the grave of Captain Silas Soule at Riverside Cemetery, as they have every year since 1999. Then they’ll run into downtown Denver and along Arapahoe Street to 15th Street, where Soule was assassinated in April 1865 for daring to tell the truth about Colonel John Chivington’s raid on a peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho on November 29, 1864, a raid that killed 200 people, most of them women, children and the elderly. And then they will head to the steps of the State Capitol, where they will again be greeted by Governor John Hickenlooper.

Last year, at the culmination of the 150th-anniversary commemoration of the Sand Creek Massacre, Hickenlooper had stood on those steps and apologized to the tribal descendants. “We should not be afraid to criticize and condemn that which is inexcusable,” he told the crowd. “On behalf of the State of Colorado, I want to apologize. We will not run from this history.”

It had been a long, long road to get to that point — and the journey is not yet over.

There’s now a push to create a permanent memorial to the Sand Creek Massacre at the Capitol; Hickenlooper is hosting a fundraiser for the project at the Governor’s Mansion on December 1. On, the governor endorses the proposal for a memorial devoted to the “most significant American story you’ve never heard,” a story that only got out because “two soldiers who witnessed the massacre sent a note to their [former] commanding officer, describing it for what it was,” he says. One of those soldiers was Soule. And his former commander? Major Edward Wynkoop.

There’s some symmetry here: Hickenlooper looked into Wynkoop’s background when he was naming Denver’s first brewpub almost thirty years ago, so he knew that Wynkoop had encouraged peace efforts and, as thanks for his efforts, been transferred to Kansas, where he was posted when Chivington led his raid. On behalf of the U.S. Army, Wynkoop later led the investigation into Chivington’s role, which resulted in the colonel’s condemnation and the end of his political career. Even so, Chivington got his own memorial — a town named after him not far from the massacre site in southeastern Colorado. Fittingly, it is a ghost town today. Meanwhile, the Wynkoop Brewing Company is still doing a booming business.

This memorial would not be the first mention of Sand Creek on the Capitol grounds. In 1909, that's where the Colorado Pioneers’ Association erected the Civil War Monument, a statue of a cavalryman, rifle by his side, standing on a platform that bears a plaque listing “battles and engagements” fought by Colorado troops during the Civil War — including Sand Creek. Almost fifty years later, when a granite marker was placed close to the site of the massacre, it referred to the place as a “battle ground.”
But for the descendants of those killed at Sand Creek, this was never a battle; it was always a massacre. And when the 200 runners in the first Sand Creek run arrived at the Capitol, one young descendant climbed the Civil War Monument and counted coup — touching the enemy and living to tell the tale.

That same year, the Colorado Legislature agreed to add a second plaque to the monument, one detailing how the “battle” was really a “surprise attack” on “Chief Black Kettle’s peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the banks of Sand Creek.” That second plaque doesn’t tell the whole story, though. “There needs to be a permanent memorial at the Colorado Capitol,” Hickenlooper says in the memorial’s fundraising video, so that “victims and their ancestors are never forgotten.”

And after last year’s commemoration, Marcel Arsenault stepped forward to help make that possible: The Superior resident’s Arsenault Foundation, working with the One Earth Future Foundation, will fund half the cost of the memorial, estimated at just under $100,000. “As the saying goes, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’” Arsenault says. “Colorado’s willingness to come to terms with its past is enormously hopeful, since acknowledging our mistakes is the only way to overcome them.”

So far, his foundation — which works to “improve cooperation in the context of war,” usually in such spots as Somalia and Latin America rather than here at home — has funded consultations regarding the monument with representatives of the Northern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. “It’s amazing how far you can get working with the people who are affected,” says project manager Jon Bellish. “Let them tell their truth.”

Once the tribal representatives got agreement from their own constituencies on how the truth should be told, they chose an artist to create the memorial: Cheyenne and Arapaho artist Harvey Pratt. “We just want to bring history to light,” Pratt says of his design, a bronze sculpture that will put a tepee and medicine wheel where people can leave offerings on a swath of land in the northwest corner of the grounds, close by the Civil War Monument. “We want people to understand that there was more that happened than what was told.”

“What they came up with is really beautiful,” Bellish says. “The way this worked out exceeded my own a long shot.”

But will that vision become reality? Not this year, and maybe not next, judging from the response when the plan was presented to the Capitol Building Advisory Committee last Friday. Members of the committee voiced concerns over what the memorial might do to the “symmetry” of the Capitol grounds — which already boast a Ten Commandments Tablet; memorials to Pearl Harbor, the USS Colorado and victims of Armenian genocide; and cannons and a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell. They’re also concerned about vandalism, over what hoodlums might do with the tobacco left as offerings by that medicine wheel. And they fretted about turning over such a large footprint to this memorial — despite the fact that it will be on land that once belonged to the people it memorializes.

One member even suggested that there be a moratorium placed on new memorials.
Still, David Halaas, a new member of the committee who was once Colorado’s state historian, helped create the wording for the second plaque added to the Civil War Monument more than a decade ago, and today consults with the Northern Cheyenne tribe, is optimistic that this historic wrong will be righted. “It’s a unique opportunity, and we’ve got to take it,” he says. Not just take it, but put the memorial in a prominent place where everyone can see it — not tucked away by a wall, as committee members originally suggested.

And once that memorial is in its proper place, in order for people to be able to learn even more of the story, Halaas wants to see a new exhibit devoted to Sand Creek at the History Colorado Center, just two blocks down Broadway. Even before that facility opened in April 2012, tribal representatives objected, and objected strenuously, to plans for the Disneyfied Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre 1860s - Today. They hadn’t been consulted on that Sand Creek exhibit as required under law, they pointed out, and there were significant errors in the display. Over a year later, the exhibit was finally closed when History Colorado entered into consultation with the tribes. It has never reopened, and any sign that Collision ever existed has disappeared from the museum. “If the proposed memorial goes forward, it makes it that much more imperative for there to be an exhibit on Sand Creek,” Halaas says. Fortunately, a new History Colorado board is exploring ways to deal with past problems, and another consultation with the tribal descendants should occur soon.

In the meantime, the proposed memorial is just the start of a “larger and longer goal,” according to Ernest House Jr., executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, a goal that involves introducing more native American representation both inside and outside the Capitol. Way outside, in some cases. As he greets the runners on Sunday, the governor will not only announce the campaign to create a Sand Creek Memorial at the Capitol; he’ll also report that the state has just transferred 640 acres to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site northeast of Eads, adding it to the National Park Service memorial dedicated in 2007. 

Just after dawn on Thanksgiving, descendents of those killed that cold November day in 1864 will gather at that site far from Denver praying to their ancestors before they start the long run to the State Capitol in their honor.

How’s that for symmetry?
Find more information on the Sand Creek Spiritual Healing Run activities here.

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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