It’s official: Talks are scheduled and Colorado’s flagship history museum has said it will close a controversial Sand Creek Massacre exhibit while it consults with tribes about the 1864 atrocity that’s now presented in the History Colorado Center as merely a clash of cultures on the territory’s journey to statehood.
Termed by History Colorado “Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre 1860s-Today,” the exhibit actually depicts “one of the most heinous crimes committed on the planet,” said David Halaas, former chief historian of the Colorado Historical Society, predecessor to History Colorado.
The museum had been asked repeatedly last year by Northern Cheyenne massacre descendants to shut down the exhibit pending in-depth consultation with affected tribes, but it refused, relenting only after public and tribal concern increased over the lack of tribal involvement in the exhibit.
Last month, Ed Nichols, History Colorado CEO, committed to closing the exhibit during consultation and promised “future collaboration [that is] conducted with mutual respect, is characterized by the free exchange of ideas and aspires to present interpretation that is accurate, meaningful and effective.”
Time went by without word from the tribes and then, on May 14, “We received a letter from the tribes that they have agreed to facilitated consultation,” said Rebecca Laurie, History Colorado public relations director.
History Colorado plans to meet with the tribes on June 10. Although the letter agreeing to meet was from the Northern Cheyenne, Nichols said History Colorado will continue on the consultation path as planned with the anticipated involvement of the Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma as was the case in discussions before.
The exhibit will help to maintain awareness of the grisly mass killing and of the mentality that made it possible, often cited as important to ensure it’s never repeated. A research center is planned near the Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site for scholars to access material and for possible distance learning in public schools in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Although estimates vary widely, from 125 to more than 300 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, primarily women, children and the elderly, died and many of their bodies were mutilated at the hands of U.S. Army volunteers on November 29, 1864 at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado, where the tribes had been promised safety by Territorial Gov. John Evans.
The 150th commemoration of the massacre is next year, and, in addition to related activities by the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and other organizations, Northwestern University in Illinois and the University of Denver (DU) are assessing the deeds of Evans and Col. John Chivington, founders of Northwestern and DU and, in the latter’s case, publicly disgraced commander of the troops at Sand Creek. (Related story: “Universities Join Forces to Colorado’s Dark History”)
In terms of the upcoming discussions, Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia, CCIA chairman, said he’s anxious to ensure that the History Colorado exhibit “is accurately portrayed” and wants to work with everyone involved in its completion.