The new History Colorado Center, opening April 28, is a testament to the dreams and aspirations of the state’s residents, including those who were here first and who remain here. The imposing structure has been four years in the making on a busy thoroughfare near the state’s Capitol in Denver.
At the opening, Jules Verne-ish, steampunk-style “time machines” will glide across a terrazzo map of Colorado, stopping at key points selected by visitors where they will deliver tales and music from different eras. In another area, holographic people from the past will offer Center-goers an eerily realistic welcome. In yet another, visitors can learn about Ute people past and present and, in a Borderlands exhibit, the Jicarilla Apache and Comanche tribal nations.
The Center is a statement about the importance of interdependence and community, said Bill Convery, state historian. It’s significant that a key cultural display in its last stages of construction is a celebration of Ute family and tribal life in a tribute to the state’s first residents.
The Ute display is at the center of a 9,500-square-foot gallery on the Center’s second floor. Like much of the area, it’s not quite finished but will be done by the Center’s opening.
“Ute leaders were decisive in challenging times. Sustainability was a hallmark of their lives and it echoes in our time,” Convery said, noting a current biofuels project of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The Utes’ Bear Dance in the spring “unifies the people, because interdependency gives us our sense of who we are.”
Colorado is a complex state that, rather than embodying stereotypical, Western rugged individualism, thrives on cooperation, Converey says. Tragedy occurs when that mutual dependence fails, Convery said. He pointed out that the trading center, Bent’s Fort, exemplified cooperative effort, while the tragedy of the Sand Creek Massacre marked a breakdown in community.
Bent’s Fort, a national historic site near La Junta in southeast Colorado, was a commercial hub and social center on the Santa Fe Trail for about 15 years in the mid-1800s. It was a place where people from all around the world traded goods and “lived peacefully with others,” he said.
Cheyenne and Arapaho people, Englishmen, Latinos and others had to work together and make the Fort a success, and it became a “model for what a community could be in a place called Colorado,” he said. Visitors to the Center can select an avatar who needs something at Bent’s Fort—a horse, trade goods, a map—and then the avatar can approach figures on a touch screen to help them get what they need.
Among the historical figures available for assistance are Yellow Wolf, a Cheyenne chief; Owl Woman, Cheyenne, the wife of William Bent, a prominent trader and co-owner of the Fort; Kit Carson, the noted explorer, trapper and trader; and explorer John Fremont.
In the Sand Creek Massacre, where in 1864 some 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho elders, women and children were killed by Colorado cavalry, “there is a sense of tragedy and loss representative of the Cheyenne and Arapaho experience, and it represented a lost opportunity for non-Indians as well—it really affected Colorado’s future,” he said.
White Antelope, a noted Cheyenne peace chief, “tried to get people to talk as they would have at Bent’s Fort,” but when that did not happen and before he died he sang about his relatives and that only the mountains survive. The song as sung by his descendant, the late LaForce Lone Bear, was recorded and is played along with sounds of a massacre, Convery said.
The consensus of Native consultants was that the depiction of the massacre should be “as graphic as possible” he said, explaining that a somber and reflective space is created at the entry to the exhibit and there will be a plaque warning of disturbing material so that families can decide whether to bring their children inside.
The stories of six people on both sides of the massacre are told, including their thoughts before, during and after the killing.
Planners hope interactive exhibits will lead people to want to read and learn more, perhaps by visiting such places as Bent’s Fort, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, or tribal events, or by observing the annual commemorative Sand Creek Massacre Healing Run.
“We’ve tried to create a safe place to come to terms with family tragedy and to begin a conversation,” he said. “Throughout, we hope to create an enriching family experience.”