After years of back and forth, the statue of a grieving American Indian mother will have a home in a prime location on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol.
The State Appropriations Building Committee voted 7-2 on Friday to replace the Civil War soldier statue, which was toppled this summer during the George Floyd protests, with the Sand Creek Memorial.
The Civil War soldier, still sporting graffiti and scrapes from its fall, now sits in a temporary spot in the lobby of History Colorado.
The location of the statue has been at the center of five years of negotiations. Tribal leaders wanted the memorial placed on the west steps, where the massacre could be acknowledged by tourists and Coloradans who visit. But the state would not move the Civil War soldier to accommodate their wishes.
Instead, the tribes had been offered several other places to locate the monument, including an area on a hilly site on the southeast Capitol grounds. A spot near the Capitol’s west side was discussed, but that idea was nixed by the state. Other locations have been considered, including a stretch of flat ground in Lincoln Park, near the Colorado Veterans Memorial, but the tribes opposed that spot.
The Sand Creek Massacre is one of the most controversial chapters in Colorado’s history.
Two hundred and thirty Cheyenne and Arapahoe, mostly women, elderly and children, were slaughtered on Nov. 29, 1864, when volunteers from the First and Third Colorado Cavalry regiments ambushed them at sun-up. The 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho who gathered there had been promised a peaceful existence by the government. After the attack, the Army soldiers burned the camp and took trophies from the bodies, which they displayed in a parade through Denver, where they were initially hailed as conquerors.
The massacre poisoned relationships and was a catalyst for wars between the U.S. Army and Native Americans for years.
“They were wiped out,” Otto Braided Hair, of the Northern Cheyenne and a descendant of Sand Creek survivors, told the committee. “Their voices are no longer heard. Their wishes and concerns were no longer heard. Those are the people we speak for.”
Braided Hair was one of a handful of tribal representatives from the four tribes — Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne — that were settled at Sand Creek. His great grandfather and grandmother, who was pregnant at the time of the attack, escaped and eventually ended up being relocated to Montana. The four tribes still consider Colorado to be ancestral land.
"It's important that the monument is placed in a location that's prominent," Ryan Ortiz of the Northern Arapaho, on the phone from Wyoming, told the committee. "Our people still live with generational trauma."
Democratic Rep. Susan Lontine of Denver, who chairs the building committee, said the toppling of the Civil War statue in June "was a sign that we needed to take this up again and formalize our location and offer that spot to the tribes."
At times during Friday’s testimony there were stretches of silence as tribal representatives on phone lines from Montana, Oklahoma and Wyoming gathered their emotions to speak about a subject that is still painful, 136 years later.
Though two committee members voted against the motion, only one of them voiced opposition to the memorial’s prime location.
Board member and former State Historic Preservation Officer Georgianna Contiguglia said that it might not be appropriate to have such a horrific reminder front and center at one of the state’s most popular landmarks.
"For people who are visiting Denver for the first time, I’m not sure that the message that Colorado wants to give is that our primary important event is a massacre," she said.
Now that the location of the Sand Creek Memorial statue has been decided, the issue will move to the state legislature, with the Capitol Development Committee.
“What we will be looking at next is exactly how tall will it be? What will the pedestal will be made of? How do we ship it from Oklahoma?” said Jon Bellish, vice president of strategy for One Earth Future, which is paying for part of the cost for the memorial. “We might have to put her on a flat bed truck and drive her to Colorado.”
Belish believes the final cost could be anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000.
Harvey Pratt, who designed the sculpture and happens to be a Sand Creek descendant, says that he would like for people to be able to see the woman’s face. He says his prototype clay model is 7 by 9 inches and is waiting in his home in Guthrie, Okla.
Pratt just returned from Washington, D.C., where he celebrated the dedication of the Smithsonian's National Native American Veterans Memorial, which he created.
“It was beautiful,” he told Colorado Politics. “It was raining, but that didn’t stop people from coming and singing and dancing and making offerings.”
Pratt’s great grandfather and grandmother were in love when the attack at Sand Creek happened. He says they ran in their bare feet for miles in the ice and snow to save their lives.
“When I was a boy, we left our shoes by the bed every night,” he told Colorado Politics. “In case something like that happened again, at least we wouldn’t be bare foot.”
The decision to replace a generic Civil War statue with an acknowledgment of the massacre took just an hour and a half. But for the tribes whose ancestors experienced Sand Creek, it’s been 136 years.
“Even though it was a tragedy, we still are a proud people,” Northern Cheyenne representative Benjamin Ridgley said from his home in Wyoming.
"We are survivors."