The History Colorado Center in Denver is opening its newest exhibition, “The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever,” on November 19. The exhibition tells the story of the Sand Creek Massacre, the deadliest day in Colorado history, when a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and elders were killed by U.S. troops after being promised military protection. Over 230 were killed on November 29, 1864. The exhibition is the result of a ten-year partnership process between History Colorado and the tribal nations whose people were slaughtered that day.
“We’ve had difficult times in the past with History Colorado. This exhibition shows commitment and dedication,” stated Otto Braided Hair, Jr. (Northern Cheyenne).
In 2012, History Colorado opened a previous exhibit to chronicle the Sand Creek Massacre. Due to inadequate tribal consultation, the exhibit quickly closed.
“I think we really learned our lesson that we can’t do anything about the Sand Creek Massacre without the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. It’s just so vital that the descendants of the victims and the survivors are the ones who tell the story,” said Sam Bock, historian and lead developer for the exhibition.
Since then, History Colorado staff have worked closely with the descendants of the Massacre’s victims to repair and re-establish relationships. Exhibition research and consultation is ongoing and includes dozens of phone and in-person meetings as well as trips to each of the three tribal communities. Each exhibition element is being vetted and approved by tribal representatives. Following proper protocol, this consultation with the three sovereign tribal governments ensures the display respects the memories of the victims. In fact, at the request of the tribes, no artifacts from the day or site of the Massacre will be in the exhibition.
This new project spotlights the living culture of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, two separate tribes with distinct histories that were bound together forever after the tragedy at Sand Creek. After the massacre, the Cheyenne and Arapaho people were forced to leave Colorado. Today they exist as three sovereign tribal nations in Montana, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
“This exhibition will include information about the lives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people before the massacre, life today and our efforts to remember the massacre,” said Fred Mosqueda (Southern Arapaho), a tribal historian and Sand Creek descendant.
“It was genocide. We need to educate the people and heal our people so that something like this won’t happen again,” said Chester Whiteman (Southern Cheyenne), “I hope this exhibit will get people to understand that we’re all human.”
Bock emphasized that the Sand Creek Massacre was not just a single event, but a piece of history that has had an enduring impact on Cheyenne and Arapaho people for almost 160 years.
“This is family history for a lot of the descendants of the survivors of Sand Creek, and they think about it all the time. This isn’t just something that’s in the history books; it’s relevant to their daily lives. There’s a need to commemorate and to heal from this atrocity and to acknowledge that it happened in a more formal and systematic way.” he said.
“We have to acknowledge our history—including the darkest chapters—in order to heal and move forward,” said U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper, who as Governor, formally apologized for the Sand Creek Massacre on behalf of the State of Colorado. “This exhibit will ensure we never forget the horrific atrocity at Sand Creek, and by doing so help prevent us from repeating it.”
“The Sand Creek Massacre exhibition will demonstrate that people can work humbly together to remember and begin to heal from atrocities and betrayals such as this,” said Shannon Voirol, Sand Creek Massacre project director at History Colorado. “It will also offer universal, timely lessons that fear, racism and stereotyping can, and do, lead to catastrophic consequences.”
Bock said that the last piece of the exhibition focuses on the Cheyenne and Arapaho people today. “Many Cheyenne and Arapaho people still live in Denver, and in Colorado broadly. The last part of the exhibit really focuses on what’s happening for these people in their communities. They have a thriving culture that exists to this day. The Cheyenne and Arapaho people are resilient; they’re survivors. They are not forgotten. They have not disappeared.”
Jeanne Wickham / November 22, 2022