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When the Union soldier fell at the Colorado Capitol, it may have started a chain reaction

The damaged statue now appears headed for a stay at History Colorado. Will a memorial to the Sand Creek massacre rise in its place?

A statue depicting a Civil War soldier was toppled from its base outside the Colorado state Capitol and discovered June 25, 2020. The base is now covered with graffiti. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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When the statue of a Union soldier that stood on the west side of the state Capitol was toppled and defaced by protesters in June, it did more than reignite a long-running conversation about public monuments and their meaning. It also started a chain reaction that could add new dimension and additional context to the remembrance of Colorado’s complex history.

The statue will soon find a new, temporary home at History Colorado’s downtown museum, where the controversy that led to its targeting will be part of the civic discourse around its display. Meanwhile, conversations with tribal leaders have been renewed with regard to the construction of a memorial to the Sand Creek massacre, where Union soldiers slaughtered nearly 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly the elderly, women and children. 

Although funding for the Sand Creek memorial is in place, a location hasn’t yet been determined. Now, there’s speculation that it could perhaps be displayed on the Capitol’s west side once occupied by the displaced soldier.

About two weeks ago, the Capitol Building Advisory Committee approved the loan of the Union soldier statue, erected in 1909 to memorialize those who died defending Colorado from an attempted Confederate insurgence, to History Colorado for a one-year period. The museum approached the state with the offer to display the piece with commentary that explains the differences in how various groups have interpreted its meaning, including tribal anger that the same cavalry units memorialized by the statue for heroism in the Civil War also perpetrated the Sand Creek massacre two years later.

Jason Hanson, History Colorado’s chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research, and his colleagues had been paying close attention to the dialogue that followed the incident that pulled the statue from its pedestal.

“And we had this moment, a few of us at the same time, thinking we don’t know where this will go, but we believe as a history museum, we have a constructive role to play in this conversation,” Hanson said. “So many people have suggested that museums might be an appropriate place to provide monuments with space for interpretation and civil dialogue, and we felt we could offer that opportunity.” 

Preliminary plans call for the statue to be displayed in the rotunda just off the atrium of the downtown museum. That positioning would provide visitors a 360-degree view of the work, and also a view from above on upper floors. A buffer space around the statue would ensure that viewers don’t touch the piece. 

A start date for the exhibit  hasn’t been finalized, but the museum hopes to open the display sometime this fall in conjunction with its “This Is What Democracy Looks Like” exhibition.

Hanson told the committee that precautions were being taken to make sure that the museum floor would support the statue’s weight, but that barring unforeseen complications, the display site should work. “We view this as a teachable moment,” he told the legislators. “That’s how we’d present it — not as an erasure or reinstallation, but a chance to consider monuments and how we value them.”

Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, commended History Colorado for its offer and moved that the committee approve the loan of the statue. It passed unanimously.

“In recent years I’ve seen a dramatic shift in how you do exhibits,” Moreno added, “to make history more relevant to the current time period, to contemporary culture and society.”

A spray-painted statue with a sign in front of the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver during the third day of protests against police brutality on May 30, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Best museum practice in regard to displaying controversial works involves considering perspectives from three “periods of meaning,” Hanson explained in an interview with The Colorado Sun. “First, there’s the time period encompassing the events a monument commemorates — in this case, the time of the Civil War when Union soldiers engaged the Confederacy on behalf of the territory. Second, there’s the period in which the monument was installed. That would be basically the first decade of the 20th century. 

“We will do what we do as historians and look through the records,” Hanson explained. “Monuments aren’t erected without public discussion at the time about creating and installing it. We can find that. We’ll look back in our archives, newspapers, and other state archives to understand the conversation that went into the decision to erect this monument in 1909. And we’ll look back at the history it commemorates.”

The third aspect to consider is the monument’s meaning in the present day, which Hanson points out may involve multiple points of view — and certainly will in the case of the Union soldier memorial.

“We take on the work of displaying this monument humbly, and understand that it holds different meanings to different people,” he said. “We know that the active engagement around the monument is a process that our community will share with History Colorado and each other, not the other way around. It’s not History Colorado deciding whose views to elevate.

“I’ve already been receiving emails from people who want to share their perspective, and I welcome them,” he added. “We know some of the stakeholders we’re interested in working with are military veterans and their families, tribal representatives of those victimized in the Sand Creek massacre and their descendants, and those advocating for more social justice today.”

We take on the work of displaying this monument humbly, and understand that it holds different meanings to different people.

Jason Hanson, History Colorado

As a statewide agency with eight museums across the region, History Colorado has what he terms a “wide breadth of talent and perspective.” That includes formal relationships with many of the 48 contemporary tribes that have claimed Colorado as their home either in the past or currently, as well as a curator of military history. The center also has strong ties with activist communities such as the Chicano community and others, and has been working to develop new relationships with activists today.

Hanson said that History Colorado will reach out to that variety of stakeholders and request a short description of what the monument has come to represent to them. Those perspectives can then be displayed with the statue.

Although the statue, designed by Capt. Jack Howland of the 1st Colorado Cavalry, was damaged when it was pulled down in June, about a month into racial justice protests related to the death of George Floyd, History Colorado will display the piece exactly as it is delivered. Currently, it’s in the custody of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Possible restoration of the statue remains an open question as the state seeks to determine whether it was covered by insurance and if it can get estimates on repairs, according to Doug Platt, spokesman for the state Department of Personnel and Administration.

“We’re interested in being able to share the story of that object, and sometimes (imperfections) are really important parts of the story,” Hanson said. “We’re not looking to restore something to ‘as new.’ We’re looking to conserve it and share it in the state it’s in when it arrives at our museum.”

Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat who chairs the Capitol Building Advisory Committee, noted that there has been “a lot of confusion and anger” about what the Union soldier statue represents. Although Union cavalry famously thwarted Confederate troops at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, the original plaque that accompanied the piece also referred to Sand Creek as a “battle” fought by the soldiers — a description many found both inaccurate and disturbing.

In 1864, about a thousand Cheyenne and Araphao were encamped in tepees along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado, near present-day Eads. Dozens of chiefs had engaged in peace talks with the government and believed they were safe here. 

A statue depicting a Civil War soldier was toppled from its base outside the Colorado state Capitol and discovered June 25, 2020. The base is now colored with graffiti. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

On Nov. 29, Col. John Chivington and hundreds of cavalry troops approached the encampment at dawn. When the chiefs raised the American flag and others raised white flags to indicate their peaceful intentions, the troops rained cannon and carbine fire upon the tribes. They burned the settlement, mutilated bodies and left with body parts as trophies.

The tribes have long objected to a monument memorializing the troops that killed their ancestors.

“It’s not the statue itself — it’s just a generic Union soldier,” Lontine said. “But the things that are memorialized in the print included Col. Chivington’s name; it also included Sand Creek as a  battle, and some other engagements with native tribes that others would think differently about.”

Although another plaque added several years ago sought to address the issue, Lontine said it was weathered and not that noticeable — and the wording of the resolution was “very legally dense” and hard to read. 

“I don’t think most people were happy with that as a compromise,” she said.

Once the committee agreed to move forward with History Colorado’s proposal, Lontine moved the conversation to another monument — the already-conceived but yet to be fulfilled idea of a display memorializing the Sand Creek massacre. 

A design had been drawn up and private funding put in place, but the project stalled when no location could be agreed upon.

Lontine made note of the fact that, amid the nationwide protests for racial justice sparked by the killing of George Floyd that also blanketed the streets of downtown Denver, an unplanned opportunity emerged when the statue of the Union soldier tumbled down.

She put forward to the committee a plan to consider opening discussion with tribal stakeholders about possibly putting the Sand Creek memorial in its place. 

That’s when Kathryn Redhorse, just five days into her new position as executive director of the state Commission of Indian Affairs, told the committee that in her recent conversation with tribal representatives, they were excited to hear that talks might resume — and possibly reach a conclusion. Their consensus, she added, was that the best location for the memorial would be the west steps of the Capitol.

Then she explained why.

“Something that’s not well known about the history of Colorado and specifically to Denver is that after the Sand Creek massacre occurred, members of the military did parade….the…,” she said, pausing and struggling to continue, “…it’s hard to say out loud…paraded the dismembered bodies of those who were killed in the massacre down the streets of downtown Denver.”

According to oral history within the tribal community, the “parade” ended on the site of what eventually would become the west side of the Capitol grounds.

“So it’s an important location,” she continued, “and why the tribes are leaning on the location (of the memorial) to be on the west side of the Capitol. To honor those who lost lives and acknowledge that it’s part of Colorado history. It’s important to acknowledge all of Colorado’s history, and what is decided today does have an impact on how the future sees our decision.”

A replica of the proposed Sand Creek massacre memorial is positioned at one potential site on the Capitol grounds. The tribes who directed its creation would prefer that it be placed on the west side of the Capitol, to commemorate the dead whose bodies were paraded by soldiers through Denver to the building’s west steps. (Provided by One Earth Future)

Redhorse went on to explain that this is something the tribes have wanted and waited for over 100 years. The design of the memorial sculpture itself has been ready since 2016. Based on elements suggested by the tribes, Cheyenne and Arapaho sculptor Harvey Pratt of Oklahoma imagined a plaque, a concrete path, a tepee and a bronze sculpture of a Cheyenne or Arapaho woman.

The life-sized woman will be reaching north, the direction of the tribes’ retreat, with an empty cradleboard representing sorrow and loss. Without some alteration, the large footprint of the display could be a challenge to fit into the space previously occupied by the Union soldier.

But Jon Bellish, vice president of strategy for funder One Earth Future, said the resumption of conversations is significant, especially if the west side site can work. It was the only one all three tribes agreed upon, he said, and when the state rejected it, talks fell off.

“This, to me, could be a break in the impasse,” he said. “It was the last major impasse among the tribes.”

Redhorse said that the tribes have reopened conversations among themselves in anticipation of presenting a “unified front” when talks with the state resume. The next meeting of the committee is scheduled for Nov. 20, but Lontine said that some preliminary conversations may precede that.

“My original thought when the statue came down, knowing (the memorial location) was not settled, is that that location, by virtue of it being our front door, would give it a place of honor and more meaning than other locations that we talked about but never settled on,” Lontine told the Sun. “But we never contemplated that would be a spot that would become available till that statue came down. That’s what spurred the idea that we should at least try to offer it.”

A clay replica of what eventually would be a life-size sculpture of an Arapaho or Cheyenne woman with an empty baby carrier, reaching north, the direction of the tribes’ retreat at the Sand Creek massacre. Most of the funding is in place for the sculpture, but there so far hasn’t been agreement on a site near the Capitol. (Provided by One Earth Future)

The proposal is very preliminary, but at the moment, the space is available. Part of the logistical equation involves where the Union soldier might go once its stay with History Colorado has concluded. 

There has been conversation among legislators about renaming Lincoln Park, just to the west of the Capitol, Veterans Park and using that as a space for the Union soldier and other military-related monuments. Lontine said she would support such a move.

Meanwhile, the soldier may not be the only monument to become a focus of civic conversation.

“I think there probably are other candidates,” Hanson said, “and we’re open to hearing from local governments or organizations about those. We’re here to support our communities throughout the state. This is one way able to do that.”

For Lontine, negotiating the relationship between public art and history has been a learning experience.

“The biggest lesson I‘ve learned is that statues aren’t history,” Lontine said. “We don’t learn from statues, hopefully we learn from books, though that doesn’t mean that’s the whole truth of it. This is a time to think about what we are memorializing here. Is that what we want people to think was worthy of being honored? 

“That’s been the big lesson for me. And hopefully, if it gets done, a lesson for the state.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the west side of what today is the state Capitol is regarded by native tribes as the finishing point of the Union soldiers’ “parade,” according to oral history of the tribal community — not the Capitol itself, which was built starting in the 1890s, many years after the 1864 Sand Creek massacre.

Rising Sun