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Waylon Rogers emerged from the exhibit at the History Colorado Center in Denver with his 18-month-old daughter, Ailani, squirming playfully in his arms. A tribal leader for the Northern Cheyenne, he had just finished touring the museum maze that tells the complex story of the Sand Creek Massacre — for the first time, in the words of the people still deeply scarred by the 1864 military slaughter of more than 230 mostly elders, women and children.
He heard familiar refrains in the text on the walls, in the videos and oral histories and historical documents that comprise the new display. Over the past 10 years Rogers has worked to coax often painful but important accounts from descendants of massacre survivors. At the exhibit’s Nov. 19 opening, he felt encouraged that those stories finally will reach a wide new audience spanning generations.
“We have something that represents us,” said Rogers, who made the eight-hour drive from his home in Ashland, Montana, to celebrate the opening. “I helped to coordinate a lot of people to actually start contributing to what’s in these rooms. There’s a lot of people that know a lot of things. But to get them to open up is a completely different story.”
The story of the Sand Creek Massacre has always recounted a dark chapter in Colorado’s history, but one largely filtered through institutional accounts. Even while acknowledging the government’s betrayal of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and the atrocities visited upon them, those versions nonetheless omitted the generational impact — the effects of the loss of leaders and tribal lands over many years — of the Nov. 29, 1864, massacre.
The attack was carried out by Col. John Chivington’s Colorado Volunteers, with scholars laying blame on territorial governor John Evans for creating the conditions and drafting policies that led to the massacre. It unfolded over eight hours in the encampment by the Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado, with soldiers returning to commit further atrocities on the dead.
Many of the stories chronicling tribal history before and after that day remained with the individuals forced from their native lands to reservations in Wyoming, Montana and Oklahoma, where they were passed down only by the spoken word.
The new exhibit, History Colorado’s second attempt at chronicling the massacre, illuminates many of those accounts. The first try, in 2012, shut down after only a few weeks as tribal representatives reacted harshly to being excluded from the exhibit development. Since then, both museum staff and tribal representatives have worked toward rebuilding trust. Reflecting an even broader cultural and institutional shift, they also rebuilt a narrative that emphasizes both tribal anguish and resilience.
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Amid ceremonial prayers, speeches and drum circles in the main atrium at the History Colorado Center, dozens of tribal visitors attended the exhibit’s public opening, the day after the museum closed to give them a private preview.
Chester Whiteman, descended from Cheyenne survivors of the massacre, drove from Oklahoma to witness the opening and praised the sometimes difficult coordination among three sovereign tribal nations and the job History Colorado’s team did in putting it all together.
“It was a lot of kicking the football all over the place,” Whiteman said, “and then we finally came across with a good game plan. And here it is. It all came together.”
A false start in 2012
The opening of the sparkling new History Colorado Center at Broadway and East 12th Avenue in Denver a decade ago generated excitement, not only for its inviting design, but for its centerpiece exhibit exploring this dismal chapter of the state’s history.
But it was only days ago that the cultural timeline marked by that ill-fated opening — the exhibit closed in a matter of weeks amid tribal objections — finally arrived at the solemn sense of achievement that had been so elusive. The reimagined collection of artifacts and multimedia displays reflects a change in museum best practices that points toward a renewed approach to the authorship of history.
Even the exhibit titles signal the shift. In 2012 it was, “Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre, 1860s-Today” — that word, collision, suggesting that the tribes were somehow also active participants in a battle, as some military accounts at the time insisted, instead of nearly defenseless victims of carnage so brutal that parents were cautioned that the exhibit may not be appropriate for children.
The new name assumes the tribal perspective: “The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever.”
That difference, notes Dawn DiPrince, History Colorado’s executive director, reflects the emphasis on shared authority. For this exhibit, Cheyenne and Arapaho representatives weren’t merely advisers making suggestions — they were partners. Literally every word of text, every object or image, reflects joint museum and tribal input and oversight.
“And that,” DiPrince said, “is a very different way of doing this work.”
Different, certainly, from the way the first exhibit was put together. The failure to consult tribal representatives produced pushback that the museum initially resisted but eventually accepted as it agreed to close down the display.
IF YOU GO…
History Colorado Center
- The History Colorado Center is located at 1200 Broadway in Denver. “The Sand Creek Massacre: The Betrayal that Changed Cheyenne and Arapaho People Forever” is on the museum’s fourth floor.
- Hours: Every day, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Closing early (3 p.m.) on New Year’s Eve and closed all day New Year’s Day.)
- Admission: Adults (19+) $15. Kids (18 and under) free. Members free.
- Order tickets online (save $1)
The Sand Creek National Historic Site
- Directions: Sand Creek Massacre NHS is located approximately 23 miles east of Eads, Colorado. Detailed directions.
- Hours: Thursday through Monday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. The park will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Park Ranger Interpreters offer 15-30 minute talks at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Programs may be rescheduled or canceled on short notice; call 719-729-3003 during regular hours for more information.
Those procedural mistakes ultimately led to formal talks that included History Colorado, the tribes and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. They produced a framework for future collaboration — a memorandum of agreement that directed the museum to work with tribal representatives appointed by their respective leaderships.
“They made the right decision to close,” said Gail Ridgely, director of the Northern Arapaho Sand Creek Resource Office on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. “I’m sorry it had to come to this. There should have been consultation with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes through an official government process, with an understanding of the tribes as nations with sovereign rights. Basically, History Colorado was naive to not include tribal input.”
Tribal representative Fred Mosqueda of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and a descendant of massacre survivors, said that this time, the tribes took the opportunity to tell their stories. Still, the storytelling could be difficult. Even generations removed from the atrocities, their memory elicited deep reactions from tribal elders who shared them.
“Sometimes we would get angry because of what was going on during that time in history,” Mosqueda recalled. “Other times we got very sad and we got very emotional. It was hard to be able to pass these stories on to history. A lot of emotions went from anger to sorrow to feeling very, very bad about losing our loved ones. There was a lot that was going on.
“The main thing that we told them when we started out is we want you to tell the truth,” he added. “We don’t want you to add anything or subtract anything. We want you to know these stories and we want you to tell them. Don’t varnish it, don’t change it. Tell the truth. They said they would. And they did a pretty good job of it — as much as you can and still make an exhibit.”
The tribes did not speak with one voice — the native languages of the Arapaho and Cheyenne literally share not a single common word — and didn’t always agree on the approach. But as the meetings unfolded, they realized the importance of moving the tribal narratives from the realm of oral history into the public sphere.
“There’s one history out there right now,” Whiteman said. “But we have a history, too. And we want everybody to know that second history. But because we didn’t write it in books, it was always oral. If we keep the stories to ourselves, nobody will know.
“So we have to learn to share with one another.”
Reservation visits “transformational”
By the time Shannon Voirol assumed the role of project director for the Sand Creek exhibit in 2017, she’d already had experience with the challenge of amplifying Indian voices through the museum’s successful 2014 display, “Written On the Land: Ute Voices, Ute History.”
That exhibit explicitly sought to spotlight Ute tribal stories that had been overlooked or, in some cases, erased. In a broader way, the recalibration of how institutions address the histories of Indigenous people had been gathering momentum for years. For instance, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, NAGPRA in government shorthand, codified the belief that artifacts, remains and funerary objects generally belong to descendants — a determination that marked a change in the way museums and other keepers of history do business.
Just days ago, a geographic naming advisory board voted to strip the name of John Evans, the territorial governor blamed for creating conditions that allowed the massacre, from a prominent fourteener. The board recommended renaming the peak Mount Blue Sky in honor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho who died, the board recommended renaming the peak Mount Blue Sky.
In the wake of 2012’s missteps, presenting history from the tribal perspective, underscored by the Ute exhibit, became a key tenet of History Colorado’s operation — Voirol uses the term “decolonizing our museum.” Shortly after she started meeting with representatives from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to discuss prototypes and solicit feedback, the partnership scored two major wins — big-money federal grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The buy-in from the tribal partners, and submission of a cohesive plan for collaboration, proved key to landing the windfall.
And the financial infusion opened the door for a series of intensely personal interactions that would inform and add depth to the exhibit. Five core members of the History Colorado team were able to travel, over a period of months, to the three sovereign tribal communities — the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s reservation in Lame Deer, Montana; the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s reservation in Riverton, Wyoming; and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma.
The boots-on-the-ground approach not only led to enlightening conversations with elders about Sand Creek, but they also provided insight into tribal survival and resilience after the massacre. That created the framework for the exhibit to take a more sweeping view of tribal histories that blend into their present day lives, while highlighting cultural differences that separate tribes united by a single, catastrophic event.
“From some of the earliest meetings that I had with them in 2017, the tribal reps didn’t want to be frozen in the past,” Voirol said. “They didn’t want the worst day of their lives to be the only one that people think of.”
And so the museum group tooled across the landscape in pickup trucks as their hosts pulled back the curtain on tribal life. They witnessed celebrations. In Lame Deer, they hung out with workers dubbed the Solar Dogs installing solar panels to push the tribe toward off-the-grid energy independence.
COVID-masked in Wyoming, they were moved as tribal representatives showed them their cemeteries and the school where a native language immersion program keeps their culture alive. They visited the grave sites of massacre survivors in Oklahoma while descendants told their stories, and spent one morning in the midst of the tribes’ massive bison herd, an experience that Voirol called “life changing.”
“It just takes the relationship to a whole different level,” she said. “When you’re driving around and hanging out together and hearing about how the massacre has impacted them and how resilient they are now — those were some of the pieces that really enabled us to rebuild the trust and connect and figure out together what this exhibition should be.
“Those trips,” Voirol added, “were, like, completely transformational.”
Case in point: At the Northern Cheyenne reservation, the five museum staffers watched as parents and grandparents prepared young children to dance in a ceremony — adjusting their regalia and beaming proudly at their beautiful kids. And then it struck one exhibit designer particularly hard, Voirol said — that children just like these, maybe 3 to 5 years old, were among the victims at Sand Creek.
For core team member Sam Bock, a historian and exhibit developer, one of the biggest takeaways from the experience visiting the tribal lands was the degree to which Sand Creek’s history is family history.
“The scars and trauma of the Sand Creek Massacre are very much alive for descendants,” he said. “Sensitivity to how deeply it’s felt, how important it is to the descendants, permeated our approach to the exhibit. We couldn’t have done any of this if there was not such a deep partnership with tribal nations.”
The human investment by museum staff went even further. A chartered bus took 60 workers to the National Historic Site, where tribal representatives spent a day interacting directly with History Colorado’s marketing, frontline and teaching staff, underscoring the enduring depth of the trauma inflicted by the massacre. The core team made several trips to the site.
Last year, the museum team assembled, shivering in the pre-dawn light, on Nov. 29 near Eads on the Eastern Plains as tribal representatives commemorated the massacre. Positioned by a teepee erected on the high ground overlooking where the village had been, they watched the sun rise much as it did as soldiers, ignoring the U.S. and white flags flying in the camp, attacked on that frigid day in 1864.
For Otto Braided Hair Jr., a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a descendant of Sand Creek survivors, the simple fact that the museum representatives took the time to visit his reservation, his home, and talk with the elders proved “very meaningful.” Between the visits to the reservation and the field trips to the National Historic Site, Braided Hair said, he could sense a rebuilding of the trust that had been damaged by the 2012 fiasco.
“I’ve seen the sincerity, the genuineness, the seriousness of how they approached the area, the subject matter, us, the representatives — it encouraged me to tell them more, tell them just a little more than the ordinary person,” he said.
He added that reactions of interviewees varied from some willingly sharing their story to others who just couldn’t bring themselves to think about it.
“Once you mention Sand Creek, they just break down and start crying and don’t even want to talk about it,” he said. “It’s so emotionally intense for our people. It’s really deep and still almost fresh, you might say. It seems like it’s recent for some of them.”
But over time, with patience, museum staff heard the stories that tribal people wanted to tell.
“This team, they stayed engaged,” Braided Hair said. “To see them on my reservation here in Montana and then on-site there (in Colorado), they were very serious. And it made all the difference to me.”
What to show, what to omit
At the beginning of the exhibit, written against the morning sky on a panoramic photo of the massacre site, are words — tribal words — that decry the treachery and brutality of the attack with a tone of righteous defiance: “They wanted to wipe us out,” it notes, “but they failed.”
“This exhibit tells the stories of the worst betrayal that ever happened to Cheyenne and Arapaho people as we heard them from our elders,” it says. “They’re sacred stories that we still share today.”
This exhibit tells the stories of the worst betrayal that ever happened to Cheyenne and Arapaho people as we heard them from our elders
— Words printed at the start of the new exhibit
Sensitive to the context of the Sand Creek Massacre in the emotional and spiritual lives of tribal descendents, the exhibit team sought to relay the story of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people on an extended timeline that encompassed both the horrid history of attack but also their cultures before and after.
“When we’re reflecting on what we can do to shed light on the full picture of Colorado history, the Sand Creek massacre is one of those pivotal, formational events,” Bock said. “To be honest, we’re continually surprised how little awareness about the Sand Creek Massacre there is, even in Colorado.”
Still, there are some elements that, by design, the tribes agreed not to broach. Nowhere in the exhibit will visitors find artifacts from the massacre site that evidence the graphic horror of the attack. Even that was subject to debate, with some tribal representatives arguing for including them to make plain the unspeakable violence. Others held that to include them could be harmful to children viewing the exhibit, or could retraumatize tribal members who recall how Cheyenne and Arapaho body parts were paraded as trophies through the streets of Denver.
Ultimately, the tribes decided to tell the story in other ways.
“Some of the artifacts that we’re talking about are like bones, scalps,” said Mosqueda, of the Southern Arapaho Tribe. “We don’t want nothing that’s going to hurt our people worse than they already are.”
Throughout the process, the tribal representatives said, the museum team listened and faithfully took note of their conversations and concerns. Mosqueda recalls how the History Colorado folks never asked the tribal reps to hold back and showed great patience — which, for him, marked the moment he knew that the project was on the right track.
“They started basically bending over backwards, because we were not the easiest to work with,” he said. “Time doesn’t mean as much to us. We believe that once you start something, you’ll finish it when you get finished. And so there were times I know they were looking at the time and we weren’t.”
DiPrince, who filled History Colorado’s leadership role a little more than a year ago, notes that while time can be a factor in designing and building an exhibit, that simply wasn’t the case with the Sand Creek presentation.
“Sometimes, when you are working on a project, you think of it as just a project,” she said. “That is not what this is. For us, this is really about the relationships and telling the story through those relationships. And sometimes that takes time. We just really took the time that was necessary to be able to get to this point.”
Most important to the tribes, though, was showing the broader sweep of the tribes’ history — and their very distinct stories.
“There was life before Sand Creek,” Braided Hair said. “And fortunately during, because some of them survived. And then there’s life after. I’m hoping that people get an understanding that the people there, they weren’t savages, they weren’t animals, they didn’t deserve to be
treated the way they were treated — killing them, wanton disregard for life. There were elders there. There were chiefs. Children. Women.”
But by referencing the generational trauma that has followed the tribes for more than 150 years, he hopes that the exhibit can in some way lead to healing for everyone.
“I know that descendants need healing, and the public does, too,” Braided Hair said. “It’s U.S. history. It’s not just tribal history. The U.S. government was involved. And the U.S. military was involved, the state was involved. It’s everybody’s history. And it would be the best thing if everybody acknowledged it.
“When there’s acknowledgement,” he added, “there will be true healing. Even for us descendants, it’s hard to acknowledge. Thinking about it brings up all kinds of feelings and emotions and it gets overwhelming.”
It’s U.S. history. It’s not just tribal history.
— Otto Braided Hair Jr., descendant of Sand Creek survivors
By way of example, he refers to the letters and affidavits of Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, both Army officers who famously refused to order their men to take part in the massacre at Sand Creek and eventually testified against Col. Chivington during the Army’s investigation of the massacre in 1865.
Braided Hair had been warned about the disturbing descriptions, and when he finally held the documents in his hands he could manage to read only a small portion. He said it took him two years to make it through Soule’s entire affidavit. The account of soldiers’ atrocities against children and elders struck him hard, even when he first heard the stories.
“It just got seared into my consciousness at 12 years old,” he said, falling silent for several seconds.
Trends and takeaways
Sally Isaacson, who has lived in Denver for more than 40 years, made her way slowly through the poster board descriptions of broken treaties and failed peace efforts, audio of both soldiers’ and Cheyenne and Arapaho accounts of the massacre and a library of videos available for viewing in a small theater within the exhibit.
She came away moved, horrified and enlightened.
“Although I knew about the massacre,” she said, “the actual individual brutality that they did, I did not know about. That had been whitewashed out. And the more we learn about generational trauma, the more I realize just what a blow this is to today’s Native Americans, and why they would not trust our government with it. And it’s just heartbreaking.”
Other early visitors to the exhibit echoed that theme — they were familiar with one version of the Sand Creek story but found the tribes’ narrative illuminating. Historians and museum experts track the arc of institutional best practices that point toward more exhibits featuring stories of groups whose narratives have been submerged beneath more dominant cultural accounts.
Jared Orsi, the current state historian, has said that during his one-year term he’d like to amplify Colorado’s undertold stories. He sees evidence in the Sand Creek Massacre exhibit and others that History Colorado has developed the skills and institutional culture — “transferable skills and experiences,” he calls them — to create even more opportunities to tell the stories of Indigenous people.
Ten years of collaboration on this exhibit may have seemed like a longer-than-usual timeline for the museum, but isn’t all that surprising considering the process involved “so much cultural sensitivity, so much pain, so many different players,” Orsi said. It’s another signpost on an evolution of museum culture that dates back to the 1970s and intensified in the 1990s with the enactment of NAGPRA and repatriation efforts.
Although historians “have always been most comfortable in the archives,” institutional sources tell only part of the story, while tending to silence other parts — especially “that transgenerational pain that native peoples have experienced,” Orsi said.
“And so while the military records in the archives might be authoritative if we want to understand what was going through the minds of soldiers and commanders that day, the native perspectives are authoritative when it comes to describing the experience of living with this massacre, in your families, in your communities, in your history. So there are aspects of the story that natives are unequivocal experts on. Let’s hear that.”
Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, has long held an interest in the Sand Creek Massacre from his time as vice president of the Colorado Historical Society — now History Colorado — in the 1990s, when efforts to pinpoint the precise location of the massacre led to its designation as a National Historic Site. He has kept in touch with tribal representatives and, like Orsi, sees the new exhibit as an extension of evolving museum attitudes and practices.
“There’s a much greater awareness of American Indian peoples today, much more than decades ago, when Indians were sort of background artists in the saga of American history,” he said. “They were often depicted as lurking in the shadows as the bold pioneers civilized the continent. And I think there’s been a real awakening in the last few decades. Historians are now listening to other voices. They’re more inclusive in the histories that they’re writing. And museums have recognized that they can’t just tell other people’s stories without engaging them.”
Orsi would like to see visitors to the exhibit come away with the sense that Colorado is still considered home for the tribes, despite their forced moves to Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana. And he’d like for tribal people to see it as a link back to Colorado, with the recognition that their stories matter.
(Left) History Colorado executive director Dawn DiPrince, not pictured, notes that while time influences the process of building an exhibit, the Sand Creek presentation was given extra care to ensure its sensitivity and accuracy. (Right) Colin and sons Ryker, 7, and Tyson, 5 (right) attend the Sand Creek Massacre exhibition opening. (Photos by Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
“If we can facilitate that, tightening the connection between people who live outside the state but still call this home,” he said, “I think that will be a win.”
Voirol, the project manager for the current exhibit, points out that connecting the tribes to Colorado was an important feature of the display.
“We wanted to get our visitors to think about if the Cheyenne and Arapaho lived here in the 1800s, why are so few of them living here now?” she said. “The majority of Cheyenne and Arapaho don’t live here anymore. And it’s because they were pushed out, because in order to become the state of Colorado, they needed to be moved along forcibly. And that’s what happened.
“So, even though we have some counties and colleges and streets and those kinds of things named after them, little fragments of their names and their past and their identity are not enough.”
Added Bock: “They told us on numerous occasions that they’re still the landkeepers. Just because they were violently forced to leave, doesn’t mean the connection is broken.”
The message Braided Hair would like visitors to glean from the exhibit is the simple recognition that the Cheyenne and Arapaho people were wronged.
“It’s important for us as humans,” he said. “And so, I’m hoping that they gain both a sense of acknowledgement and from there, a sense of healing. I’m hoping that the general public is going to get a better understanding of our people’s story and what happened — our history there in Colorado.”