The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
By the summer of 1864, tensions between Native American tribes and U.S. colonizers were high. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes had already been forced to give up most of their land, and when gold was discovered near what is now Denver, many settlers began to illegally trespass on what little had been left to the Indigenous tribes, per the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851. Chief Black Kettle, a prominent leader of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, attempted to negotiate peace with then-Governor John Evans and Colonel John Chivington.
While the peace negotiations were unsuccessful, the U.S. military instructed Chief Black Kettle to settle his people off of the banks of Big Sandy Creek, about 68 miles south of the modern-day town of Burlington, where they were promised safety while they waited for negotiations to continue. On the morning of November 29, 1864, troops led by Colonel Chivington attacked the camp and murdered more than 230 Cheyennne and Arapaho people, most of whom were children, women, and elders. The massacre became known as the deadliest day in Colorado history.
More than 150 years later, History Colorado Center has unveiled a new exhibit dedicated to not only that day, but the experiences of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people as a whole. “The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever,” opened at History Colorado Center on November 19. “We really want people to understand the gravity of this history,” says Dawn DiPrince, executive director of History Colorado. “Just because it’s sad to talk about doesn’t mean we can actively ignore it. We have an obligation to carry this forward, to not forget, and to continue to carry this grief.”
At the museum, visitors will find tipis constructed in Cheyenne and Arapaho styles, photos, artifacts, listening stations, and even letters from U.S. soldiers who refused their orders to attack the peaceful camp. Among the artifacts on display is an intricately beaded Arapaho cradleboard from the late 19th century, a testament to the love and protection Arapaho parents gave to their children. Additional displays include aspects of modern-day life for Indigenous people, such as a baby jumper and high school football helmets.
The events leading up to this year’s opening were anything but smooth, however. In 2012, History Colorado opened a previous exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre without consulting members of the Cheyenne or Arapaho tribes, which received widespread criticism from Indigenous people. According to a 2013 article by the Denver Post, tribal historians found that some of the dates were incorrect, important details were left out, and the exhibit described the attack as a “clash of cultures,” rather than the genocide that it was.
History Colorado Center spent the next decade attempting to remedy these mistakes in order to reopen the exhibition this year. This time, every aspect of the exhibit has been reviewed and approved by the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. “We’ve spent several days traveling to Lame Deer, Montana, visiting the Northern Cheyenne; Riverton, Wyoming, visiting the Northern Arapaho; and Concho, Oklahoma, visiting the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes,” says Shannon Voirol, director of exhibit planning at History Colorado. “These folks used to consider Colorado home, but their communities got pushed out of state after the massacre.”
Rebuilding that trust wasn’t easy and took several years. “There was no consultation last time,” says Chester Whiteman, a Southern Cheyenne man who lives in Oklahoma. “This time there was a lot. The past two years have been near-constant consultation.” DiPrince, executive director of History Colorado, insists that everything from word choice to the colors of the exhibit walls have been approved by tribe members.
“This exhibit still doesn’t capture the full story behind Sand Creek,” Whiteman says. “It’s a start, but we want our history to continue to be told. The Declaration of Independence refers to our people as ‘merciless Indian Savages.’ We’re human beings. Our story needs to continue to be shared in order to move forward.”
On November 17, Cheyenne and Arapaho representatives arrived at History Colorado Center to construct two full-size tipis in the main atrium. One is built in the Arapaho style, while the other is built in the Cheyenne style, with symbols of each tribe adorning the bases. Visitors to the museum will be allowed to enter the tipis, which are made with 24-foot poles and wrapped in canvas.
“One of the most important things we heard from tribal representatives was that the Sand Creek Massacre wasn’t just a moment in time,” says Sam Bock, exhibit developer at History Colorado. “This still affects the lives of the Cheyenne-Arapaho people, but they made it clear to us that it doesn’t define them. That’s why visitors should see histories leading up to that day as well as from after that day, all the way up until now.”
On November 18, History Colorado Center was closed to the public in order for the Cheyenne and Arapaho people to view the exhibit privately. A public opening, attended by Colorado Lieutenant Governor Dianne Primavera, as well as leaders of the three tribes, took place this past Saturday. The exhibit is part of the museum’s core exhibits, meaning it will be available for viewing indefinitely, although exhibit creators state that it will be on display for at least the next seven years.
“History was one-sided. It’s been sugarcoated,” Whiteman says. “The Cheyenne and Arapahos were, and still are, a very strong and culturally oriented people. We still have our language, we still have our ceremonies. We’re thriving, we’re still here, and I hope people see that.”
“The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever,” is now open at History Colorado Center at 1200 N. Broadway. Adult admission to the museum is $14, children under 18 get in free, and tickets can be purchased online here.