Best Bet: Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre

November 20 2012, 8:26 AM

If you’ve driven past the Denver Art Museum, you probably noticed a Stonehenge-like art installation of 10 hash-marked red pillars. That’s all you may know about it. If so, it is time to park your car, wander through the steel pillars—which signify trees—and learn. The work is titled “Wheel,” and was created by Cheyenne artist Edgar Heap of Birds in 2005. The pillars are arranged to look like a small-scale Bighorn Medicine Wheel (a sacred hoop), and each is covered in black glyph symbols—birds, horses, railroad tracks—and slogans like  “Respect all Nations Sovereign.” Of note, Tree Three is devoted to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians to quietly pay tribute to the lives lost in the Sand Creek Massacre.

On November 29, 1864, Army officers led by U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington staged an unprovoked attack on a peaceful civilian encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho in Sand Creek, Colorado, about 170 miles southeast of Denver. After the initial attack, many of the dead Cheyenne and Arapaho were scalped and mutilated. Soldiers then paraded through Denver with the body parts displayed like trophies to cheering crowds. The U.S. Army immediately condemned the massacre, though Chivington and his men never faced charges.

This moment in Colorado’s history has not been forgotten, though. The DAM’s Native Arts department commissioned "Wheel” in 2005 to “provide a prominent place for discourse on Native arts to occur,” says John Lukavic, assistant curator of Native Arts at the DAM. Lukavic says the structures refer to “permanence and support,” while the text highlights perseverance. “ 'Wheel' remains important today because the message it holds is timeless,” Lukavic says. 

BONUS: Want another way to recognize the Sand Creek anniversary? On November 25, gather at 9 a.m. on the north side of the State Capitol at a monument of the massacre for the completion of the annual Healing Run (when Cheyenne and Arapaho run from the site of Sand Creek to Denver). The monument, dedicated in 1909, credited Chivington’s inaccurate claim that the camp was a Confederate ally and designated Sand Creek as a battle of the Civil War. In 1999, the Colorado State Senate, supported by the Cheyenne and Arapaho, commissioned a plaque to clarify the error. 

—Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum