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Dexter Nelson II sits at a table, looking to the left
Dexter Nelson II, associate curator of African American History and Cultural Heritage at History Colorado, poses for a portrait on Aug. 5 in Denver. Nelson sees improvements that could be made to the museum’s Lincoln Hills exhibit, like portraying the joy of the historical resort instead of basing its significance on the campaign of the KKK at the time. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Long before the height of the civil rights movement, something rare was starting in the Colorado mountains. Nestled in Gilpin County, “a Black utopia” thrived for nearly four decades in the form of a mountain resort built by African Americans, for African Americans — the only of its kind west of the Mississippi.

Operating between the mid-1920s and 1965, Lincoln Hills sprawled across 100 mountainous acres. The property is serene and quiet, and its cabins would host families from Denver for a few days of respite.

Dexter Nelson II, who joined History Colorado as associate curator of African American History and Cultural Heritage nearly a year ago, has written about the empowerment he felt visiting the site, envisioning Black visitors enjoying peaceful relaxation at the resort. 

He says Lincoln Hills is a magical place. 

It served not only as a recreational oasis for Black communities when people of color were largely shut out of resorts, but also as a haven “at a point when the Ku Klux Klan was extremely powerful,” Nelson said. 

Lincoln Hills is a story of Black joy, he said. That’s why when he saw the Lincoln Hills exhibit at the History Colorado Center in Denver, the display felt wrong.

History Colorado’s Lincoln Hills exhibit highlights a hundred-acre mountain resort that was built for African Americans. (Photos by Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Lincoln Hills was operational from the mid-1920s and 1965.
History Colorado is actively talking about making improvements to the display.

Before the exhibit fully explains to museum visitors the magic of Lincoln Hills, they walk past “two large, full-floor cases that show Klan memorabilia.” To the right, a full Klan robe. To the left, a stark black-and-white photo of a Klan gathering, hung above Klan ledgers and manuals.

Nelson says he understands the intention — highlighting the threats posed by the KKK to illustrate the significance of Lincoln Hills — but a different approach is needed. To Nelson’s knowledge, there are no accounts of racist violence such as lynchings or cross-burning at the resort. 

“We shouldn’t make people walk through a full Klan robe to talk about the joy of Lincoln Hills,” he said. “That doesn’t add up.”

The museum is actively talking about making improvements to the Lincoln Hills display, although Nelson said such changes are often hindered by budgetary restraints or fast-tracked by public outcry. 

It’s one example of Colorado museums reckoning with which perspectives they should center, and how they present history to the public. In some cases, museums have removed exhibits and started over. 

We shouldn’t make people walk through a full Klan robe to talk about the joy of Lincoln Hills. That doesn’t add up.

Dexter Nelson II, associate curator of African American History and Cultural Heritage at History Colorado

History Colorado is preparing to unveil an overhauled Sand Creek Massacre exhibit after closing a failed version roughly one decade ago because tribal historians found inaccuracies and omissions. The museum is not alone. Other area museums and historians are launching initiatives to correct some of their exhibits, collections or historical narratives that left out the voices of underrepresented communities or sanitized history. 

The work comes amid a shift within the museum industry to be more inclusive, but also amid heightened public pressure as the issue entered “the mainstream consciousness” in recent years, said Jason Hanson, History Colorado’s chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research.

Recent exhibits that did see success did so because of rigorous efforts to consult multiple groups and perspectives within communities represented by an exhibit, historians said.

History Colorado staff hopes the new Sand Creek Massacre exhibit will achieve that, too, thanks to a yearslong consultation process with tribal representatives. 

“We’ve had difficult times in the past with History Colorado,” Otto Braided Hair Jr. of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe said in a release announcing the exhibit’s opening date. “This exhibition shows commitment and dedication.” 

The atrium of History Colorado is seen on Aug. 5, 2022, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Telling the Sand Creek story

History Colorado staff have worked with at least seven tribal consultants from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, the Northern Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma — all tribes affected by the 1864 massacre.  

The new exhibit — “The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever” — opens Nov. 19.

“It was genocide. We need to educate the people and heal our people so that something like this won’t happen again,” Chester Whiteman of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe said in a statement announcing the exhibit. “I hope this exhibit will get people to understand that we’re all human.” 

The massacre on Nov. 29, 1864, remains the deadliest day in Colorado history. The U.S. military declared victory. In reality, troops killed more than 230 women, children and elders when they attacked a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people who had been promised military protection.

The new exhibit offers a sweeping account of the tribes’ legacies in Colorado before Western expansion. It also shows what they endured during the Sand Creek Massacre and how it affects them now. At the tribes’ request, the exhibit will not include artifacts from the day or the site of the massacre.

The day History Colorado plans to open the exhibit is a moment Gail Ridgely has been looking forward to for more than a decade. Ridgely serves as a government-to-government consultant and representative of the Northern Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation, and is one of the Tribal partners who helped craft the new exhibit.

Ridgely said he remembers the previous exhibit opening in 2012 with incorrect dates and crucial details left out, but its greatest failure was framing the slayings as an inevitable “collision of cultures.”

“It wasn’t a collision. It was a massacre,” Ridgely said. 

The exhibit also felt “Disneyfied from the start,” Ridgely said, adding that “there were actual Barbie dolls in there.” He called it a shameful way to portray Indigenous people and “a horrific massacre, the most horrific that had happened in Colorado.”

“They took that story upon themselves,” Ridgely said. “It was embarrassing. To me, it angered me, and it angered the other representatives, who were pretty stout people.”

A decade may seem like a long time, but telling the Sand Creek Massacre story right requires significant work, Ridgely said. He expects the new exhibit will be a professional telling of the tragedy.

“It’s basically going to tell the truth, and the old exhibit didn’t want to tell the truth. It wanted to cleanse it,” Ridgely said. “We’ve come a long way in a short time. Ten years.”

It’s been “an almost two-century-long fight” for the tribes to get the public to stop thinking of that day as a battle, said Sam Bock, historian and lead developer on the new Sand Creek Massacre exhibit.

The account History Colorado will present this time is driven by the tribes and their oral histories, Bock said. That has required not just an in-depth consultation process, but “a very deep and thorough dive” into the content and narrative of the exhibit, he said.

“We’ve been to Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma to visit where they live,” Bock said. “We have weekly, sometimes daily phone calls with all of them.” 

The museum is nearly quadrupling the size of the exhibit from its former version — dedicating roughly 3,000 square feet to it and housing the installment in one of History Colorado’s larger galleries. The exhibit will run for several years at the Denver center and is intended to become one of History Colorado’s core exhibits.

Bock said it is hard to say how many and which artifacts will be included as the museum finalizes details with the tribes. All of those specifics could change by the time the exhibit opens in three months, but right now the team is looking at more than a dozen cases of historic and contemporary artifacts.

It’s important for people to understand who the tribes were and how they lived before the attack, Bock said, which is why the new exhibit will be far broader in scope than covering the massacre alone.

It’s basically going to tell the truth, and the old exhibit didn’t want to tell the truth. It wanted to cleanse it.

Gail Ridgely, a government-to-government consultant and representative of the Northern Arapaho Tribe of the Wind River Reservation

“We’re really wanting to go back in time before the Sand Creek Massacre to understand the context,” Bock said. “These tribes are the original land keepers in Colorado.”

The exhibit will then bring the historical account up to present day. The tribes have lived through 150 years of history between the massacre and now, “and a lot of it is not very pretty,” Bock said. He wants the exhibit to show how Sand Creek is not “just some event in the past,” but one with “ongoing generational trauma.”

It will highlight the massacre’s lasting impact on survivors and descendants — from people who started sleeping with shoes on in case they needed to run from the cavalry, to a descendent walking into a child’s birthday party and suddenly thinking of Sand Creek, because the sight of children running reminds them of the massacre.

“If that’s not trauma boiling over, I don’t know what is,” Bock said. 

More initiatives

Nearly 200 miles away from where the attack took place, the City of Boulder is gearing up to finally tell its local connection to the Sand Creek Massacre and decide how to manage the previous site of Fort Chambers, where Company D of the Third Colorado Cavalry trained in 1864.

Members of the company, including 46 Boulder men, helped carry out the Sand Creek Massacre. The fort disintegrated decades ago but it is believed to have been on a portion of the city’s historic Poor Farm property, northeast of Boulder on 63rd Street. A marker at the location says the property was “used during the Indian uprising.” 

City spokesman Phillip Yates said the project is still in its infancy and would likely start by offering a tour of the site to tribal representatives to begin planning how Boulder will manage the property moving forward.

It’s too early to say what will happen with the marker, but the city plans to replace it with an accurate description of the fort’s role in the massacre. Yates said conducting meaningful engagement with tribal representatives will take time and will be a learning process for city staff.

“We are at a very beginning part of this effort,” Yates said.

Grant dollars given out by History Colorado are helping another area organization seeking to do similar work.

At the Golden History Museum, historians launched a study roughly a year ago to forge a new, baseline history of the area’s Indigenous roots. Director Nathan Richie said his hope is it creates “a fuller picture of history” than what the museum has traditionally offered.

“It’s always been focused on the white settler perspective,” Richie said.

With a grant from History Colorado, the museum launched an ethnographic study — the scientific study of a people or culture.

They focused on the three tribes who were living in the Golden area “at the time of contact,” he said, which were the Ute, Arapaho and Cheyenne people. The city consulted with six tribal representatives and hired an ethnographer based in Arizona.

The study began “with a pretty extensive literature review” to gather information that already existed about Indigenous history in Golden. The ethnographer combed through available research and then consulted with tribal representatives regarding the report’s language.

“The report itself is really just meant to be phase one, a foundation,” Richie said.

Next, he wants to audit the museum’s collection and exhibits, and update them as necessary to better represent the area’s Indigenous history.

Richie said many organizations want to do this work but don’t know where to start. In an effort to help, he launched a networking group to connect historians and industry professionals from various cultural organizations. The group has met only once, but gathered 23 people including Indigenous partners to talk about what organizations have done to improve inclusivity.

Richie said his main takeaway from working with tribal representatives is how important it is to them that Coloradans know this is the tribes’ ancestral land, that it has significant spiritual and personal meaning to them, and that they are still alive.

“We have an obligation to help facilitate that,” he said. “We’ve got the audiences and the venues.”

Industry shifts

Hanson, the chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research at History Colorado, said these sorts of initiatives have “been driven by a shift within the historical field more broadly to really work with and center the voices of people” whose stories have been underrepresented in traditional narratives.

“It’s been building in the academy for more than a decade,” Hanson said. “A generation of scholars. More than a generation. We’re probably in our second generation of scholars.”

He said a number of “really powerful digitization projects” are allowing historians to interrogate their records “like we’ve never been able to before” — from manifests of enslaved people kidnapped and sold in America, to Ku Klux Klan membership.

“We were able to see new patterns in the geography of the Klan that earlier generations of historians just couldn’t have done,” he said. 

Another significant change in the museum world is that historians are increasingly recognizing the validity of oral history as a primary source of information, Hanson said.

Relying on written records “had the effect of being pretty exclusionary of folks who didn’t have access” to printing presses, microphones or government channels of making records, Hanson said. Some cultures traditionally kept their histories orally. Accepting those accounts is leading to a richer portrait of the past, he said. 

“We are constantly being confronted with new evidence and when that evidence suggests that there is a new story to tell, a good historian should be prepared to tell it,” Hanson said.

But are museums making enough effort to improve the inclusiveness and representation within their walls? Nelson said there is progress, but that “generally, I don’t think anyone is doing enough.” 

He has some advice: before creating an exhibit, form an advisory group of members from the community an exhibit will represent. He says to ask: “Can I share your story? Can you help me tell your story?” Establishing trust might be difficult, particularly for institutions with historical ties to white supremacy, but trying is a step forward, he says.

Centering a community’s voice brought success for one of History Colorado’s most recent exhibits, says Aaron Marcus, the Gill Foundation associate curator of LGBTQ+ History at History Colorado.

“1942”, a gay bar at 1942 N. Broadway that was nicknamed “the 42”, is being advertised on a poster dated from the 70s and 80s. History Colorado’s “Rainbows and Revolutions” exhibit opened in June and focuses on Colorado’s LGBTQ+ community. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

When putting together a wide-ranging history of the LGBTQ+ community in Colorado for the exhibit “Rainbows and Revolutions,” Marcus did not have the traditional version of an advisory group.

Instead, Marcus planned the exhibit in collaboration with several museum staff and volunteers who are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Each brought their own area of curatorial expertise or niches as historians, he said.

Marcus said the team worked hard to reach out to multiple groups, spending about two years collecting more artifacts than they could ultimately display. 

“Donors who gave items are a person. There is someone and an individual story behind it,” Marcus said. “I was trying to tell all of those stories as much as I could.”

Marcus would like for the exhibit to be made large, and permanent, so the museum can display the artifacts he did not have space for, rather than relegate them to the archives. He also wants people to know that if they don’t see their story represented, they can reach out to him.

The exhibit tells the nuanced and at times negative history of the local LGBTQ+ community, Marcus said. 

One man donated a poster of the former Denver gay bar 1942. To him, the poster was precious. He met his partner who died of AIDS at the bar and kept the keepsake for years in his partner’s memory. The man cried as he signed paperwork to donate it to the exhibit, Marcus said. 

But Marcus’ job is to tell the whole story, he said, and the more he researched, the more evidence he found showing the bar also had a reputation for discriminating against people of color. That was not the only LGBTQ+ organization to face allegations of racism, he said, and the exhibit acknowledges those complexities within local LGBTQ+ history. 

Marcus said getting a good cross-section of voices and perspectives within a community is key.

“You really have to get out into the community and know what stories there are,” he said.  

Teaching history

Ridgely of the Northern Arapaho Tribe said telling stories like that of the Sand Creek Massacre fully and truthfully is about educating the public and preventing historical tragedies from happening again.

He knows firsthand the kind of epiphanies those truths can spark. Ridgely worked for two decades in education, as a teacher, a principal and educator at almost every level of the system.

He could not recall learning about the massacre in any of his schooling, or teaching curriculum that included the massacre in lessons.

He didn’t learn the truth about the Sand Creek Massacre until his father was invited by the state in the 1990s to visit the site with a group of descendants, historians and educators.

As Ridgely drove his father the nine hours from his Wyoming home, his father began talking. Little by little, he shared pieces of the oral history of the Sand Creek Massacre. Ridgely vowed to teach the truth about Sand Creek from that day on.

“I found out in 1993 who I really was,” Ridgely said. “Who I really was and where I came from.” 

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