A museum takes a new, unvarnished look at a massacre

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A museum takes a new, unvarnished look at a massacre
In an undated image provided by History Colorado, An elk hide painting from 1994 created by Eugene Ridgely Sr. (Northern Arapaho) that depicts the brutality of the Sand Creek Massacre, on display at the History Colorado Center in Denver. A revised exhibit about the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado drew heavily on the views of members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. (History Colorado via The New York Times)

by Megan McCrea

DENVER, CO.- Just inside the lobby of the History Colorado Center — in front of the familiar “Welcome to Colorado” sign — stand two tepees.

One is erected in Cheyenne style, the other Arapaho style, with doorways facing east to greet the morning sun. They sit atop an aerial map of Colorado, occupying the tribes’ traditional homelands.

A visitor to the museum, in Denver, might wonder whether these tepees are just an empty symbol, pointing to a people who have been wiped out, leaving behind nothing but their homes and the objects they made — their voices and contemporary selves absent.

But these tepees are actually an introduction to a chorus of Indigenous voices echoing throughout the museum, telling their stories, in their words.

One is the story of what has been called the deadliest day in Colorado history, a story that the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes nearly didn’t get to tell themselves. It is the story of the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, in which American troops killed more than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people.

The current exhibit has a long history, even though it is only about to celebrate its first anniversary.

A crucial moment occurred in 2012, when the museum opened an exhibit documenting the massacre. Criticism flooded in.

“The exhibit had been done without consultation with the tribes,” Fred Mosqueda, the Arapaho coordinator for the Language and Culture Program of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and a descendant of survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, recalled in an interview.

“It had no sense of trauma,” said Gail Ridgely, the director of the Northern Arapaho Sand Creek Resource Office on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, who is also a descendant of survivors of the massacre.

Shannon Voirol, director of museum affiliates and the former Sand Creek Massacre project director for History Colorado, explained via email that, at the time, “there was recognition of the importance of this dark chapter in Colorado’s history, but there was not the coauthorship and sharing of authority with the Indigenous communities whose histories we present through our exhibitions.” It is something for which the museum now strives.

In the face of the blowback, the 2012 exhibit was quickly closed. Colorado’s governor at the time, John Hickenlooper, announced a memorandum of understanding with the tribes that survived the massacre, which would guide the work on the exhibit and other matters from then on.

That kicked off years of trust building. Mosqueda and Ridgely, along with three other descendants of survivors of the massacre, became representatives for their tribes, consulting on the new exhibit. The representatives traveled to Denver from their homelands in Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma, and museum staff members went to visit the tribes.

At the outset, Ridgely recalled, “I told the group there: ‘I want to see a true story of Sand Creek. No Hollywood.’”

“I wanted people to see that we’re, they were human beings back then,” said Otto Braided Hair Jr., who served as the tribal representative of the Northern Cheyenne in consultation on the new exhibit. “And the family unit was really important.”

For a decade, the meetings continued. It was a meticulous process, explained Dawn DiPrince, the president and chief executive of History Colorado, as the museum staff and tribal representatives sat together in a room, “literally going through label copy word by word.”

It was also an emotional process as the tribal representatives traveled, again and again, to their former homelands, and sat in that room, which overlooks Broadway — the road where, a few days after the massacre, a victory parade was held, as people celebrated the killing. Nonetheless, everyone kept moving forward. “We worked and worked and worked on it,” Ridgely remembered. “It was long hours, long drives.”

The result was a new exhibit. “The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal That Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever,” finally opened on Nov. 19, 2022, nearly 158 years after the massacre. Now, as its first anniversary approaches, about 60,000 people have come to see it.

Flanking the entrance are a collage of color photos of Indigenous youths running in the annual Sand Creek Massacre Healing Run, stretching 12 feet high, and an image of a tepee at Sand Creek at dawn, flying a U.S. flag and a white flag. There are also block letters reading Va’ohtama and Heneeyei no’useen — “Welcome” in Cheyenne and Arapaho.

Inside, a large panel recounts how, at sunrise on Nov. 29, 1864, the Army attacked a peaceful camp of mostly women, children and elders who were supposed to be under U.S. government protection, “murdering more than 230 of our people.”

From there, the show unspools chronologically. First, the Cheyenne and Arapaho share stories of their way of life as it had been for centuries: discussing their culture, tradition and family structure; the things they take pride in; and their idea of home.

Often, when people think about the American West and Western expansion, “people imagine this place being empty,” DiPrince noted. “But it was not. That’s why this section is really important.”

Then comes the march of events leading to the massacre. As gold was discovered in Colorado, white settlers flooded the tribal lands and tensions reached fever pitch. Mosqueda noted that, for him, “the most important thing was to make sure that the little details that really set history correct were told.”

Here, those details are evident in historical documents. They are in the proclamation that Colorado’s territorial governor, John Evans, issued on June 27, 1864, directing “friendly Indians of the Plains” to go to forts to meet with government representatives, and in treaties that were broken again and again.

Filling one wall is a recruitment poster, published on Aug. 13, 1864, urging volunteers to join a cavalry to fight and kill Indians. It promised recruits the plunder from any Indians they killed.

In the heart of the room, the Cheyenne and Arapaho recount the events of Nov. 29, 1864, when a group of soldiers, led by Col. John Chivington, attacked their camp at Sand Creek at dawn, “before many of us knew what was happening.” They recount how many of their ancestors died in their beds. How Chief Black Kettle hoisted the white flag of surrender, signaling peace. How another Cheyenne chief, White Antelope, pleaded with the soldiers.

A narrow passageway follows, where panels highlighting central figures from the event stand across from each other, the tribal leaders on one side, Evans and the military on the other. It can be emotional to read, and that is the point.

When she visited, that forthrightness struck Majel Boxer, a professor of Native American and Indigenous studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, who is Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota. She noted that she respected the tribes’ having the chance to tell their story from their point of view.

“History Colorado is not filtering that for you, as a museum visitor,” she said. “You’re told, again, about the violence of the massacre, and come away really questioning how these American officers were valorized for their cowardly acts.”

Two soldiers, Capt. Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer, refused to fire upon the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and told their regiments to stand down, then stayed and bore witness to the violence.

The two wrote letters that contradicted Chivington’s tales of victory over armed foes and led to federal investigations, leading the Army to conclude that what had been called the Battle of Sand Creek had in fact been a massacre. The letters also garnered support, in 1999, for Sand Creek to become a National Historic Site.

Those letters, and the videos and oral histories nearby, are unflinching. DiPrince explained that the museum staff members and the tribal representatives discussed how graphic the exhibition should be. It was decided that “we are the state historical society,” she said. “What we put on display is going to be read as the truth.”

And so, she added, “we all collectively made the decision to just be as honest, as awful as it is, because we want people to have this recognition.”

Near the letters and listening stations stands a mostly enclosed room: a re-creation of the Sand Creek site as the day begins. Birdsong fills the air. On the horizon stand silent cottonwoods known as “witness trees.” Looking at the long, golden prairie grass spreading into the distance and the rose-peach dawn sky, one might wonder how something so ugly could happen here.

And, on the ceiling, the Milky Way: an expression of the tribes’ spirituality.

Outside the room, the final section begins with a simple headline: We Are Still Here.

On hand is Hickenlooper’s 2014 speech officially apologizing to the Cheyenne and Arapaho — the first apology by a Colorado governor for the killing — and information about the 2021 repeal of a proclamation by Evans authorizing Colorado citizens to kill “all hostile Indians.”

“The main driving reason that people want to come see exhibits,” Jason Hanson, chief creative officer and director of interpretation for History Colorado, explained, “is they hope it will help them understand how we got to now.”

He added: “You can’t understand how Colorado became the place it is today without understanding the Sand Creek Massacre. And the reason we want to understand how we got to now is because we hope we can use that knowledge to create a brighter future together.”

Thinking about it all, Mosqueda said: “Even with this bad thing that happened, there’s a word in Arapaho, that says, ‘nih’oniitowoo.’ And it’s to be strong and keep going, or to persevere. And to me, I think that word kind of expressed the feeling of all the tribes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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