Update: Several readers wrote in with additional info, as well as some historical facts about Denver in 1864.
Could a state Capitol memorial for the Native American lives lost at Sand Creek finally become a reality? The pieces are starting to fall into place for that to happen, based on recent actions by the Capitol Building Advisory Committee and History Colorado.
Last month, the committee voted to allow History Colorado to take temporary possession of the Union soldier statue toppled by protesters at the end of June.
During that same July 21 hearing, the committee took another look at a dormant proposal to create a statue honoring the victims of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Kiowa County.
The protests in downtown Denver have been more than just about Black Lives Matter and the deaths of George Floyd of Minneapolis and Aurora’s Elijah McClain at the hands of law enforcement.
Indigenous Coloradans also have protested their treatment at the hands of early Coloradans, including Kit Carson and Gov. John Evans. Protesters also targeted a statue of a Union soldier on the west side of the state Capitol, where Sand Creek was originally included as a Civil War battle.
In 2002, 93 years after the statue was dedicated, a plaque noting that the Sand Creek Massacre was not part of the Civil War was added.
The 2016 proposal suggested bronze tepee poles fitted with an American flag and a white flag of truce, the same flags flown at the original Sand Creek camp. The center would include a life-sized grief-stricken mother, frozen in the immediate aftermath of the battle sculpted by Harvey Pratt, a descendant of one of the Sand Creek victims. The site would also include a footprint-strewn path referencing fleeing survivors and their ancestors.
Pratt previously designed the Smithsonian’s National Native American Veterans Memorial for the National Museum of the American Indian.
The Capitol Building Advisory Committee gave its unanimous consent to the proposal four years ago. In 2017, a resolution for green-lighting the project won unanimous approval from the General Assembly. The resolution noted the Capitol Building Advisory Committee, the Capital Development Committee and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper had all signed off on a plan for placing the sculpture on the Capitol grounds.
That was the end of it. The project never moved beyond that resolution.
The reason? Lack of agreement between the state as well as among the Native American tribes – the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, and the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe — about just where the statue would go. One proposal would place it on the southeastern corner of the Capitol grounds, near the intersection of 14th Avenue and Grant Street, and near the other Native American statue known as “Closing Era.” Another proposed location was on the Capitol’s west side, near the Union soldier statue, a location that the state didn't approve.
State Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa, who supports the memorial, told Colorado Politics that the southeast 14th Avenue corner was selected because "If a person was to draw a line from the tip of the dome of the capitol to Sand Creek encampment and place memorial in the direct path of this, it would enhance not only the memorial but give a direct connection from the capitol to the massacre site. Some of the tribe understood the significance of this while other tribes thought it would give more exposure on the west steps."
A third location — Lincoln Park — also was suggested but abandoned after a walk-through with the tribes.
Fast forward to 2020 and the toppling of the Union soldier statue in June.
Democratic Rep. Susan Lontine of Denver, who chairs the building committee, pointed out that in light of the protests and calls for racial justice, that the statue coming down, "while certainly not planned, gives us an opportunity to consider a discussion on putting the Sand Creek memorial back on our agenda.”
The funding is still in place for the memorial, according to Jon Bellish of One Earth Future. He told Colorado Politics that community groups had donated $45,000 of the estimated $194,200 cost, and that One Earth Future and the Arsenault Family Foundation are prepared to fund the balance.
Kathryn Redhorse, newly-appointed executive director of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, told the committee that the tribes’ consensus is for the west steps of the Capitol.
There’s a meaningful reason for that, Redhorse explained, an explanation that she said is difficult to say out loud. After the Sand Creek massacre took place, the soldiers who participated paraded dismembered bodies through the streets of downtown Denver. “It’s an important location, and that’s why tribes want it there,” she said. “It’s important to acknowledge all of Colorado’s history.”
The tribes have waited for this for decades, Redhorse said. “They want something meaningful, impactful and done right.”
“The money is there, the artist is there,” Bellish told Colorado Politics. “There’s a strong belief that if we could get something on the west side, that would be all we needed to get this across the finish line.”
As to the Union soldier statue that’s now headed to History Colorado on a temporary loan, it will be placed in the History Colorado Center in the square rotunda at the bottom of the grand staircase, said Jason Hanson, chief creative officer and director of interpretation for the center. It would be viewable from 360 degrees but would have a buffer so people can’t grab it, Hanson said.
One thing History Colorado won’t do: restore it to its previous condition, including cleaning off the graffiti. Hanson said that best practices by historians is to look at a monument from three periods: the event the monument would commemorate, the period in which the monument was installed and its present meaning. History Colorado will reach out to a variety of groups, including military veterans and Native peoples to get their interpretation of what the memorial means to them. “We view this as a teachable moment,” Hansen said.
Hanson said they would conserve it to a point where it’s ready for display but “we don’t restore artifacts,” partly due to lack of personnel but also because the damage is now a part of that story.
The statue’s relocation to History Colorado, approved by the committee on a unanimous vote, is for one year.
Note: This article has been changed to remove a reference from Kathryn Redhorse noting that the soldiers who participated in the massacre concluded on the west steps of Capitol. The state Capitol — and those west steps — didn't exist in 1864, the year of the massacre. Colorado's Capitol was built between 1886 and 1891.