Members of the joint Capital Development Committee heard often-emotional testimony Thursday from the descendants of those massacred at Sand Creek in 1864, and why they want to see a memorial to the Cheyenne and Arapahoe who died there on the west side of the state Capitol.
Last week, the Capital Building Advisory Committee heard about some design changes contemplated for the Sand Creek Massacre Memorial, created by artist Harvey Pratt, a descendant of Sand Creek victims.
The massacre took place on Nov. 29, 1864, when the First and Third Colorado Cavalry, led by Col. John Chivington, attacked a settlement of Cheyenne and Arapaho camped at Sand Creek, in what's now Kiowa County. About 250 people, mostly women, children and elderly, were slaughtered in the attack. The massacre resulted in a congressional investigation and the resignation of Territorial Gov. John Evans, although Chivington, who resigned shortly after, was never held accountable.
The site proposed for the memorial is the previous location of a Union soldier statue that was taken down during last summer's protests over racial injustice. The Union soldier statue was on a base with four plaques that listed Civil War battles in which Coloradans participated. Among the battles listed was Sand Creek, which was not a Civil War battle. An additional plaque was placed on the base in 2002 to correct that error.
Descendants of the victims and survivors want to see the memorial on the same site, largely because of what happened after the attack.
Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, who chairs the building committee, said that the soldiers who participated in the massacre paraded "trophies" through the streets of downtown Denver, ending that parade on what's now the Capitol's west steps. Those trophies included body parts, she said. The west steps "have significance for them as a location." In addition, Lontine told the Capital Development Committee, "we are dealing with indigenous people who have suffered numerous broken promises. I feel the approval of the [building committee] is a step toward a promise to fulfilling and placing the memorial on Capitol grounds." That promise should be a part of the CDC's consideration, she said.
Lontine said she hadn't been happy that the Union soldier statue was torn down, "but it was done ... it seemed logical to me to offer that spot to the tribes," given that the memorial had been on the backburner for her committee for the last five years. While the proposal made it all the way through the General Assembly in 2016, the lack of agreement on a site was what put it on ice. The tribes back then wanted the Union soldier site but the state would not agree to it.
Fred Mosqueda, a Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe Sand Creek Tribal Representative, told the committee that the Arapaho were part of Denver long before anyone else. Cheyenne and Arapaho people were camped on Cherry Creek. "We were there," Mosqueda said.
"There have been a lot of obstacles to get where we are today," added Ben Ridgely, Northern Arapaho Sand Creek Tribal Representative. "Colorado is still our homeland, our reservation." Putting the statue on the west steps area would "make it right with our ancestors," he told the committee. It also provides the opportunity "to educate our people and the nation as a whole," he said.
One witness recalled the apology from then-Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014 for the Sand Creek atrocity. But Chester Whiteman, a Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe Sand Creek Tribal Representative, indicated an apology is not enough. "Our people are dealing with generational trauma," he told the committee. "How sincere are those apologies? It's just a piece of paper ... Denver was a part of our property, our reservation, our land base. We need real apologies," Whiteman said.
"I agree with you, it was wrong," said Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. She agreed that these are long-standing consequences that need to be addressed, but added she did not want to rush through a decision.
The Capital Development Committee is expected to make a decision or recommendation on the Sand Creek statute at its next meeting next month.