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Opinion: 156 years later, we still have much to learn from the Sand Creek Massacre

Colorado needs the Sand Creek Massacre monument. Not because Sand Creek defines our past, but because recognizing past errors can inform our current choices and help shape a better future.

We can be proud of Colorado’s history of independence and pioneering self-reliance. However, we risk enormous disservice when we don’t acknowledge the darker parts of our history.  

On Nov. 20, the Capitol Building Advisory Committee voted 7-2 in favor of placing a sculpture of a grieving Native American woman outside the Colorado Capitol as a memorial to the 1864 massacre.

Marcel Arsenault

The Sand Creek Massacre is an ugly part of our history in which settlers drove out the native people that lived on this land, creating painful scars and distrust that later led to conflicts at Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, and Washita.  

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site tells the story of that fatal attack — on a peaceful encampment with an American flag, as well as a symbolic white flag, raised high above it — and its repercussions. 

In fact, while Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans and the commanding officer of the attack, Col. John Chivington, lost their jobs over it after three congressional hearings, the massacre so enraged the Cheyenne that they joined forces with the Arapaho and Sioux tribes, which set off 25 years of fighting. 

Unless we’re willing to embrace this dreadful event, we can’t learn from it, and it can’t inform our thinking and choices today.

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In Colorado and across the nation, we’ve witnessed people inciting and engaging in violence towards those of different cultures, races, and political views. A statue honoring those who lost their lives in the Sand Creek Massacre should be a proud achievement for Coloradans.  

The process of creating the monument has already brought together the tribes, Republicans and Democrats, and government leadership.  It’s an opportunity for us all to acknowledge the implications of our decisions and actions around the complex issues at the root of conflict. Armed conflict destroys lives and families and rips at the seams of our social fabric.

Putting the statue in a prominent place is an act bringing all Colorado society together. 

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. (Provided by One Earth Future)

Prominent placement of the statue demonstrates Colorado’s character and brings us together in a unique moment and act of absolute unity.  By having this conversation and poignant reminder, we have an extraordinary opportunity for absolute honesty and re-commitment to never repeat the mistakes of the past.  

Having grown up in northern mining towns in Canada among Cree Indians, I was blessed to have friends who were culturally extremely different from me. When I moved to Colorado 52 years ago, I brought with me my cultural awareness of indigenous peoples.  This led me to study the pioneer history of Colorado.  

There are great stories, from the multilingual diplomat Chief Niwot to the beauty of the Tabor Opera House in wild Leadville.  But there are also dark stories, of which the Sand Creek Massacre is among the most tragic.  

I think Colorado can be proud of grappling with our full history — embracing our proudest moments and our most painful scars — because it can help heal the wounds that we left with our indigenous brothers and sisters and guide us all going forward.  

Most importantly, it encourages us to never repeat violence based on racism and primitive instinct.  

For the tribes whose ancestors were killed at Sand Creek, this is an important story that they must keep alive. The rest of us must also keep it present in our collective memory.  

We should honor the 100 men who bravely refused to participate in the massacre, even against the threat of execution for disobeying direct orders from Chivington; and individuals like Capt. Silas Soule who stood firm on what they knew was right.

I dearly hope that the prominent placement of this statue on the Capitol grounds can be a starting point for ongoing examination of our history by locals and visitors alike.  It can help resolve us to focus on the future that we make together, indigenous people and all settlers, including newcomers to our state.  

The Sand Creek Massacre took place 156 years ago today, but we still have conflict and wars going on that create similarly tragic stories.  Our decisions and policies at home and abroad have consequences, still creating victims today. Remembering the past will hopefully caution us against rushing into war and ill-conceived actions.  

The Sand Creek Massacre tragedy shows what happens when we reject diplomats like Chief Niwot and Chief Black Kettle, or the voices of restraint like that of Capt. Soule, and instead insist that the only way to win a dispute, as Chivington said two months before the massacre, “is to fight them until they lay down their arms and submit to military authority.”

There is a better way.


Marcel Arsenault co-founded One Earth Future Foundation, the Arsenault Family Foundation and the Secure World Foundation, promoting systems of governance that prevent war and focus on world peace. He also is chairman, CEO and founder of Real Capital Solutions.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

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