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On April 28, 2012, the History Colorado Center opened its doors to great fanfare with a renewed mission to serve as stewards of “Colorado’s historic treasures.” The $110 million dollar building, designed in the shape of the state of Colorado itself, replaced the previous Colorado Historical Society Museum which was described by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times as a facility that “proved disappointing, attracting no local audience of any significance beyond school trips.” Seeking to create more engagement with Coloradans and as an attraction for visitors, museum leadership directed the creation of “all-new exhibits” with “interactive and digital experiences.”

Among these was an exhibit titled, Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre 1860s to Today, which sought to address the deeply fraught history and violent interactions that erupted between settlers and native peoples of the former Colorado Territory centered on the Sand Creek Massacre. The exhibit attempted to tell of the merciless attack on a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado Territory that took place on November 29th, 1864 and led by the Methodist Minister and Army Colonel, John Chivington.

sand creek massacre

Portion of winter count depicting Black Kettle at Sand Creek. (Buffalo Bill Center of the West)

In the massacre’s immediate aftermath, many in the region justified and even celebrated the atrocious violence as exhibited in numerous stories appearing in newspapers and journals of the region in the months following. A selection of letters written by cavalry officers who took part in the massacre was published by the Daily Mining Journal of Blackhawk, CO on December 10, 1864. In a letter by Colonel George L. Shoup, one of the ringleaders of the massacre who went on to became the first Governor of Idaho and then a US Senator, the casualties were exuberantly overstated with the result described as “the severest chastisement ever given to Indians in battle on the American continent.”

In an op-ed appearing in The Rocky Mountain News on December 13, 1864, an author praised the Third Regiment, which formed the main force of volunteers engaged in the massacre, for a “short but brilliant campaign,” while calling it “the most effective against the Indians ever carried out. The chastisement given to the savages is more severe than the celebrated threshing Harney gave the Sioux at Ash Hollow.” Others were even more outspoken in expressing their glee, demonizing the Cheyenne and Arapaho people as “red devils,” “thieving and marauding bands of savages” and “predatory Indians.”

Photo by Billy J. Stratton

Photo by Billy J. Stratton

At the same time, Captain Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer—officers who protested the plan for the massacre at Fort Lyon the night before and then ordered troops under their command to stand down as the massacre began—condemned the massacre in a series of letters to Major Edward (Ned) Wynkoop in which they detailed the gruesome inhumanity of the attack. As their version of events spread within the US military and to political leaders in Washington, sentiment began to shift from relief and awe to disgust and outrage. It had become clear that what was being called a heroic battle had, in fact, been a coldblooded massacre.

Such an assessment was confirmed by the sworn testimony given by scores of soldiers involved in the massacre before three different military and congressional inquiries detailing all manner of heinous cruelty and sadistic violence. The sheer enormity and incomprehensibility of the testimony provided, often with no sense of shame and even less remorse, lead to the massacre’s harsh denunciation by military and government officials alike. As a result, the location of the massacre itself was eventually designated as a National Historic Site.

In the face of these facts, however, the remonstrations of apologists of the massacre continued to be expressed. Among the most prominent of these were former Territorial Governor John Evans, who issued a Proclamation in August 1864 calling on “all good citizens” of Colorado Territory “to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians,” while also raising the Third Colorado Cavalry regiment that made up the largest contingent of the military force that carried out the massacre. The Evans proclamation was finally rescinded by Colorado Governor Jared Polis in 2021.

Depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre by Cheyenne eyewitness and artist Howling Wolf

Depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre by Cheyenne eyewitness and artist Howling Wolf

Like Chivington, Evans remained steadfast in justifying the massacre throughout his life. In an interview with the historian H.H. Bancroft in 1884, Evans expressed this belief with staggering insensitivity to the humanity of Cheyenne and Arapaho people, asserting, “the benefit to Colorado of that massacre, as they call it, was very great, for it ridded the plains of the Indians.”

Despite such callous and self-serving rationalizations, many others at the time came to see the Sand Creek Massacre for what it was. And despite a litany of other massacres carried out in the name of Providence and civilization afterwards, such as the ruthless attack perpetrated by then-Colonel George Armstrong Custer against a band of Cheyenne led by Black Kettle, who’d previously survived Sand Creek, along the Washita River in 1868, the Marias River Massacre against the Piegan Blackfeet in 1870, the Camp Grant Massacre against Apache in Arizona Territory in 1871, the Fort Robinson Massacre against the Northern Cheyenne led by Dull Knife in 1879, and the Wounded Knee Massacre against Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota in 1890, it remains one of the most infamous and brutal assaults on native peoples in American history.

Photo by Billy J. Stratton

Photo by Billy J. Stratton

Looking back on this context and the sheer ignorance of most Americans about native history and culture due to the ways in which native experiences have been systematically excluded and marginalized in an historical narrative of victory culture and progress, it was hoped that Collision could serve to expand public awareness and understanding on this shameful chapter of Colorado history. The lack of meaningful dialogue and consultation with members of the affected Cheyenne and Arapaho communities, however, closed the door on that possibility, dooming the exhibit as another act of betrayal.

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Despite all the research, writing and planning that went into the 2012 exhibit, the perspectives of Cheyenne and Arapaho people whose ancestors will always be at the center of the story of Sand Creek, and who suffered most from the horrific violence perpetrated on November 29, 1864 and the dispossession of their traditional lands after, were conspicuously absent from the planning. Almost immediately after the exhibit’s open, members from the three Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations in Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma, as well as others living away from these communities, began to ask questions and condemn History Colorado for the egregious oversight.

In fact, as Patricia Calhoun reported in Denver’s independent journal of news and culture, Westword, in May of 2013, the Northern Cheyenne had expressed serious concerns about the exhibit to museum officials as early as December 2011. Despite this attempt to intervene and establish tribal consultation, the exhibit was opened anyway, and remained so for over a year afterwards, despite a growing chorus of complaints by Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members and their supporters. In the face of sustained pressure and calls for the consideration of Cheyenne and Arapaho perspectives, the exhibit was finally closed in August of 2013.

The oversights that led to this decision were dumbfounding to many given the advances in historical awareness and understanding prompted by a host of high profile works on Native history and society from Vine Deloria Jr’s Custer Died for Your Sins and God Is Red, to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, as well as more general mainstream works such as Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States. These developments over the same period in which the discipline of history was undergoing significant change brought on by E.P. Thompson’s “history from below” perspective and the increased prominence of local, cultural and ethno-history as important subfields. The lack of engagement with Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples with intimate knowledge of relevant events as passed down in memory through language, sacred history and oral tradition within this context was perplexing and bewildering.

Painting of the Washita (River) Massacre by Frederic Remington.

Painting of the Washita (River) Massacre by Frederic Remington.

In the wake of the exhibit’s closure, however, History Colorado committed to building more authentic partnerships with Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples and communities, while working to create working collaborations built on mutual respect. This resulted in the formation of committees and working groups made up of Cheyenne and Arapaho community members, many of them being direct descendants of those who were at Sand Creek on that fateful day in 1864.

From this foundation, History Colorado was able to slowly build trust among Cheyenne and Arapaho communities, eventually signing an official MOA to institutionalize their agreement. This allowed for a more equitable relationship through the emphasis on a government-to-government relationship, allowing for the cultivation of a collaborative structure in which History Colorado committed to working with the tribes as true partners. Within this new framework a cooperative good faith relationship was formed that allowed historians and traditional Cheyenne and Arapaho storytellers and wisdom keepers to work together to produce an exhibit that addressed the catastrophic effects of the massacre in a respectful and culturally sensitive way.

Now almost ten years since the closure of Collision, History Colorado is preparing for the unveiling of a new exhibit on Sand Creek to the public scheduled for November 19, 2022: The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever.

While a decade may seem like an inordinate amount of time to correct the oversights and errors that doomed the former exhibit, the principal work could not start until the neglected relationships with the Cheyenne and Arapaho had been attended to and repaired. The importance and centrality of tribal consultation and collaboration is, of course, key to the success of any such endeavor. In the words of Arapaho educator and elder Gail Ridgely, a direct descendent of Chief Little Raven, "Sand Creek is sacred to the Cheyenne and Arapaho people," while reflecting the importance of “historical remembrance, educational awareness and spiritual healing.” For Ridgely, the new exhibit is a “major milestone, historically for the Colorado tribes and tells what really happened in that horrific massacre. It wasn’t a fairy tale as it was presented in the first exhibit, it misrepresented our people.”

Sand Creek Massacre, elk hide painting, by Eagle Robe (Eugene J. Ridgely) Northern Arapaho depicting Black Kettle. Photo by Billy J. Stratton

Sand Creek Massacre, elk hide painting, by Eagle Robe (Eugene J. Ridgely) Northern Arapaho depicting Black Kettle. Photo by Billy J. Stratton

Such words express the thoughts and ideas of many Cheyenne and Arapaho people who have been fighting for the respect and acknowledgement of their tribal histories and experiences, especially at Sand Creek as part of the larger context of American colonialism over the last 158 years. Thus, the opening of the new exhibit represents another small step towards the simple yet profound goals of acceptance, recognition and respect over what has been a long and winding path that still has no end in sight.

As Ridgely notes, though, “we are a proud people who have so much to offer. We’re humble.” Through the hard work of Cheyenne and Arapaho Sand Creek descendant representatives like Ridgely and others such as his father Eugene Ridgely, Otto Braided Hair, Joe Big Medicine, Karen Little Coyote, Henry Littlebird, as well as historical consultants David Fridtjof Halaas and Tom Meier, much progress have been made. Further, as Ridgely adds, “I do believe that people here in Colorado like at the University of Denver, the State of Colorado and the Indian Commission has stepped up. Leaders like Governors John Hickenlooper and Jared Polis, and Bishop Elaine Stanovsky have been pillars within the state of Colorado that have supported and enabled legislation and proclamations that promote educational awareness of what happened horrifically at Sand Creek in 1864.”

For as the Cheyenne and Arapaho people have always done and will continue to do, they walk with determination, honor, strength and generosity into the future with an unshakable spirit of survivance inherited from their ancestors and passed down to the next generations. These qualities and attributes are fortified in strong connection to place, and especially to their traditional Colorado homelands that nurtures a sense of honor and pride for who they are as people, while living on in their memories, stories and sense of identity to guide them along that road—for as long as it takes for the truth of their experiences to be known and remembered.