History Colorado tries again to get Sand Creek Massacre story right

Back in 2013, when the History Colorado Center shut down its first Sand Creek Massacre exhibition due to protests from Native Americans, it was more than a local scandal and an enduring embarrassment for the museum.

It was an early, and landmark, moment in a cultural movement that would only grow stronger within U.S. cultural institutions over the next decade. This museum learned the hard way that storytelling exhibitions in the current age need to do exactly what descendants of the brutal massacre’s victims and others demanded at the time: include multiple voices and consult, whenever possible, with people directly affected by the narrative on display.

The new version of the tale demonstrates how museums far and wide have come to position themselves in the moment. “The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever” is billed as a “partnership” between three tribal nations and the museum’s staff. There are no detached experts on local history telling the story about how things happened. Instead, viewers hear something more like a chorus of voices, coming together to pass on their personal truths about this dark chapter.

Unlike many exhibitions at history museums, this one unravels in the first person. Visitors learn via signage right at the entrance they will encounter stories of the event from contemporary Native Americans themselves “as we heard them from our elders.” That personalized aspect of the show is what makes it most compelling.

The exhibit relates the actual massacre in detail. The story is from Nov. 29, 1864, when the U.S. Army attacked a Native American settlement and killed 230 men, women and children, people who were flying a white flag of surrender and who trusted the troops to protect them. The genocidal act came after years of acquiescence to territorial authority demands that American Indians leave their homes and traditional lands and confine themselves to camps.

It came after multiple promises that Native Americans would be protected, compensated, permitted to survive after decades of violence perpetrated upon them. It was, as the exhibition tells us, the worst betrayal in Colorado history.

Those actualities on their own convey the awfulness of the act as it was carried out. But the exhibition wants to go further, to show how its legacy continues to impact the Cheyenne and Arapaho people today.

As far as history exhibitions go, this one is short on actual artifacts. There are photos and copies of letters and treaties, and proclamations. One poster, in particular — in which a local official based in Central City tries to raise an army of 100 to fight against “Indians” and promises good pay and the opportunity to share in “all horses and other plunder taken” from them — gets right at the callous attitude that early white inhabitants carried toward indigenous humans. But there just are not that many actual relics of the age that exist to be shown here.

Instead, the exhibitors rely on text, panel after panel, chart after chart, to hand out their facts. There is a lot of reading for a show like this — or listening if you prefer to hear audio versions of the text via mobile devices. The words are translated into Spanish, and also Cheyenne and Arapaho languages.

It all spells out who the villains of the time were — ranging from Abraham Lincoln, who from afar broke government promises made to tribes; to Rocky Mountain News editor William Byers, who stirred up anti-native sentiments; to Colorado Territorial Gov. John Evans, who was directly and repeatedly responsible for multiple atrocities and who personally promised that the tribes would be safe at their camp on Big Sandy Creek. The awakening here is very specific, and it calls out some bedrock American heroes.

It also names victims. Two panels simply list the names of tribal chiefs who were killed. No other text, just an index of the cold hard facts: “Chief Yellow Wolf, Chief Bear Man, Chief White Antelope … .” It is effective in its simplicity.

While the Sand Creek Massacre exhibit looks back in detail, it also focuses on the present. It is strong in narratives from living American Indians who have heard stories through the oral traditions of their ancestors. The exhibit follows suit, giving these people a wide platform to pass things on to the next generation and beyond. There are evocative narratives, presented through video, that feature massacre descendent Fred Mosqueda and others relating important aspects of the event.

There is also a very simple video, taken recently, at the actual site at Sand Creek, which is projected onto the walls of a dark and enclosed room set up within the show.  No humans are in the scenery, just clouds, bird songs and flora, capturing a typical sunrise. Such a peaceful place, by nature, yet the video serves as a powerful juxtaposition of what we all know really happened there.

While it is a dark exercise, “The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever” also strives to be a show about survival. There is so much within the display about the vibrancy of tribal life today. Tenacity and vitality are evidenced through objects ranging from clothing and cultural objects from the past 100 years to contemporary works of art and craft made during the past decade by tribal members.

Those are effective ways of connecting the past to the present. They are optimistic elements of what is otherwise a journey back to a terrible thing.

This exhibit is not easy to pass through. But it is captivating, not just because of what it says, but also because of what it is, a different version of the truth, expanded and refocused from the story that Coloradans have shown in museums and taught in schools for decades. That old story was about soldiers-vs.-Indians in a battle for cultural dominance. This is a story about victims and how they move forward after evil episodes.

In that way, it captures well the time we live in and how attuned we have become to sensitivities and sensibilities of multiple communities. This exhibition speaks with the voice of the woke world, and it comes across loud and clear.


“The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever” continues at the History Colorado Center, 1200 N. Broadway. Info: 303-447-8679 or historycolorado.org.

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